Is Worker Engagement a Mistake?

Is Worker Engagement a Mistake?

Worker engagement seems like a no-brainer, and ideally, it is. But worker engagement is hard to achieve, and you might be looking at it wrong.

We suspect the title of this article will make some people wonder if we have lost our minds.

Worker engagement, after all, sounds like a no-brainer. Studies show that engaged workers are more productive, more supportive of leadership, more committed to improving the organization and less likely to leave. They identify with the company mission, seek to live its values and serve as ambassadors inside and outside the organization. What’s more, organizations with broad worker engagement tend to outperform other organizations.

With benefits like that, our answer to the title question, “Is worker engagement a mistake,” is a resounding “No.”

Yet, the road to an engaged worker is often a bumpy one, with lots of potholes along the way. Some companies that set out on that road are challenged with ongoing frustration and some give up before reaching the end.

It takes hard work to achieve worker engagement. There is, however, one issue, that significantly raises the likelihood that an organization will be successful in mobilizing its employees: safety. Indeed, we will go so far as to say that safety is the key to creating an engaged work force because if there is one value everyone in the organization shares, it is to go home without injury.

This article explores answers to three questions that are critical to determining how to use safety to mobilize your employees:

1. Why is it important to understand the difference between worker involvement and “engaged employees”?

2. How can organizations use safety involvement to increase levels of employee engagement?

3. How does cultural maturity impact safety involvement and what is appropriate?

Why is it important to understand the difference between worker involvement and engaged employees?

Determining how to engage workers requires management to distinguish between two terms that are sometimes used interchangeably but are quite different:

Involved Employees: Involved employees offer ideas, expertise and energy to solve problems. Involvement usually happens upon the request of management rather than through employee initiative.

Engaged Employees: Engagement is the strength of the relationship among an organization, the leadership and its workers. An engaged worker is one who is absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and is willing to take positive action to further the organization, its reputation and its interests in an appreciative, organizational environment. A measure of worker engagement is organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), or the extent to which an individual is willing to voluntarily contribute to the organization's success. Engaged workers contribute because they care about what they do. They understand what needs to be done and they act on it.

Most organizations have employees all along the engagement continuum. There isn’t just one path to how an employee becomes “engaged.” Engagement can happen on day one. This occurs when an employee joins an organization and finds that the organizational mission and values completely aligns with his or her own values. In this case, the engagement level starts out high.

A second route is more gradual. The employee can experience a leader with a transformational leadership style in a supportive culture. This leadership style can motivate an employee to move from disengaged to involved, or involved to engaged, because the leader and organization have demonstrated they value the employee as a person. Leaders can accelerate the pace of engagement by leveraging safety involvement activities.

The safety implications of worker engagement are profound: disengaged workers focus on their own safety. Involved workers are concerned with their own safety but are likely also concerned with the safety of their workmates. Fully engaged workers are concerned with the safety of everyone around them and without prompting take proactive actions to help others.

How can organizations use safety involvement to increase levels of employee engagement?

Consider the following situation. A friend asks you what it is like to work for your company. What thoughts come immediately to mind? How you think about your employer is based on three primary components: the work, the working conditions and the workplace culture. The pivot point regarding how you phrase your answer likely has less to do with the job task you perform than with your perception of how the company, the company leaders and your peers treat you.

Relationships are based on social exchange theory that explains how our perceptions of fairness enter into the relationship we have with another person. The law of reciprocity describes the social principle that if you do something for someone else, you expect them to reciprocate. When someone does something for us, we feel a need to reciprocate, that is, to do something in return. Relationships break down when one side breaks this social exchange and there is no reciprocity. In business relationships, the reciprocity principle holds the same; however, it is not a 50-50 relationship. Leadership must often stretch further to obtain reciprocity.

Our strongest and deepest relationships are built on a foundation of safety—not just physical safety, but also psychological safety. If we come to believe that another person is interested in our physical or mental wellbeing, the foundation strengthens.

Leadership can use the power of safety to increase employee engagement. When trying to move employees along the engagement continuum, a great place to focus is safety involvement. Getting employees involved in a safety activity that truly advances the cause of workplace safety helps build the relationship foundation that ultimately leads to an engaged employee.

How does culture maturity impact safety involvement and what is appropriate?

An organization’s culture falls along a continuum too. We use the Exposure Reduction Model (DERM) to describe this continuum. This model evaluates culture based on the value an organization places on exposure reduction and on how well the organization addresses the system factors that contribute to exposure. The model involves three ranges: Avoidance, Compliance and Value.

Avoidance: In this range it will be hard to find an engaged worker for two important reasons. First, the organization must take steps to involve the managers and front-line leaders in safety. For worker involvement to succeed, the leaders of the organization must consistently demonstrate their personal value for safety. Second, leaders must find and enlist the support of a small core of workers who have a passion for safety. The involvement will most likely be limited to safety of self-focused activities like “hazard hunts” and participation on team activities such as safety awareness campaigns. It is critical at this stage to act on outputs from these activities to establish trust.

These early safety efforts are stepping-stone involvement activities. One major caution: in an Avoidance culture, employees may perceive they are at personal risk of being ostracized by their peers. Leadership must do everything they can to assure that what the employees are doing does not result in reprimands or discipline. If a mistake is made, leadership must quick address the problem.

Compliance: Within this range we see stronger worker involvement. The key in this range is for leadership to recognize signals that indicate workers are willing to take on safety responsibility for both themselves and their team. When the right signals are transmitted, the organization should move toward “Safety of Others” programs. Here, workers get involved in communicating the concept of Approaching Others for Safety, perhaps taking on higher level training responsibilities and becoming engaged in looking deeply into systems driving exposure and incidents.

Values: At this range we see employees willing to go above and beyond mere participation to demonstrate engagement behaviors. Sophisticated processes like peer-to-peer coaching are accepted, and workers conduct advanced training, leading safety meetings and safety teams. These systems become an integral part of all safety processes and are integrated into the root cause evaluations of exposure. At this level many workers step up and help their peers identify and control exposure.

In all three ranges, leadership must visibly fulfill their roles and responsibilities and be prepared for the redistribution of power that occurs. Any perceived abdication of safety can damage trust and credibility, and if it persists, result in a rapid decline in engagement.

Invest in Involvement to move the needle on engagement

When implementing safety involvement activities, consider the following:

  • Answer the question: “Why are we doing this?”
  • Define the benefits and set the objectives
  • Design or pick an intervention that’s right for the culture and in line with the objectives
  • Prepare all levels of leadership for redistribution of power
  • Enroll the employees
  • Recruit early adopters
  • Use discovery-based versus static learning
  • Roll out and support the system

We all would like to identify the exact moment when an organization moves from involvement to engagement. The problem is that it isn’t like watching a light switch move from off to on. Rather, it’s a gradual shift, starting with a few employees and expanding as leadership demonstrates caring and trust in the employees. When a company has demonstrated it values safety, workers will volunteer to get involved.

Leadership must carefully consider what safety involvement activity is right for the culture. When employees participate in a successful and rewarding involvement activity, their personal level of engagement will move upward. Leadership must then figure out how to expand safety involvement.

This isn’t done by demanding involvement. It requires purposeful planning and patience.

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