Thriving in uncertain times: Revisiting employee engagement

Allison Matlack · 2024-05-05

Thriving in uncertain times: Revisiting employee engagement

When I first started working on things we typically throw into the “employee engagement” bucket, which was nearly a decade ago now (yikes, when did that happen?!), my first mission was to help my stakeholders understand that “engagement” was not the same thing as “satisfaction”. Here’s how I’ve described the difference before:

“Engagement” was all the rage in business articles that year, and I put considerable effort into making the distinction between engagement and satisfaction. Yes, I said, parties and t-shirts and cake-pops are fun and can play an important role in fostering recognition and team-building and overall satisfaction, but engagement is about more. Engagement is about helping people find the purpose and meaning in work that might at times feel pointless and boring, especially when you’re far, far down on the organizational chart and don’t always have the clear, big-picture connections that might otherwise help you understand how that seemingly minor support ticket you just triaged eventually saved the company $5 million in renewal revenue.

And employee engagement really was all the rage for several years, up until the pandemic and the onslaught of unprecedentedly uncertain macroeconomic headwinds. Then, all of a sudden, the stories leadership told us became less about inspiring us to action to accomplish our mission so we could change the world for the better, and more about making sure that red arrow kept going up and to the right for the shareholders. The problem is, most of us don’t have enough stock for the company’s profitability to be a driving motivational factor for performance. We are not robots; we humans need more.

Now, here we are in 2024, morale nearly extinguished by waves of layoffs, whips cracking behind us to threaten us into meeting deadlines or returning to the office, and the overwhelming sentiment of my colleagues across multiple industries is that leadership knows the market is so poor that hardly anyone can find a new job elsewhere, so they aren’t bothering to invest in engagement and retention. Instead, there’s a pattern of returning to command-and-control management styles I’d thought we’d all left behind on the factory floors once Toyota showed us there was a better way.

When exactly did we all forget that the best (and perhaps only) way to deliver products and experiences that truly delight customers, and thus the best way to improve profitability for shareholders, is to have an engaged and inspired workforce?

Career, community, cause

Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, research into what motivates people at work has shown that once our basic needs are met, we look for community, belonging, and connection to something bigger. Here’s how the team from Facebook described it in 2018:

Career is about work: having a job that provides autonomy, allows you to use your strengths, and promotes your learning and development. It’s at the heart of intrinsic motivation.

Community is about people: feeling respected, cared about, and recognized by others. It drives our sense of connection and belongingness.

Cause is about purpose: feeling that you make a meaningful impact, identifying with the organization’s mission, and believing that it does some good in the world. It’s a source of pride.

These three buckets make up what’s called the psychological contract — the unwritten expectations and obligations between employees and employers. When that contract is fulfilled, people bring their whole selves to work. But when it’s breached, people become less satisfied and committed. They contribute less. They perform worse.

I know this is true because I can see this reflected in my own performance: Without question, I perform at my best when all of these things are present. When I believe in the mission, know I can have real impact, am trusted to operate with autonomy, and feel heard, valued, and recognized, I will pounce on the challenges in front of me with passion and zeal, applying all the creativity and energy I have at my disposal. I’ll also happily go out of my way to be helpful wherever else I can add value, whether that be within my official remit or not. I thrive, and the company benefits, too.

The death spiral of undiscussability

On the flip side, when any of these things (career, community, cause) are absent, I tend to freeze, and my performance tanks. For example, if I try to use my voice and I get my hand slapped in some way, like I’m told or shown that my feedback is neither desired nor helpful, I quickly adapt to the reality that if I want to keep my job, it’s safer for me to let people fall into the giant pit that’s right in front of them than it is to try to point out that it’s there so they can avoid it — I do not take on additional work proactively, and I no longer feel empowered to pull that Andon cord. Both the company and I suffer.

Andrew McAffee wrote about this effect (and others) in The Geek Way: The Radical Mindset that Drives Extraordinary Results, calling it “the death spiral of undiscussability”. If employees are vocalizing concern, it means they still care; if all you hear is silence, it’s probably because people feel unsafe to share feedback or to speak up on certain topics, and you have an even bigger problem to deal with than negative emotions. Netflix is an example of a company that learned the consequences of this the hard way, and now they have an explicit policy of “farming for dissent” to ensure they don’t unwittingly fall into any of those giant pits again.

It’s time to remember what works

Employee engagement isn’t a mere business buzzword catchphrase that was popular 10 years ago, but the lifeblood of organizational success. As we prepare to navigate whatever challenges await for the rest of 2024 and beyond, it’s time for all of us to revisit the fundamentals for how we can foster a sense of belonging and empower our teams to thrive:

  • Embrace the psychological contract: Understand the unwritten expectations between employees and employers. Fulfilling career development, fostering community, and emphasizing a meaningful cause are essential. When these elements align, employees bring their best selves to work. When breached, performance suffers. If you want results, prioritize professional growth, recognition, and purpose-driven work.
  • Encourage open dialogue: Avoid the death spiral of undiscussability. Create an environment where feedback is welcomed and dissent is valued, and encourage your team to voice concerns and ideas openly. Remember, silence doesn’t indicate contentment: it may signal fear or disengagement.
  • Connect the dots: Help everyone understand how their contributions impact the bigger picture. Show them how seemingly minor tasks connect to the company’s mission or overall success. When employees see their purpose, they become more engaged. Share success stories and celebrate wins, no matter how small.
  • Empower autonomy: Trust your team to make decisions because autonomy fuels intrinsic motivation. When employees feel trusted and empowered, they take ownership of their work. Provide clear guidelines, but allow flexibility in how tasks are accomplished. Encourage experimentation and learning.
  • Recognize and appreciate: Recognition is powerful. Acknowledge individual and team achievements regularly. Celebrate milestones, both professional and personal. A simple “thank you” goes a long way. Ask people how they prefer to be recognized (because it’s different for each of us!) and personalize recognition, from handwritten notes to public shout-outs.

Engaged and inspired employees are the driving force behind exceptional products, delighted customers, and, ultimately, shareholder value. So, as leaders, let’s prioritize the psychological contract, listen actively (and with empathy), and empower our teams. A workplace where everyone thrives is a win-win for all of us (including the bottom line).