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We all know that high levels of employee engagement will lead to better productivity, improved retention of top talent and better business results.

So, what drives employee engagement?

There’s a plethora of research out there to answer that question but one of the more amusing responses I heard from a dear colleague was “reward them until their eyes water.” He said that in 2007 just before the US sub-prime mortgage market started to wobble. Since then, many Australian employees have experienced zero and maybe even negative real wage growth. So, the financial reward lever is not only less effective than ever but it was only ever one piece of the puzzle. The tactics employed by organisations to lift engagement have been extensive ranging from improved people management practices to lavish office fit outs and games rooms, workplace wellness centres, “town hall” meetings, award ceremonies and right through to the good old office Christmas party.

Those tactics should not be disparaged for they all have the potential to make people feel  valued.

The other key trait that is obvious and not always explicitly nurtured is that most people come to work to create value. In other words, they not only want to work for a decent organisation and leader, but they also want to do a good job in contributing to the overall company or organisational strategy. In the case of a company, that usually means delivering a great product or service to customers in an ethical manner and making a profit.

The trouble is, according to a Harvard Business Review article  “on average, 95 percent of a company’s employees are unaware of, or do not understand, its strategy.” Not only that, my observation of large companies is that over half the people don’t understand how their employer makes money and what drivers lie behind that process. This means they find it hard to connect their job to the company purpose and strategy and are less engaged than they could be.  They are confused by the constant stream of PowerPoint presentations by senior leaders and switch off when the financial results go up on screen. People make like their environment, their leader and their colleagues and customers but they really don’t understand the bigger picture of the business.

So, we might be missing the obvious when it comes to employee engagement and it boils down to this. To help people create value and become more engaged in their work, leaders need to equip their people with business acumen – an understanding of how the company makes money and the decisions and drivers inherent to the money making process.

Business acumen helps people identify the impact that a role or project will have on the company, their team, and career. Consequently, that role or project will become much more meaningful than just busy work. And they’ll approach the task with much more enthusiasm.

Most people genuinely want to have a lasting impact on the business, they just don’t know how. Companies that figure out how to bridge this gap not only will have a workforce that knows how to impact the bottom line, but also will be more engaged in the long run.

This article was written by Stuart Findlay, specialist consultant for the Building Business Acumen program with Lighthouse. In recent years, Stuart has developed a passion for the development and implementation of practical, relevant and commercially effective professional development programs. At Lighthouse, we make change possible by making leadership practical. Please contact us on 1300 244 373 if you would like to talk about lifting employee engagement in your organisation. 

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