Why a People-First Approach Can Boost Employee Engagement

June 5, 2023

How many wild stories of toxic work environments have you heard? Probably a lot considering as many as 1 in 10 employees at large U.S. employers experience their workplace as toxic, and more than 60 percent of negative workplace outcomes are due to toxic behavior. And we know that employee engagement is directly and negatively impacted by toxicity in the workplace.   

So, despite ongoing employee engagement efforts, why is it that toxicity is still pervasive across workplaces nationally?   

Why Employee Engagement Fails    

It’s quite a long list: lacking communication, poor listening skills, uninspiring incentive programs or no employee recognition at all, missing growth opportunities, lack of transparency, incohesive culture, misaligned mission and values, and lack of accountability. I could go on.   

You might be thinking we’re addressing all of this, and yet we’re not making progress! Or you’re thinking… wow, where do we even start?!   

Let’s narrow this down into one singular mindset adjustment that will impact everything you do across that long list of potential points of failure: adopting a people-first approach to business.   

What Is a People-First Approach?   

A people-first approach is rooted in the idea that organizations should put people over profits. This is a tough one for many considering the pressure we’re under to achieve key performance indicators (KPIs) and go above and beyond revenue goals. 

Some will say it’s too idealistic – that all organizations, even not-for-profit organizations, must focus on financials first and that we’re held accountable to our shareholders, boards, etc. Others might rightfully point out that even if the organization operates with a people-first approach, individuals can cause toxicity through workplace ostracism or even harassment and bullying.   

Check out this framework from "How Toxic Workplace Environment Effects the Employee Engagement: The Mediating Role of Organizational Support and Employee Well-Being." It shows the relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement. It shows how a toxic work environment has a direct and negative impact on employee engagement, and can be circumvented by employee well-being and organizational support to create positive employee engagement.  

See the relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement.

But when employees are heard, valued and supported by the organization and feel a sense of well-being, a toxic work environment is mediated, and employees are more engaged.   

What’s the Benefit of a People-First Approach?  

  • Higher levels of job satisfaction and engagement (The cost of low employee engagement is estimated to be around $450-500 billion each year.)  
  • Improved collaboration and productivity (Businesses lose an average of $11,000 per employee every year due to ineffective communication and collaboration.)  
  • Reduced turnover (U.S. businesses currently experience a cost of roughly $1 trillion in voluntary turnover.) 

As you can see, a people-first approach can seriously save some cash and help drive revenue goals.   

What Does It Mean to Have a People-First Approach?  

In short, it means that the tools, channels and tactics used for employee engagement are built to serve the people of the organization, not the organization itself.   

A great example is organizational values. We LOVE working with our clients to bring alive their company values. We have found working across different industries and company sizes that one of the biggest issues with organizational values is they often aren’t in alignment with employees’ day-to-day experiences or beliefs and actions. They are often developed only with organizational goals in mind and not based on the true employee experience.  

When values are developed with and by employees, and authenticity is at the forefront to ensure the values resonate, you’ll be on the right path to aligning your values with corporate behaviors that move the business forward.   

Organizational Values Resources From Brilliant Ink: 

What Can HR and Comms Leaders Do?  

Since employee engagement outcomes are driven by so many different touch points in the employee experience, it can be difficult to know where to start. So, let’s take a small step back.   

A people-first approach is all about prioritizing the employee experience and well-being. What’s one of the key indicators of employee well-being? Belonging.  

The Achiever’s Workplace Institute’s Belonging Model outlines five pillars that correlate positively with a stronger sense of belonging, and offer a straight-forward focus for HR and comms leaders:  

  1. Welcomed: Employees are introduced to and incorporated within the organizational culture and community.  
  2. Known: Employees are understood, motivated and celebrated as individuals.  
  3. Included: Employees are valued and accepted without reservation.  
  4. Supported: Employees are consistently and meaningfully nurtured and developed.  
  5. Connected: Employees are able to develop and maintain relationships across a diverse population.   

Do all of your employee engagement and well-being campaigns, programs and plans help employees feel more welcomed, known, included, supported and/or connected? If they don’t touch at least one of these pillars, it’s very unlikely they’ve been crafted with a people-first mindset.  

In Closing 

Of course, organizational needs are important. That said, there’s a fine balance between rightfully prioritizing revenue and prioritizing revenue at the expense of the people driving the organization.   

At their core, employee engagement efforts should start with respect for the individuals that drive your company. They should help employees find meaning in their work, and they should encourage personal growth and development. They should provide support directly to the people working in your organization, improving their sense of belonging and by extension their overall well-being.    

For more bite-sized brilliance, subscribe to our monthly employee engagement newsletter, the Inkwell, and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest

Lauren James

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