Written by
Elias Dib

Published
18 May 2016

Driving engagement with HR

18 May 2016 • by Elias Dib

Over the years, managers’ role in engaging employees and nurturing high-performance teams has become solidified as employees ask for more guidance on the daily activities or assurance of a monthly pay cheque. Yet with such emphasis on managers, has HR abandoned its role in driving employee engagement? 

One of the biggest challenges facing HR is driving engagement by working through, and with, managers. Dealing with this challenge gets to the heart of what it really means for HR to be a strategic business partner. The ability of HR to engage managers, build engagement capabilities and develop an overall, engaging organisational culture should overcome the inevitable challenges of managerial interest and commitment. 

There are four key imperatives on the agenda of the HR professionals who are effectively building engagement in their organisations:

Focus on the business outcomes of engagement
When tackling engagement issues, effective HR managers start with the end result in mind. They understand that employee engagement scores are just an indicator of organisational wellbeing and that the value of engagement lies in its impact on organisational performance. Instead of commissioning an engagement survey and then communicating the results, proactive HR professionals define their organisation’s engagement agenda. They make sure they understand the business fundamentals and the outcomes that matter. Rather than resigning themselves to the fluctuating interest of management in engagement matters, they work hard to demonstrate the business value of engagement and develop engagement objectives (and associated business outcomes) that managers would relate to.

For example:

  • Develop a detailed insight into the key business processes and performance measures and speak to key managers to understand this.
  • Set engagement objectives before the survey launch and organise an annual ‘people strategy’ meeting to discuss the business approach with key managers, its likely impact on employees, the risks, key employee segments and what is required from each member of staff.
  • Compile data to link engagement scores to business
  • outcomes and qualitative data such as stories from employees and managers. 
  • Keep engagement on a steady course even when your organisation is engulfed by unexpected waves – e.g. changes in the economy, loss of key customers, mergers or acquisitions.

Know your workforce

The employee engagement survey is a solid but incomplete starting point for understanding the workforce. The survey results will indicate the employees’ average and/or extreme attitudes, priorities and perceptions, as well as their overall wellbeing; however, as anyone who has been through an engagement survey process knows, results can be interpreted in various ways, so you need to go beyond the survey data to really understand the workforce.

Would the CEO rely only on market data to make investment decisions? The answer is ‘no’ and neither should HR professionals. Your deep insight and knowledge of the workforce will give you the credibility to engage senior management in robust discussions on the links between engagement and performance and the ways to enhance these. So how can you do this?

  • Make sure you know what the key employee segments are. Look at their engagement levels and challenges and consider both the statistical and qualitative data.
  • Proactively speak to different staff, so you can identify problems before they arise and, even more importantly, identify pockets of good practices and positive engagement that will save HR from being the organisational ‘doomsayer’.

Communicate well with leaders and managers

Worryingly, our research among managers shows that a high proportion of them strongly believe that they cannot influence the action plan to improve engagement in future years as budgets and strategic plans are determined by the executive team at a corporate level.

HR professionals need to communicate about people and the organisation with imagination and an eye to the future; however, this can sometimes be difficult to achieve. While the engagement survey is the ‘scientific’ part of the process, it’s best to craft a narrative that speaks to business priorities while bringing the employee voice to the forefront and engaging managers in the way forward. This can be achieved through:

  • Continuous monitoring of HR communication.
  • Developing a communication plan to cover all the planned HR programmes and initiatives. Review the HR programmes and initiatives and assess whether they are trying to peddle too many initiatives.
  • Avoiding the temptation to go it alone and engage managers in key annual people-planning milestones – setting up the annual HR programmes, deciding how to measure engagement, action planning for the survey results etc.
  • Engaging key managers in their unique challenges while keeping them aware and raising their understanding of the overall business challenges.

Develop management strength

Often people are promoted to management based on competencies other than expertise in people management. Programmes that develop leaders’ and managers’ strengths in people management are therefore essential to laying the foundations for high employee engagement. Communication fosters awareness, motivation and desire in managers to engage people, but more is needed to develop the skills for effective people management by:

  • Assessing managers’ strengths in terms of engagement and helping them to understand the relationship between their own and their teams’ engagement levels.
  • Reviewing recruitment, selection, development and reward processes for managers.
  • Ensuring that leadership and management development programmes address employee engagement capability.
  • Creating manager forums and communities where managers can safely discuss and share their achievements and challenges for raising employee engagement.
  • Encouraging experienced and capable managers to serve as coaches to less experienced ones.
  • Celebrating the accomplishments of managers who achieve breakthrough or important results on people management.

Employee engagement is the cornerstone of the HR strategy and a key indicator of HR effectiveness. While managers are a key link to the engagement process, it’s the HR function that should have the expertise and capability to drive it forward. It is a responsibility that cannot be reneged on and needs to be integrated into the daily HR practices, not just a one-off survey.

No one HR practice or programme is the key to employee engagement. It’s only by spending valuable time and energy on building solid foundations, planning carefully and executing mindfully that you can master the art and science that is employee engagement.