Employee Engagement No Longer a "Soft" Science: 3 Steps to Cultivate More Committed Employees

For many years, employee engagement, especially in healthcare, was considered a "soft" science — something leaders thought about only after addressing the "hard stuff" like volume and reimbursement. Leaders who buy into this mindset, however, fail to realize the impact employee engagement actually has on the hard stuff, says Quint Studer, founder of Studer Group — issues like patient safety, patient perception of care, and as a result, volume and financial performance.

Recent research is beginning to support this link, and is causing some leaders to reconsider their view on engagement. For example, the January 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review was devoted to employee engagement and satisfaction. The issue's cover had the phrase "The Value of Happiness," splashed across it, and a number of articles explored the return on investment that engaged employees provide for organizations.

"More engaged employees are better at improving processes; they really fix things rather than just working around problems," explains Mr. Studer. "Ultimately they provide better clinical outcomes and better perception of care."

But what drives employee engagement? And how can healthcare leaders improve it?

Research by Studer Group found a direct correlation between an employee's level of engagement and his or her relationship with his or her supervisor. The finding may seem like common sense, but many organizations don't elevate the importance of the employee-supervisor relationship to the appropriate level, says Mr. Studer.

It's true that facilitating strong employee-supervisor relationships can sometimes be challenging. Still, there are three steps that are sure to have an impact:

1. Select the right bosses. It's best to implement a careful selection process when promoting or hiring for positions that will supervise other employees. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen. "Many times in healthcare, an organization will promote people because they've always done a good job," explains Mr. Studer. "However, the skill set it takes to be a good employee or front-line clinician is very different from the skill set needed to be a good boss."

Mr. Studer encourages hospitals to assess potential leaders on a variety of skills before putting them in a supervisory role. A formal assessment tests such characteristics as the ability to take feedback, critical thinking skills and maturity, among other areas.

"Promoting someone to a supervisory role impacts a lot of people," he says. “The cost of testing is a small price to pay when you consider what can happen when you hire without making this investment. At Studer, we believe in a lot of testing — it's just too important to make sure leaders are a good fit."

2. Know your organization's strengths and weaknesses. After the organization has made an effort to ensure it has the right supervisors in place, it should assess engagement across the organization and identify areas of strength and weakness through diagnostic tools, recommends Mr. Studer. Formal, annual employee satisfaction surveys are the foundation of this process, but informal efforts to gain this type of information should also take place throughout the year.

Let's say, for example, that a survey uncovers that employees don't understand how their roles fits within the "bigger picture" for the organization — its goals, vision, strategy, and so forth. Leaders will then know they must train managers to have these sorts of conversations with front-line workers. Even just sitting down one-on-one with an employee to connect his or her role back to the organization's goals could be enough to impact engagement, says Mr. Studer.  

"You have to know what you have before you can know what you need to improve," he adds. "If you don't assess, you don't know. If you don't know, you can't fix it. If you don't fix it, you won't have full engagement."

3. Invest in development. Finally, Mr. Studer says hospitals and other healthcare organizations must be willing to invest in the skill set of their supervisors. Too many are not — especially in tough economic times.

"As money gets tighter, one of the first things we tend to cut is training and development," he says. "Yet, training is a critical commitment. To employees, having an organization that is willing to invest in their skill sets is one of the most important elements of employee engagement after his or her relationship with the boss."

"Plus, when organizations are being held more and more accountable for issues of quality, safety and patient perception of care, great leadership matters more than ever," he adds. "Great leadership — engaging leadership — requires training. It's just that simple."

The keys to engaging employees aren't all that mysterious, says Mr. Studer. It comes down to hiring good people and training them well.

"When a leader's main job is to develop their staff, a lot of other good things happen," says Mr. Studer.

More Articles Featuring Quint Studer:

The Seasoned Employee Skill Set: 10 Things Experienced Employees Know That Make Life So Much Better
Assessing Leadership in the New Era of Healthcare Delivery: 5 Key Questions to Ask
Quint Studer: Mastering the Fine Art of Follow-Up

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