Fight the Engagement Slump with Learning Opportunities

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Principal Science and Innovation AdvisorEmployee EngagementLeave a Comment

Fight the Engagement Slump with Learning Opportunities

Have you ever wondered why the newest employees are often the ones with the highest engagement? Engagement can be impacted by many factors, but one critical component is employee tenure. Newmeasures’ benchmark data, along with the patterns we have seen across thousands of organizations, demonstrates that the relationship between employee tenure and engagement follows a U-shaped curve. As seen in Figure 1 below, those who are newest to the organization (<1 year) tend to be the most engaged. After the first year, engagement drops and is lowest between 3-5 years, after which it turns up again and starts to become more positive over time.

Figure 1: Newmeasures 2017 Benchmark Data: Employee Engagement by Tenure

In light of this pattern, Newmeasures has worked with many organizations to slow the rate at which engagement declines after the first year through methods such as targeted check-ins on an employee’s anniversary to discuss what’s going well, where they need additional support, and how to support development goals.

Perhaps an even more interesting question to ask is: “Why is engagement lowest for those with 3-5 years of tenure?” Given that employees in this group are up to speed in their roles and should be peaking in terms of their contribution, how can we elevate engagement levels for those who are “stuck” at the bottom of the engagement curve? A new book by Whitney Johnson, “Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead them Up the Learning Curve,” helps to explain a possible reason for low levels of engagement with mid-tenured employees. (Check out her HBR Idea Cast to hear her speak on this topic first hand.) Whitney explains that employees go through an S-shaped learning curve when starting a new job. As she describes, those who are new to the organization (< 6 months) are at the bottom of the S and may feel discouraged or overwhelmed as they get up to speed in a new position. After the first year, employees begin to feel more competent and work becomes more fun and interesting. Employees in this group know enough to be effective but are still enjoying the positive effects of continuous learning and growth through their day-to-day tasks and interactions.

Around 3-5 years (depending on the job and the number of stretch assignments), employees reach their performance peak. At the top of the S, these employees are masters in their roles, tasks become relatively easy, and the feel-good effects of learning and growth dissipate. During this phase, employees are at the bottom of the engagement U-curve and can feel bored and anxious to move on to more challenging work. As Whitney describes, this is the time for employees to disrupt themselves: to move on to something new and unfamiliar—to start over at the bottom of the learning curve. This is often when we see employees move on to a stretch assignment, new position or leave the organization.

Research by Daniel Pink in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” helps explain one possible reason why engagement may suffer during the 3-5 year tenure period when employees are at the top of their game. Pink describes three aspects that are critical to human motivation, one of them being mastery: A desire to continuously perfect our skills—to make progress toward reaching our full potential. In other words, when we feel like we are on a path of learning and growth that allows us to make our biggest contribution, we are more likely to feel engaged.

Newmeasures’ research supports this finding as well. In a 2017 review of the top drivers of employee engagement from over 100 organizations, employees were most likely to feel engaged when they understood how to accomplish their career goals within the organization and felt they had been given meaningful opportunities to develop their professional skills (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Newmeasures’ Top Drivers of Employee Engagement 2017 

Because of the importance of this topic, Newmeasures asked over 7,000 employees what they most wanted in order to support their personal development and career growth. As can be seen in Figure 3, employees overwhelmingly indicate that they are interested in understanding how to take the next step in their careers and training that will help them develop new skills.

Figure 3: Best Ways to Support Employee Desires for Career Development

So what can leaders do when they have employees with 3-5 years of tenure who appear to be at the top of the learning curve? Of course, the obvious answer is to look for a stretch assignment or new role within the team. However, with small teams or certain kinds of roles, that’s not always possible. Whitney reminds managers that talent belongs to the organization, not the team. From that perspective, the leader is encouraged to help the individual find a new role within the organization. (Remember, they are likely to leave anyway!) She acknowledges this is often difficult because managers don’t want to lose their best people. However, she encourages leaders to see the bigger picture: When managers are viewed as being advocates for the development of their employees, they become talent magnets. In other words, people want to work for leaders when they have a reputation for helping further the careers of their employees.

Whitney lines out several steps managers can take in speaking with employees who are at the top of the learning curve. She suggests starting by letting the employee know that in the next 6-9 months, the leader will help the individual move to a new learning opportunity. In the meantime, set the expectation for what is needed from the employee:

  1. Set the pace for the team—continue to make a full contribution (no slacking!)
  2. Train your successor to pass on institutional knowledge and ensure a smooth transition
  3. Facilitate teamwork and collaboration for the team

Whitney also emphasizes the importance of recognizing the accomplishments of someone at the top of the curve by calling out what the team was able to accomplish due to her/his contributions.

A key factor of motivating employees and keeping them engaged is to ensure they see how their job contributes to helping them fulfill their potential. By being mindful of where employees are in their learning curve, leaders can be proactive about keeping engagement levels strong and building a pipeline of talent.

What strategies do you use to ensure employees continuously have opportunity to learn and grow?