The Challenge of Employee Engagement: Ready, Set, Engage?


Samin Saadat
Executive Director

What is REALLY challenging about employee engagement? Why is it so difficult?

Your organization is investing so much time and money to stay competitive and to take care of their employees at this fast paced world. As HR professionals and managers, you spend an enormous amount of time and money on employee training and growth, but you are not getting an acceptable return on your investment. Intrinsically, you understand that highly-engaged employees are the ones who have the best claim on the opportunities to grow, to develop and, as a result, to contribute to the success of your organization.

So why is employee engagement still a dilemma for most companies?

  1. The effect of individual personality on engagement.

    First of all, employee engagement is more complicated than measuring performance and satisfaction. In reality, engagement is not only driven by organizational conditions; it is also the result of individual characteristics and personality. As a result, we need to have a more balanced view of employee engagement and a focus on not just creating the right organizational conditions, but also by having the right personalities within the organization.

    Research suggests that some of the “big five” personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism) made significant independent contributions to engagement in addition to certain environmental conditions.

    Engagement is expected to be primarily associated with three of the big five: emotional stability (reverse-scored neuroticism), extraversion and conscientiousness (Langelaan et al. (2006) &, in view of its motivated nature and findings by Kim et al., 2009). However, it is important to note that this finding does not imply only people with these characteristics are engaged, but suggests that when you consider “personality-environment fit” in your hiring process, the impact of organizational conditions to increase engagement could be significantly constrained by personality effects.

    Therefore, besides improving the organizational condition, typical engagement can be increased through personnel selection procedures that focus on the identification of personality traits that are viable to engagement at your organization. In addition, information about personality traits can be valuable in succession planning and professional development, through person-focused task assignment and the setting of targets that build on specific individuals’ strengths and energies.

  2. Motivating factors are intrinsically individual.

    Secondly, we don’t know what really motivates an employee until we dig deeper. Motivating factors are very intrinsic and individualized. In most cases, the employee’s mindset or limiting thoughts are the biggest obstacles to motivation. For example, research suggests that thinking positively during a performance will help people to achieve “flow“ state and immerse themselves in the performance task, whereas pessimistic thoughts and negative mental ruminations will often lead to undesirable counterproductive emotions, increased anxiety and ultimately poor performance (Zinsser, Bunker, & Williams, 2006).

    For instance, a senior manager who is able to keep their attention focused on positive aspects of their performance — even after unconsciously revealing confidential information that he or she was not supposed to share during a critical business meeting — will have a greater chance of turning a negative situation into a positive one (rather than allowing negative thoughts to consume attentional capacity).

    Individuals will engage in a task if they perceive the task as intrinsically attractive, meaningful, and challenging (Harackiewicz, Barron, Tauer, Carter, & Elliot, 2000). For instance, a business development manager who believes in the value of cold-calling and its usefulness as a prospecting activity to generate new clients will engage in cold-calling and will go above and beyond to achieve the desired outcome.

  3. There is a gap in training programs.

    Lastly, there are a lot of resources and training available to leaders and employees, but the learning still has not led to better organizational performance. In other words, there is a mismatch between employee engagements as it exists and what leaders and employees actually need. The type of training selected should be dependent upon ALL the factors, such as technical skills, as well as psychological skills and soft skills necessary for “peak performance.”

    For example, when an HR professional needs to conduct a termination discussion with an employee, often the HR professional’s attention may drift to the outcome of the discussion (i.e., termination) rather than focusing on the process of conducting the difficult conversation and explaining the rationale for the termination. In this example, the HR professional can achieve peak performance if he or she learns how to achieve greater awareness of the present aspects of a performance task by making cognitive, emotional, or physiological adjustments.

    Psychological skills, such as “activation management, cognitive restructuring, imagery, goal setting, attentional control, routines and rituals” (Hays & Brown, 2004; Ievleva & Terry, 2008), should all be integrated into training programs based on the nature of the performance task — with specific business objectives in order to achieve peak performance.

Let’s Pause and Rethink Engagement

It’s is time to rethink and take a different approach towards employee engagement.

Despite the large amount of investment on in training and growth programs, why has the needle of employee engagement not moved? Do we invest our resources in the right areas or are we doing the same wrong thing over and over again?

Fortunately, and contrary to what the majority may think, employee engagement is not HR’s responsibility alone. We need to promote have a balanced, 50/50 view on responsibility between employees and employers, taking pressure off HR to rise to its fullest potential. HR has the power to take the initiative to facilitate a new approach towards engagement; as per the above, this involves retraining ourselves on training — with the addition of personality tests in the recruitment process, taking the pulse of people regularly and emphasizing psychological skills in training programs. With a tech-driven workforce being increasingly comprised of Millennials, this is a great avenue and opportunity to make the necessary changes to create a workplace that truly speaks their language — one in which everyone can be engaged, productive and proud of where they work.

Human’s brains, behaviour and interactions with their environment never fail to impress Samin Saadat. After spending long hours in psychology labs at UBC and completing her Masters at Sauder School of Business, she entered the workforce and observed a gap between what research suggests and what companies actually do to increase productivity and profitability. Now, Samin is on a mission to bridge this gap through Jalapeño Employee Engagement by leveraging technology to bring research findings into live — to help companies save millions of dollars and to enhance the quality of life of individuals.