May 22, 2011

You often know it when you walk into a place of business. You can tell who is bored, distracted or unhappy. And you can tell who is focused, invested and engaged. Most employers prefer the latter type of employees, of course, because they tend to work harder, be more productive, provide better customer service, and are often just more fun to work with.

learning and engagement

Can engagement be a learned behavior?

But determining  how to engage employees is a major challenge. The business literature provides few sure-fire, easy-toimplement ways of increasing employee engagement. With this challenge in mind, the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) commissioned the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) to conduct a survey and develop a study on employee engagement. “Learning’s Role in Employee Engagement” was sponsored by Dale Carnegie Training. The goal was to gain an overview of engagement in today’s workplace and to find out how organizations can boost engagement levels, with a particular focus on learning’s role in the process. The final report is based on survey responses from 776 HR and learning executives and an extensive review of the workplace literature.

The results were intriguing. The research team found that engagement truly is an issue of major significance to most organizations, which is probably related to the fact that the average organization has some serious engagement problems. Only about a third of the average respondent’s workforce is highly engaged, and nearly a quarter (23%) is disengaged or minimally engaged.

It’s no wonder organizations are looking for ways of boosting engagement, and learning opportunities clearly fill this need. The ASTD/i4cp Learning and Engagement Study 2007 found that about two-thirds of respondents said that the quality of learning and training opportunities positively influences engagement in their organizations, and 54% said the sheer breadth of such opportunities boosts engagement. In addition, “career development opportunities” were cited by 76% of respondents as driving engagement to a high or very high extent.

Yet, training and development aren’t the only means of engaging workers. Perhaps even more important, learning strategies can help forge a true engagement culture. Survey data showed that those organizations that report more highly engaged workers differed most from their more poorly engaged counterparts in the strategic area of  actively promoting a culture of engagement.

The study also suggests that one of the best ways of forging such a culture of engagement is by ensuring that organizational leaders, including immediate supervisors, have better skills in the area of engagement improvement. Whereas only 29% of respondents said that their leaders currently  take effective actions to improve employee engagement to a high or very high extent, fully 79% said their organizations  should do so. What’s more, just 15% agree to a high or very high extent that  employees think leaders are skilled at engaging the workforce. And just 23% of respondents said their organizations train managers in how to engage employees to a high or very high extent, compared with 86% who say they should do so.

The bottom line is that many leaders and managers need considerably better engagement-building skills than they currently have. Their skill deficits are one of the most widely cited barriers to engagement, second only to the notion that leaders and supervisors are not held accountable for engagement.

These findings represent both a major challenge to and an opportunity for learning professionals. The challenge is that there’sso much to be done in the average organization, not the least of which is convincing leaders that they should work on their engagement-building skills. The opportunity is that there’s much room for improvement in most organizations, meaning that better training and development strategies in this area could make a very large impact on overall organizational engagement.

Below are some of the other most prominent findings from the ASTD/i4cp Learning and Engagement Study:

• Higher reported levels of engagement are correlated with higher levels of market performance, as gauged by self reports in the areas of revenue growth, market share, profitability and customer satisfaction.

• Measuring engagement remains a challenge. Organizations  often measure it “after the fact” through the use of exit interviews and turnover tracking.

• Organizations with more highly engaged employees differ from organizations with less-engaged workers in some interesting ways. For example:

o Organizations with less-engaged workers tend to use engagement-building strategies to a lesser extent.

o Highly engaged organizations put more faith in practices such as peer coaching, stretch assignments and communities                of practice as ways of boosting engagement. That is, they seem to emphasize what could be termed “learning cultures”                      more than other organizations do.

o Less-engaged organizations are less likely to take strong actions to deal with disengaged employees.

o When asked about predictors of engagement, firms with highly engaged workforces placed the greatest emphasis on a                  passion for work and a positive attitude toward peers and customers. Firms with disengaged employees placed the                              greatest emphasis on intelligence, confidence in work abilities and excellent job skills.

This study concludes that there’s much that organizations can do to improve the engagement of their workforces. Above all, they must work to promote a culture of engagement, and one of the best ways of accomplishing this is by leveraging learning opportunities in a more effective and strategic manner. For more information about the ASTD/i4cp Learning and Engagement Study,  please contact the ASTD Research Department at  astdresearch@astd.org or visit  www.astd.org/content/research.

This study brought to you by the good folks at Dale Carnegie Philadelphia who would love to connect with you on Facebook.  The original Whitepaper can be downloaded at http://www.dalecarnegie.com/astd_study_employee_engagement/.

photo credit: spanish-only.com

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