Conversations about the workplace today are increasingly focused on concerns about “employee engagement”, particularly with changing employee relationships to work and increased expectations for employers to create inclusive, value-driven work environments that see employees as human beings. Globally, only 20% of the workforce feels engaged.
But what does it actually mean to be “engaged at work”? The answer is deceptively complex. Does engagement look like showing up on time and completing required tasks? Like proposing a new idea at a team meeting? Like attending an after-work happy hour? Like being the first one in and the last one out of the office every day? Like staying with and growing within a company? The answer is all of the above, and more. How you define employee engagement should stem directly from the values you hold as a company.
Most definitions of employee engagement will focus on the level of emotional connection an employee has to their workplace, arguing that the most engaged employees are first and foremost invested in their workplace’s success. And this is true; caring about the organization you work for can lead to more intrinsic motivation to contribute to its success.
However, in a world of rapidly changing ideas about the connection (or lack thereof) between oneself and one’s workplace, and the obligations we hold to our workplace, companies need to approach engagement from a different perspective. Instead of thinking about engagement as motivated by the drive for company success, employers should be thinking about engagement as motivated by a cohesive and inclusive culture. Feeling like the organization you work for cares about you can lead to more motivation to innovate, hone one’s expertise, and invest in relational bonds. Build up psychological safety, and engagement will come genuinely and sustainably.
Employee Engagement and Contributor Safety
Employee engagement cuts across all of the levels of psychological safety, but particularly shows up on the level of contributor safety, which asks to what extent an employee feels safe to share ideas, make suggestions, be part of the team, and impact shared goals/projects. Contributor is the third stage of the four stages of psychological safety, which build upon each other from inclusion to learner to contributor to challenger–each level predicated on the ones before it–to culminate in an environment of employee confidence and wellbeing.
Contributor safety is all about speaking up. Research has shown that there is a positive relationship between inclusive leadership and employee voice behavior (how much employees speak up). Further, this relationship is mediated by employee psychological safety.
Some of the most common complaints we hear about employee engagement–complaints that tend to assign individual fault–are actually reflections of low contributor safety.
Let’s break a few down.
Negative past experiences can shut down future engagement.
Before jumping to the conclusion that your employees are lazy or checked out, examine how you respond to new ideas. Employees are less likely to speak up when they feel unsafe to share ideas. They may be afraid of judgment for making a mistake, or of seeming “stupid” for asking questions.
These feelings don’t appear out of thin air. Usually, they’re connected to past experiences in the workplace. It’s possible they’ve tried to contribute in the past, but were shot down by a more senior member of the team or their idea was simply ignored. They may have also observed this behavior towards others, and feel hesitant to expose themselves to similar negative feedback.
Meetings can either create or close off space to contribute.
Sometimes, an employee may be interested in speaking up, but meetings and norms are designed in ways that don’t give them an “in” to do so. If the same three people are always the first and last to speak, others will get left out. Rather than repeating this pattern, proactively include a variety of voices by inviting and providing space for contribution. Follow the principle of “take space, make space.” Check yourself and others. Who is taking space in the conversation? Where can you make space? Pausing and giving room shows employees that there is genuine interest in new contributions.
Many workplaces assume that a meeting is a meeting–of course, anyone can add ideas and be themselves. But is this actually true? It is important to be sensitive to who is in the room as much as what the room is discussing. There is a lot more at stake for someone who holds a historically marginalized identity or sits in less proximity to power.
Who employees are matters.
People who hold historically marginalized identities, particularly if they are an “only” in a room, feel more pressure to perform “professionalism” and avoid inadvertently confirming potential negative stereotypes others may hold about their group. This is in addition to the many microaggressions that these groups may face on a day to day basis and frequent code-switching–which can be exhausting and laborious to manage, let alone challenge. Backtracking back down to inclusion safety, if someone is the only one in a room the chances are they feel a lot less included from the start. Knowing that psychological safety is a stepwise process, until inclusion and learner safety are sufficiently satisfied, contributor safety will take a back seat.
What employees do (their role) matters.
Consider also proximity to power. More senior, “expert”, or manager-level employees sit a lot closer to the people in power, and often serve as power figures themselves. It can be intimidating for a younger, more junior, or direct report to contribute their voice given that any repercussions will have a much greater impact on them and their career, which is not as well-established as someone who has been with the company for a long time.
Where employees are matters.
The hybrid workplace is here to stay, with one Gallup poll showing that 9 out of 10 employees desire some type of remote-work flexibility, including 6 out of 10 who specifically prefer hybrid working conditions. However, employers are still navigating what it means to actually run a workplace that balances remote and in person workers with inclusion in mind. One trap that managers can fall into, especially if they are more accustomed to working in person, is that of proximity bias.
Proximity bias describes a tendency to orient ourselves towards people and ideas that we engage with the most frequently. It’s closely related to affinity bias, where one is most inclined towards people who are similar to them. According to a recent survey, 42% of managers shared having low trust in, and sometimes forget to assign tasks, to remote workers. This is despite studies that estimate remote workers being on average about 30% more productive.
Our biases can impact who we turn to to complete work. When you feel concern about employee engagement, ask yourself if you are even giving your employees the chance to be engaged, especially if they are remote.
There is a difference between voice and silence (they both matter).
When we think of “contributing” at work, two similar but still distinct concepts emerge. Firstly, there is employee voice, or the extent to which an employee speaks up, adds their thoughts, and overall makes their ideas heard. Second, we have employee silence, the extent to which an employee simply does not contribute, even if they have something to say.
Interestingly, a 2021 study found that employee voice is perceived to be more impacted by levels of psychological safety than employee silence, which has a significantly stronger association with burnout.
What this shows is that employees who are less engaged at work may speak up less because they are in an environment of low psychological safety. They may also, however, speak up less because they are burnt out. As an employer, you must therefore care both about how safe your employee feels to contribute and actively express care for their wellbeing.
Building Up Contributor Safety for Stronger Employee Engagement
Employee engagement is much more complex than we recognize, particularly because its very definition is changing. In response, conditions must change. In a work environment where there is more concern for employee wellbeing, mental health, boundaries, communication, and authenticity to self, an organization must cultivate the conditions necessary for its people to thrive. When these are created, engagement will follow–one of only many positive effects psychologically safe work environments are proving to produce.
It can be frustrating as a leader to face an environment that you wish could be more engaged. Rather than jumping to biased conclusions about employees’ characters, though, consider doing a once-over of your company culture to see if contributor safety is best supported.
Remember that engagement is influenced by everything from personal identity and past experiences to work style and mental health.
Focus on supporting your employees at this level, with kindness, compassion, and vulnerability. Watch the voices flow in.