The key difference between the two, it turns out, has little to do with free beer, pet-friendly policies, or on-site acupuncture leading to satisfaction.
It has everything to do with the work itself.
That said, engagement is also incredibly difficult to keep a pulse on. That's why the very best leaders don't just lead; they do something still considered rare by any corporate measure. They listen to their employees.
The critical importance of continuous listening
As you may have heard, recent news reports are filled with accounts of employee protests and walkouts, and even a government mandate to give Google employees the right to speak out on their beliefs -- demonstrating how important employee feedback is.
According to a survey of more than 1,000 workers by employee engagement company Achievers, just 20.8% consider themselves "very engaged." That same survey suggested that a lack of listening was partially to blame. While 40% of workers ranked their manager and employer "okay" at soliciting feedback, a full 16.3% ranked them as "horrible."
Many experts agree continuous listening is one of the best ways to improve the employee experience. Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers, says, "Engagement is complex, but that doesn't mean we need to make it complicated. Empowering leaders to talk with employees to understand more about what's working and what's not is the best place to start."
Most companies, purposefully or by happenstance, practice some sort of listening. The majority, though, still fall into the trap of just hoping these sorts of conversations occur in manager one-on-one meetings or relying on yearly surveys.
Baumgartner warns, "Life doesn't change once a year. Employee engagement is exceptionally fluid and dynamic, changing throughout the course of a single day. If a channel is not in place for continuous listening, employees simply don't have a way to voice concerns or feedback as life happens, resulting in employers missing opportunities to address problems before they become systemic issues."
Business leaders should systemize a method for gathering ongoing feedback, whether it's using a surveying tool with an ongoing set of questions, making feedback a formalized part of meetings, or using a technology solution.
What to listen for
Managers should try to understand how employees feel about their work and the organization to understand more about their overall engagement--and also why they feel that way.
Asking how someone is feeling is such a simple, human act, but too infrequently done. Just look at Meghan Markle's reaction when asked by a reporter how she was doing as a new mom.
The response each employee provides will differ. How they feel could range from excited to burned out to uncertain. Why they feel that way could be due to a change in leadership, a new project, or something as simple as a tech issue preventing them from working efficiently.
As Baumgartner noted, employees' engagement will constantly be in flux, making the act of asking ever more important.
Acting on feedback
Gathering feedback isn't enough, and can even be detrimental if the feedback isn't addressed. The Achievers survey found when it came to actually acting on feedback, workers ranked managers and employers even more negatively. A sizable amount (42.3%) said their managers and employers were "okay--they make a few changes based on it," but over one in five (21.4%) rated them as "horrible--they never do anything with feedback."
The purpose of collecting feedback is to achieve continual improvement. The changes needn't be monumental. Sometimes simply acknowledging feedback can have a positive impact.
"One of the most impactful mechanisms a manager can have on their team is to both ask for and acknowledge feedback regarding the experiences of their employees. Leaders do not have to have all the answers. In most cases, including employees in identifying a solution results in an even more effective outcome," continued Baumgartner.
As the New Year looms--a time when job-hopping spikes--making sure employees feel valued is a prerequisite of great managers. Showing empathy around their experience--by seeking feedback--is one of the critical steps to achieving that.