Article on Employee Engagement


My trip to give a keynote speech at the HRMAB Conference was interesting, not so much for what I said, but for what I learned.

This Gleaner article comes directly from a panel discussion headed up by Kim Tudor on the topic of employee engagement in Barbados.

What to do about employee engagement

I came across some disturbing news last week in Barbados. A recent study by the National Initiative for Service Excellence led by Kim Tudor revealed that the country has a serious challenge with employee engagement.

Compared to the world-class companies, the average Barbadian company has a ratio of only 1.2 engaged employees to every disengaged employee.

It means that an average of three out of 10 employees in Barbados are engaged. That’s a shocking statistic, if only because the ratio in a world-class company averages a whopping 9.57 to 1.

How did they come by these statistics?

The fact is, there are three groups of employees in every company: the engaged, the committed and the disengaged. Only the engaged employee makes the most of the chance to use his/her potential to the fullest, seeing work as an opportunity.

The job is an avenue of self-expression, and a chance to give his/her best. This employee goes the extra mile.

The committed employee feels as if he/she belongs, putting in time, but little or no energy and passion.

The disengaged employee is not only withdrawn, but also looks to undermine the work of others. He/she is mostly concerned about getting as much as possible, and giving as little as possible in return.

It doesn’t take a great leap of faith to imagine that the average Jamaican workplace is probably close in character to that of its Caribbean counterpart.

While we regularly beat the rest of the world in some areas, our productivity is not only among the lowest in the hemisphere, it’s been declining steadily in recent years.

Barbados’ productivity, on the other hand, has been increasing.

According to Douglas Orane, chairman of GraceKennedy Limited, we Jamaicans seem to have stopped caring about employee productivity. We hold the world record of decreasing productivity in the past 40 years – a time when most other countries have produced an increase.

What should you, a corporate leader, conclude?

1. It’s a mistake to think employees are all the same:

Engagement is not something that one feels today and not tomorrow. Instead, it’s a reflection of deep-seated relationships to power, work, and personal responsibility that are not easy to change. This means that you must treat each group differently.

2. Different messages must be crafted for distinct subgroups:

Talking to a group of employees as if they are all engaged, committed or disengaged is a recipe for disaster. If you can’t physically separate the sheep from the goats, then make sure that you identify different groups at the onset, and issue distinct calls-to-action that are tailored to each subgroup.

As an example, pay attention to the next altar call you witness. Skilful preachers appeal to different constituencies when they make their final appeals, ensuring that they maximise the flow of parishioners to the front of the church.

3. Good tools are needed to distinguish engagement:

What are the specific behaviours that distinguish one kind of employee from another? These are deeply cultural, and specific to your company.

In other words, don’t try to borrow data from Barbados, or even from your competition across the street.

You must determine how to separate these three groups using the information that you have in front of you, and some of it may have to be gathered in surveys or focus groups.

4. The disengaged are not all passive:

Some of them are activists for their cause and look for ways to increase their numbers. They operate in quiet defiance of the goals the company is trying to accomplish.

Given their nature and the energy being invested, it’s important to act early and decisively, especially when employees in other groups are being influenced. It’s a time to be open and transparent.

5. Engagement is not satisfaction:

Many of your committed employees might be quite satisfied, but it’s not a powerful driver of superior performance. Instead, satisfaction often devolves into efforts to keep employees happy by giving them enough goodies.

A satisfied employee is not necessarily engaged. Also, a highly engaged employee might be dissatisfied with the status quo; this attitude demonstrates the engaged employee’s high potential.

While we wait for a similar study to be conducted here in Jamaica, it’s not too early to act. Do your own surveys and discover the truth about employee engagement before the low bar of satisfaction makes you complacent.