Research: How to increase proactive employee engagement

It’s a time of political, social and economic turmoil.  For organisations to survive to the ever-changing mood they need to come up with new and different ways of working to respond to this unrest.

Employees are critical to this.

How successful an organisation is or isn’t in responding to external changes is largely determined by how engaged its employees are in what’s happening.

However, horizon scanning and contributing ideas are often seen as discretionary work. In other words, not work that people are necessarily paid for and hence, why should they bother to go that extra mile?

The research

A study published in Human Resource Management Journal (Jan 2017) explored how organisations could encourage an increase in such discretionary effort. The German research team explored the factors that could lead to employees (particularly non-managers) to engage in horizon scanning and contributing more ideas.

The findings

The researchers looked at the role personality and motivation played in the extent to which people did or didn’t proactively participate in strategic engagement activity. They found:

  • People with ‘future focused’ personalities tended to proactively involve themselves in strategic engagement activity. In other words, people who think about tomorrow (what’s around the corner) as opposed to those who think about yesterday (the good old days); and
  • People who focused on ‘promotion focus’ i.e. who displayed a self-regulatory tendency to focus on achieving gains rather than avoiding losses.

What it means for organisations

There are a number of ways that the findings can be applied, namely:

  • Talent attraction – for organisations who want to attract some more people who are ‘future focused’ and gains focused, then they may want to think about the branding and wording they use in adverts and PR. This includes social media activity.
  • Recruitment and selection – using tests and behavioural simulations to surface the extent to which someone is or isn’t future focused. And, of course, thinking more carefully about the questions to ask at interview. The researchers suggest that these practices are especially relevant for roles in business development, research, strategic procurement, commissioning and transformation.
  • Training and development – The researchers suggested that a gains approach is something that can be developed. Therefore, workshops, courses and other learning events should be geared toward getting participants to think about the positive aspects of new approaches and potential changes. The research also extolled the virtues of mentoring and coaching in developing a more future and gains focused mindset.
  • Work design and performance management – The research suggested that work should be much more geared toward collaboration and interdependence between individuals and teams, if an organisation wants to encourage proactive strategic engagement. This means that objectives and goals need to be much more carefully thought through. Performance discussions should be more geared towards future and gains, rather than past and losses. For example, in a one-hour one-to-one discussion, 25% of the time might be on the past month, with the remaining 75% focused on the next month and potential gains.
  • Reward and recognition – This is about rewarding the right behaviour. If an organisation wants more of its employees to proactively engage then it needs to reward and showcase those who do exactly that. For example, award schemes with categories geared towards horizon scanning and producing ideas; through to case studies via whatever internal communications methods there are (video can be great for this).
  • Role modelling – Organisational leadership is a crucial aspect of changing the culture in order to create the right conditions for more proactive employee engagement. The researchers suggest that leaders should role model a future focus and gains focus in meetings, when speaking to employees and any communications they put out.

For some organisations the changes needed may be negligible; for others the gap may be bigger. In that instance, a culture change programme may be needed.

Whilst there are some limitations to the research, broadly speaking it provides some food for thought for HR and OD practitioners, as well as organisational leaders.

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