Strategic HR

Want True ‘Employee’ Engagement? Engage the Whole Person

Despite substantial investments made by companies over the past decade or so to address employee engagement, overall levels of engagement are disappointingly low, explains Bob Kelleher, a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and consultant who travels the globe sharing his insights on employee engagement, leadership, and workforce trends.  For example, he notes that a 2016 Gallup survey found that only 32% of workers are engaged in their jobs.

We recently spoke with Kelleher learn the reasons behind these low numbers and about the long-term approach he believes that companies—and particularly managers—need to take in order to make engagement efforts more successful.

BLR: What are the main factors that contribute to low employee engagement?

Kelleher: Although we have improved as an economy, there still is a significant focus on short-term profitability that most organizations focus on. Whether you’re publicly-traded or private-equity owned, there has never been more pressure on organizations for earnings.

What that means is in spite of a vastly-improved economy, companies are still reluctant to add to headcount. They’re still asking employees to do more with less. Many of them are still under-investing in their human capital, whether it’s training and development, or having the resources and time necessary to hire the right people, or to promote the right people in positions of leadership or management.

Think of it this way. The skills required to manage people, it’s a set of competencies that make really good people managers. We know we all need to be doing a better job developing our people leaders, but it actually falls into the camp of things that you should do, not things that you must do. The bottom-line focus in many organizations are really the priority—the things that must get done, which is “we need to sell and deliver our services and products and maximize the bottom line.”

People leadership, effective management of people, whether it’s doing a rich performance appraisal, whether it’s shadowing or mentoring staff, those things require today’s investment for the benefit for tomorrow, not the benefit of today. It’s an age-old problem that I think many organizations have.

BLR:  And the employees’ relationship with their managers plays a huge factor in whether or not they’re engaged…

Kelleher:  Yes–SHRM, the Society of Human Resource Management, came out with a study a couple of years back. The study included only one out of 10 of us have the DNA to be great managers. Think of that. Only one out of 10.

If the number one driver of engagement is a relationship with your boss, but research is telling us not many of us are very good at being the boss, I think the combination of those things sheds some additional light on why so many people might be disengaged in the workplace.

BLR: In your new book I-Engage, Your Personal Engagement Roadmap, you argue that the vast majority of engagement efforts focus on the “employee” in the workplace, when they should really be about engaging the “whole” person. Can you illustrate why you believe this is so important?

Based on our research, we have concluded that what happens after work has as much to do with engagement as what happens during work. If you think of something as simple as relationships, 50% of employees will get divorced. You can just imagine the type of turmoil people go through if they’re in that 50%.

Or the emergence of elder care—it’s a subject that not many people talk about, but you have this massive population of aging Boomers moving into the retirement years who will be, I believe, significantly taxing the working population because society has never seen so many people moving into the retirement years.

What is that going to mean for impact on one’s engagement? Historically, [an employee] would balance daycare or childcare, but now you’re going to be dealing with this double whammy of many of the Millennials moving into the child care years, but you’ll also have that same population working with the growing challenge of elder care.

This concept of what I believe is the most important competency that companies should be training, and developing, and looking to find for their organization is employee empathy. The empathetic manager is far more inclined to know how to manage and be sensitive to managing all of their employees, not just as employees, but employees as people. This whole concept, it’s a term that I call, “Empathy is the new black.”

When I work with clients, I always tell them that if they have an engagement issue, look at the people who are managing people, the people you’re hiring or promoting, through empathy as a competency. Because it’s going to require empathy as a competency to better manage kind of this holistic employee, both a person who comes to work and a person who has a life outside of work.

In Part 2 of this interview, Kelleher illustrates his theory about engaging the “whole” person in practice, explains why he believes “work/life balance” is a term of the past, and provides further food for thought about employee engagement.

AEIS Join Bob Kelleher for his keynote presentation The 10 Steps of Employee Engagement to DRIVE Results! at BLR’s 22nd Annual Advanced Employment Issues Symposium this November at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. Click here to learn more!