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Why Everything We Know About Employee Engagement Is Wrong

employee engagement team culture

It’s a given in our industry that if you want to boost performance and retention, all you need to do is improve employee engagement. What’s less clear, though, is the how.

Some experts say formal engagement programs are the way to go, while others recommend mixing up your perks and benefits offering. Most agree that if you start with better hires, ones aligned with your culture from the start, they’re easier to keep engaged and retain.

While these strategies all have their merits, they haven’t done much to improve employee engagement worldwide. In fact, a new report from the ADP Research Institute revealed that only 18% of employees are fully engaged, versus a whopping 84% who are “just coming to work.” 

So what can companies do to get employee engagement right? According to a new article from the Harvard Business Review — that breaks down the ADPRI study’s findings — the answer is actually pretty simple. Employers need to shift the focus to building better teams.

Here are the top four takeaways from the HBR article and why this is huge news for employers.

Takeaway #1: Don’t focus on culture or individuals, focus on teams

In an effort to isolate the single most important factor driving employee engagement worldwide, the ADPRI study ruled out a list of variables that could explain high engagement including age-related disillusionment, levels of education, work status, and more.

What they found across 19 countries and 19,000 respondents (consisting of 1,000 working adults from each country), was that the most consistent determinant was whether most of a person’s work was done on a team. In fact, those who did most of their work on teams were more than twice as likely to be highly engaged.

“Teams are not defined by who reports to whom in which department on an org chart. They emerge from a multitude of requests and acceptances, none of which HR sees, some of which are overlapping, many of which are ephemeral, and all of which are where people’s actual experience of work truly resides.” — Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, The Power of Hidden Teams, Harvard Business Review

Takeaway #2: Trust is the foundation of successful teams

The team may be the differentiator, but not all teams are equally engaging. So what makes for a successful team structure? After looking at the differences between great and mediocre teams, Buckingham and Goodall identified a list of five factors that separate the best from the rest.

Five key factors of engaging teams

  • They focus on trust. The biggest differentiator between high- and low-performing teams is trust in the team leader. While 17% of employees who are on a team are engaged, that jumps to 45% when employees are on a team and they trust their leader.
  • They are designed for human attention. The best teams are structured for consistent engagement between the leader and team members. That’s because great leaders understand the currency of engagement is real, human attention.
  • They learn together. Intentional group learning environments are created that work on real-world, real-time problems to help everyone learn together. Doing so is much more impactful than teaching abstract skills to one person at a time.
  • They put team experience above team location. The modern world makes remote work easier than ever. The key to keeping engagement high when spread out across different locations isn’t forced on-site appearances, but rather the people themselves.
  • They make all work feel more like gig work. Turns out gig work is more engaging than traditional work, with 18% of gig-only workers being fully engaged versus 15% of traditional workers. The takeaway? Employees should have more control over their work.

Takeaway #3: The best teams are weird, and that’s a good thing 

Strong teams are made up of individuals whose strengths and weaknesses are knitted together, forming a hyper-efficient whole. That’s the real secret of teams’ effectiveness — when a person can be supported to perform work they excel at without wasting time on work they don’t.

It takes a specific type of leader to recognize, nurture, and pair up employees with the right personalities. No wonder, then, that the HBR article dubs these successful team leaders “quirk capturers” and calls out the need for better ways of selecting, training, and rewarding them.

“And here, we finally see the core purpose of teams: They are the best method we humans have ever devised to make each person’s uniqueness useful. We know that the frequent use of strengths leads to high performance, and we know that strengths vary from person to person.” — Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, The Power of Hidden Teams, Harvard Business Review

Harness the potential of your company’s teams

Curious to learn more about engaging your employees through better-structured teams? Read The Power of Hidden Teams over at the Harvard Business Review today.

Want to learn more about how Lever can help you hire the amazing talent to drive those teams? Check out our eBook, How Lever Built the Salesforce for Recruiting.