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Building Stronger Relationships with Employees

Employee engagement—an employee’s attachment to his or her job, colleagues and organization—greatly influences how someone performs at work. Engaged employees act in ways that further the interests of their organizations. Engagement is different from job satisfaction or morale—and cultivating it can be a challenge.

Amid continued uncertain economic times in 2010, a survey conducted by APCO Worldwide and Gagen MacDonald found that U.S. employees are, nevertheless, optimistic about the direction of their companies. They also remain committed to their employers, even as they question how faithful their employers are to them. The study also identified a wide gap between the perceived performance of CEOs and immediate supervisors, with employees expressing far more confidence in the performance of and communication from middle managers. Collectively, the survey findings provide senior executives with a roadmap for how to capitalize on this employee goodwill to build greater employee engagement.

Employee Confidence
The Employee Confidence Index, which measures employee optimism about his or her company, stands at 81.4, down from 84.3 in 2009. This finding suggests employees hold a positive overall outlook, but the current index masks some turbulence among key employee groups:
  • Females (79.6) are now less confident in the direction of their companies than their male counterparts (83.4). There was a 10-point decline in confidence among females 18–44 years of age between 2009 and 2010.
  • Confidence remains lower among workers earning less than $50,000 a year and those with a high school education or less
  • The gains in confidence among employees in the western United States were offset by a significant decline among midwestern workers and continued anxiety among northeastern employees.

Employees credit senior executives supporting and living the company values, sharing their vision, and communicating both positive and negative news openly as reason for their confidence. Confident employees also have a positive two-way relationship with their immediate supervisor.

Employee Connection
Our Employee Connection Index measures an employee’s commitment to his or her company. This year’s index is 83.5, a decline from last year’s 86.7. This continues still to be a positive finding, however, as employees express high degrees of loyalty to their employers and a willingness to do what it takes to help the company succeed. Our research indicates that while executive communication and engagement play a role in determining an employee’s connection to their employer, it is also important for the employee to feel comfortable sharing information and ideas and to be receiving the information necessary to do his or her job.

The Employee Connection Index is fairly stable across the employee groups examined. However, the index for one group, employees with one to two years at their company, showed a 9-point decline from 2009, largely because they were less motivated to help the company succeed and felt less loyalty to the company. This is likely because they only know the company during turbulent times and may be craving more frequent and definitive communication from senior leaders that will permit them to more fully commit to the company.

Employer Connection and Commitment
The Employer Connection Index measures an employee’s perception of how committed their company is to her/him. Consistent with the 2009 results, the Employer Connection Index is significantly lower than the Employee Connection Index.

In 2010, the rating was 63.3, down from 65.9 a year ago. Significant declines in the Employer Connection Index were measured among 18–34 year olds, those with a high school education or less, newer employees, and midwestern workers. In 2010, college graduates were most likely to feel their company was committed to them.

Those who feel their company is committed to them say they hear frequently from senior management about what’s happening in the company and where it is headed. These employees also feel comfortable sharing information in their company and believe they have all the information necessary to do their job.

What Accounts for the Connection Gap?
The gap between the Employee Connection Index and Employer Connection Index is 20.2 points (83.5–63.3). Poor ratings on three elements help explain the gap:

  • The executive team in my company supports and lives our values.
  • My company’s executive team exemplifies authentic, open, and honest communication.
  • I receive consistent information from all of the leaders in my company.

In other words, the gap is as large as it is because senior leaders are not perceived as empathizing with employees and what they are going through, nor are they providing sufficient information for employees to filter the news they are receiving externally. While workers appear willing to overlook these deficits short-term, left unchecked, there is a real potential for continued softening in employee commitment and increased likelihood of employee defection.

Communication from Supervisors Trumps CEO Efforts
Employees rate the quality (51% said it was excellent) and frequency (56%) of the communication they received from their immediate supervisors; these ratings are significantly higher than the quality (42% excellent) and frequency (37%) of the communication they received from their CEOs.

Looking at what elements are important to employees and how well they believe the company performs on each one further illustrates how important it is to have strong middle managers in your organization. Their ability to mentor employees and provide clear direction is critically important. Moreover, it appears that managers who can do this imbue employees with the confidence in their ability to succeed in their position.

Advice for Senior Leaders
The survey results provide valuable insights senior leaders can use to improve their employee engagement, communication strategies, and management practices. There remains a reservoir of employee goodwill, but executives risk draining it if they do not capitalize on the opportunities in front of them.

Company leaders can better lead and engage by:

  • Living the company values: supporting and living the company values is a key driver in improving employee confidence and closing the employee/employer connection gap. Upper management should strive to maintain a company’s reputation and demonstrate high ethical standards.
  • Sharing the vision: employees who know where the company is going and how they can help get the company there are by nature more engaged with their company. Success in life and business is greatly determined by how clear individuals are about their goals and what they really want to achieve.
  • Being an information ambassador: authentic, open and honest communication seems to be missing for many employees. Senior management should acknowledge what’s happening—both positive and negative—in the company, and let employees know what they are doing to address issues.
  • Encouraging feedback: it is important for senior leaders to solicit feedback as well as communicate what is happening. People want to know that their input matters and that they contribute to the company’s success in a meaningful way. Strong leaders clarify their expectations about employees and provide feedback on their job performance.
  • Taking care of immediate supervisors: middle managers are perceived to be performing at a higher level than senior executives and appear to be the glue holding many organizations together. Employees value control over the flow and pace of their jobs and managers can create opportunities for employees to exercise this control.

About the Survey
These findings are based on a survey of 503 full-time U.S. employees conducted by telephone from October 1 to 8, 2010. APCO Insight®, APCO Worldwide independent opinion research division, designed the survey in consultation with Gagen MacDonald, a strategy execution firm dedicated to helping companies navigate change and drive business performance. The sample included individuals who are employed full time, have been employed at their company for at least one year and work at a company that has 100 or more employees. The sampling error for the survey is ± 4.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence interval.

About the Author(s)

Bill Dalbec is a senior vice president at APCO Insight, the opinion research unit of APCO Worldwide, in Washington, D.C. Contact: bdalbec@apcoworldwide.com.