Enabled Employees Are Happier Employees

By: Mark Royal and Tom Agnew

Without the right resources and a supportive organizational structure, even your most motivated employees can become frustrated. Don't squander their energy and commitment. Draw engagement and enablement together and watch your staff take your association to new heights. (Titled "Help Your Employees Step Up" in the print edition.)

Whether you run a nonprofit or for-profit organization, leaders and managers are looking for staff who work hard and are highly engaged. They also are looking to motivate employees into optimal levels of performance. But what if you knew that many of your high-potential employees are also frustrated employees?

Our new research, done as part of our work with the HR firm Hay Group and discussed in our book The Enemy of Engagement, shows that individuals who are highly engaged but face barriers at work that prevent them from doing their jobs effectively represent 20 percent or more of the workforce. In other words, frustration is a silent epidemic that saps organizations of their best employees, who are engaged and motivated but are prevented from doing their jobs by a nonsupportive organizational structure.

Making employee engagement more difficult is the recession that led not only to downsizing but also to a place where staff who were still around were required to do more with less. Many organizations are now at a point where they can't ask their employees to push much more; instead, they must focus on how to make them more effective and efficient. While engagement is required for a productive and profitable workplace, it is just the first step. Managers must also allow them to do their jobs to the best of their ability and with the resources they need to make it happen. Otherwise, organizations will suffer one or more of these consequences: less revenue, great employee turnover, and dwindling customer service.

Where Engagement Begins and Ends

Researchers have long recognized that organizations couldn't function through purely contractual relationships with employees. Simple adherence to minimal role requirements is likely to have dysfunctional consequences. In our view, "engagement" has captured the attention of managers insofar as it raises the notion of cooperation to a higher level. While cooperation is required, and to some extent, expected of all employees, engagement involves performing above and beyond what's expected.

Though frameworks for understanding engagement vary, the concept is commonly understood to capture levels of employee commitment and discretionary effort. Engaged employees can be expected to display high levels of attachment to an organization and a strong desire to remain a part of it. Consequently, engaged employees are more likely to be willing to go above and beyond the formal requirements of the job, contribute organizational citizenship behaviors, pour extra effort into their work, and deliver superior performance. However, engagement alone is not enough.

Our research suggests that while engaging employees is important, it is not sufficient to sustaining maximum levels of performance over time. To get the most from employees, leaders must also ensure that organizational systems and work environments support personal and organizational effectiveness.

With proper organizational systems and resources, an employee will be enabled. Employee enablement refers to the ability of individuals and teams that are already engaged to make maximum contributions. Enablement has two key components:

1. Optimized roles. Employees are effectively aligned with their positions, such that their skills and abilities are effectively put to good use.

2. Supportive environment. Work arrangements are structured to facilitate, rather than hinder, individual productivity. Employees have the essential resources required to get the job done.

While this may seem simple, our research confirms that employee engagement and employee enablement do not always go hand in hand. As we have seen in many of today's organizations, employees are highly committed to goals and objectives and are sincere in their desire to do the best job possible. Yet, they are confronted with significant barriers to executing their job responsibilities efficiently and with high quality. To the extent that their employees are presented with this frustration, organizations fail to harness the potential energy represented by employees who are engaged in their work.

Engagement + Enablement = Success

When organizations look at engagement and enablement together, their employees will tend to fall into four groups. (See chart.) In most organizations, we can identify a group of employees who are both highly engaged and well enabled for success. In these instances, where motivation to contribute is matched with the ability to be successful, employees are likely to be high performers (the box labeled "effective"). Unfortunately, we also regularly find a set of employees lacking on both dimensions. Where both engagement and enablement are missing, employees are understandably likely to struggle in their job roles (the box labeled "ineffective").

Employee Engagement

Equally interesting, however, are the remaining employees. In most organizations, we find a sizable percentage of the population that falls into the "detached" group. These employees are in roles that suit them reasonably well, and they find themselves in work environments that are generally supportive, but for various reasons, their levels of engagement with organizational objectives and task requirements are insufficient to make them optimally effective.

The real power of our framework comes in calling attention to the "frustrated" employees. Based on our research, we believe that many organizations employ a significant number of people who are aligned with the direction of the organization and enthusiastic about making a difference but are nonetheless held back by roles that do not suit them or work environments that get in their way. These employees represent a lost opportunity for organizations. From a motivational perspective, organizational leaders have these employees where they want them. But when it comes to getting the most from them in terms of productivity, employers have yet to leverage their full potential. In fact, a lack of enablement for the employee who is engaged may be a bigger problem than the lack of engagement for the enabled employee.

Our research shows just how critical employee engagement can be to an organization's success when combined with appropriate levels of employee enablement:

  • Companies in the top quartile on engagement demonstrated revenue growth 2.5 times that of organizations in the bottom quartile. But companies in the top quartile on both engagement and enablement achieved revenue growth 4.5 times greater.
  • Companies in the top quartile on both engagement and enablement also exceeded industry averages by 40 percent to 60 percent on five-year return on assets, return on investment, and return on equity.
  • Companies that both engage and enable employees showed turnover rates 54 percent lower than companies with low levels of engagement and enablement.
  • Our research linking employee survey data to performance ratings shows that highly engaged and enabled employees are 50 percent more likely to outperform expectations.

The bottom line: Highly engaged and enabled workers create dramatically better business outputs, more loyal customers, and better financial performance during good times and bad.

What's an Organization to Do?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that by 1999 nearly 30 percent of all managers and professionals were working 49 or more hours per week. Couple that trend with the prevalence of two-career families, and you have a recipe for work-life balance concerns. Complicating matters further, employees' work schedules are becoming increasingly erratic. And even for those working more traditional hours, operating in a global economy and high-technology society often means extending the workday to accommodate clients and colleagues several time zones apart. How are organizations responding to increased work-life balance concerns?

Typical approaches have been tactical, seeking to provide employees with more flexibility in where and when they work. Organizations have emphasized telecommuting options, flexible work schedules, compressed workweeks, onsite daycare, and other similar benefits. While these are certainly helpful, we believe that they fail to address the fundamental problem: Professional and personal demands simply leave today's maxed-out workers with too much to do and too little time to do it.

Given that time available for work is finite and work demands are unlikely to decrease anytime soon, long-term solutions to work-life balance issues also need to focus on helping employees work more productively. By providing strong employee enablement in the work environment, organizations can help employees accomplish work tasks as efficiently as possible, leaving more time to attend to personal responsibilities.

To explore the relationships between employee enablement and work-life balance, we examined Hay Group employee opinion data. The results suggest that organizations need to focus on more than just flexible work schedules and telecommuting programs. The organizations that are judged by employees to be most sensitive to their personal lives effectively manage a broader set of workplace dynamics, including the following:

  • Provide clear direction regarding organizational priorities to help employees focus on the highest-value tasks.
  • Implement policies and practices consistently to ensure that workloads are fairly and equitably distributed.
  • Emphasize high levels of teamwork within and across organizational units to provide employees with access to support from coworkers.
  • Support training, development, and empowerment opportunities to ensure that employees at all levels have the skills and decision-making authority to get the job done.
  • Provide adequate resources to enable employees to execute work tasks efficiently and with high quality.

These suggest that many of the factors that are associated with a more effective and enabled workforce also lead to work environments where employees are more positive about stress and work-life balance issues. By permitting employees to complete the most vital tasks as efficiently as possible, organizations with supportive environments limit the extent to which work tasks crowd out personal time. At the same time, even when workloads are heavy, employees are likely to feel far better about staying late or coming in early if they are working on tasks with a clear and compelling purpose, provided with adequate resources and support from colleagues, and given the authority necessary to make decisions about how best to accomplish their objectives.

Enablement is key not only to generating high levels of organizational performance but also to sustaining it. An organization may be able to succeed by the force of will of motivated employees in the short term, but over the long haul adequate support is necessary to avoid burnout. Positioning employees to succeed is also critical to retaining them over the long term. Call it "enablement," call it "support for success," or call it "doing the job of a manager properly." The key is helping teams to channel their energy into organizational goals, so that it doesn't fade away.

Mark Royal and Tom Agnew are authors of The Enemy of Engagement and leaders in Hay Group's employee research division. Emails: [email protected], [email protected]

Reprinted from The Enemy of Engagement: Put an End to Workplace Frustration—and Get the Most from Your Employees by Mark Royal and Tom Agnew. © 2012 Hay Group, Inc. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. www.amacombooks.org.