When you need help understanding the importance of employee engagement, look no further than Jill Christensen.
Christensen is an internationally-recognized engagement and culture triple threat. As the owner of her self-titled firm Jill Christensen International, Christensen operates as an engagement expert and consultant, a keynote speaker for enterprise conferences around the world, and an author that, as her website playfully puts it, “wrote the book” on employee engagement, titled “If Not You, Who?”
How did Christensen learn the ins and outs of engagement? Before running Jill Christensen International, she spent 22 years in the telecommunications industry working high-level internal communications positions at organizations like Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent, and AT&T.
In those roles, Christensen became accustomed to being one of the first people employees came to whenever they had complaints about leaders or the way the business was working. As she observes, internal communications and HR are typically the departments employees look to first to resolve issues of this nature. After more than two decades of this work, Christensen was savvy in the ways of engagement and culture.
“I had been hearing for decades the complaints employees had about business, leaders, and more,” she says. “I felt I had my finger on the pulse for what was wrong, what leaders and managers weren’t doing, and why employees were disengaging.” Eventually, she left corporate America to embark on her professional journey sharing what she’d learned about employee engagement.
In our chat Around the Bonfyre, Christensen humbly admits that when she first started out, she was under the impression that only the telecommunications industry needed to learn the importance of employee engagement. But as she began picking up clients, she realized that symptoms of disengagement–and the drivers of engagement–were more similar than they were different across different industries.
The importance of employee engagement
Some of our needs are universal, no matter who you are. Beyond physical essentials like food, water, shelter, and clothing, humans have a number of psychological needs to satisfy: autonomy, purpose, and achievement to name a few.
As Christensen’s work began to take her to other countries, she says she came to understand how these universal needs illustrate, and ultimately play into the importance of employee engagement. While employees coming from different generations or countries may have individual and cultural differences, these basic human needs remain consistent throughout.
“I don’t know anybody in the world who doesn’t want to know that when they go to work, what they do every day has meaning, value, and is connected to something bigger than themselves,” she says. “These are all things human beings want and crave.”
“If you can create a workplace culture where your employees’ basic human needs are met, they will not disengage.”
Christensen stresses that in order to satisfy these needs, engagement practitioners must take a two pronged approach: they must appeal both to employees’ emotions and their sense of logic.
“Employee engagement is when employees trust leadership and feel an emotional connection to their organization,” Christensen says. “You’re capturing an employee’s head and their heart. You need to capture them emotionally and intellectually.”
Christensen elaborates that capturing employees’ hearts is consistently more difficult than appealing to their heads, but stresses the importance of employee engagement strategies that do both. The reason for this challenge should sound familiar to any engagement and culture practitioner: the reluctance of leadership participation.
Leaders need to own employee engagement, too
On numerous occasions, we here at the Gather Around blog–and especially in the Around the Bonfyre interview series–have underlined how essential leadership involvement is in engagement and culture strategy. When it comes to the “people” side of business, our position is that leaders have a uniquely powerful influence, and their involvement can make or break any engagement effort. Christensen has similar feelings on the matter.
“If you want a new, innovative approach that works, senior leaders need to stop outsourcing culture change to HR,” she says. “In order to create an amazing workplace environment that no one wants to leave, the senior leader needs to be involved in the employee engagement journey, because he or she sets the tone for ‘how we do things here.’”
For too long organizations have pushed engagement and culture off on HR to “own”–which Christensen views as essential to understanding why global engagement levels are stagnant. The importance of employee engagement and culture is far too great to be within the purview of any one department.
“Senior leaders outsource culture change to HR because they view employee engagement as the people stuff,” Christensen says.
“The truth of it is, even though HR ‘owns’ employee engagement, they don’t own the people who have the greatest impact on it. That’s your frontline managers.”
What Christensen advocates for is a framework where engagement and culture are shared responsibilities across all tiers of leadership. While senior leaders need to be the ones that dictate strategy and set the tone for the rest of the organization, the managers further down the chain of command must execute those strategic priorities.
“In order for you to change your culture, you need to do things differently tomorrow than you’re doing here today,” Christensen says. “That can’t just be one department like HR. That can’t be one person like the CEO. Every single one of your managers must go to market consistently inside of the organization in order to shift culture.”
How do you enforce shared responsibility for engagement and culture?
Taken the wrong way, one can easily mistake shared responsibility as an erasure of accountability: if everyone is responsible for engagement, then no one is. But Christensen sees it differently. To her, shared responsibility means shared accountability.
The importance of employee engagement is such that it must be front and center as a metric to measure performance against. That goes for leaders and the strategies they deploy to improve engagement scores, but it also applies to employees who are disengaged (or spreading disengagement).
“When you bury engagement and it’s not something your board or C-suite talks about, you’re really in trouble,” she says. “When it’s a KPI, it’s front and center, and because of that, people will be measured on their success or lack thereof in terms of moving the needle.”
Christensen is believer in professional development. She emphasizes that if an employee or leader isn’t pulling their weight, they should be afforded opportunities to improve along with clear and measurable expectations of how to do so.
But if those individuals do not make strides towards improvement, even when given those development opportunities, the organization should have no qualms about letting them go. Christensen refers to this element of her engagement philosophy as “getting the right person in the right chair,” and notes that the alternative is not desirable.
“When you have a person in the organization who is a rotten apple, every single employee around that person knows it. They’re all sitting there thinking, Why isn’t leadership doing anything about this?”
“In that moment, you’re chipping away the trust engaged workers have in their senior leadership team,” Christensen says. “You’re actually causing people to disengage because leaders are not making the appropriate decision for the organization and workers.”
Christensen’s comparison invokes the old expression, ‘One bad apple spoils the bunch,’ and it’s an association she welcomes. Disengagement has a tendency to be contagious, bringing down the morale of even the most motivated employees.
“I’ve even had organizations saying to me, ‘Yes, but it’s just one person,” Christensen says. “I think many times organizations underestimate the negative impact that one person can have on a team, a business unit, and on the organization as a whole.”
Millennials, Gen Z, and the importance of employee engagement in the future
But it would be wrong to view every disengaged employee as a covert agent maliciously trying to sow discontent amongst their peers. Disengagement, in perhaps its most common form, is mundane and deeply rooted in the systems and processes the company creates.
“They are the first generation that, in my opinion, are unwilling to go to work every single day and be miserable,” Christensen says.
While many organizations have successfully recovered in the wake of The Great Recession, one thing that never quite did was the ‘promise of work.’ As Christensen puts it, past generations shared an agreement with their employers: the company is loyal to its employees and employees, in turn, will be loyal to the company.
To secure that loyalty, companies offered up what she calls the golden handcuffs: benefits for life, pension plans, lavish gifts on service anniversaries, and more. Fringe benefits didn’t make employees any more engaged, but they did buy their silence.
“They were dangling so many wonderful things over your head–long term things–so you chose to stay and suck it up,” Christensen says. “With millennials, not only do I believe they’re smarter than that, but those things don’t exist anymore.”
Christensen characterizes millennials as a generation looking to negotiate with a party that has yet to show up to the table. In the absence of those long-term benefits, millennials want to see the work experience improve. It’s not that just that they want their basic human needs satisfied, either.
As the first generation to realize the full potential of digital technology, they’re seeing opportunities for improvement in areas like communication, feedback, and recognition. Millennials are trying to make the world of work look more like the world they experience outside of it. But when organizations are slow or resistant to change, they have no misgivings about leaving for greener pastures.
“Organizations have not taken accountability for what they’ve created,” Christensen says. “They’re pointing the finger back at the people not willing to put up with their crap. To that, I say ‘Yay millennials.’ It’s about time a generation en masse says, ‘This is not good enough.’”
Her prediction for the future is that the attitudes and ideas millennials introduced will only become more entrenched as we start seeing more of Generation Z in the workplace.
“It’s going to be progressive. We’re going to build on what the millennials have started,” Christensen says. “Millennials have started as a snowball the size of a baseball. Gen Z is going to turn that into a volleyball. The generation after them will turn it into a watermelon.”
The question then becomes, what will leaders do in response to the movement started by these new generations of younger workers? Christensen is doing her part, evangelizing the importance of employee engagement to every leader she can reach. She is resolute in her view that organizations must get on board with the future or get left behind in the past.
“As an organization, you have free will to determine ‘how we do things here.’ It is your responsibility to your people to ensure ‘how we doing things here’ is a place they can’t imagine leaving.”