Engaging your team to greater project performance

Juanita M. Woods

Florida Atlantic University, USA

High-performing project teams are the goal of organizations that staff and fund such teams to support achievement of organizational objectives. An effective project manager is an individual who can lead their project teams to high performance. Thus, it is important for project managers to develop skills that can be applied to managing their project teams. As will be discussed in this white paper, employee engagement is one mechanism that can foster greater project performance, and the project manager plays a pivotal role in fostering employee engagement.

Introduction

Employee engagement is a state of mind held by individuals, and is characterized by active involvement in work activities (vigor), commitment to project success and the team (dedication), and an ability to stay focused on work (absorption) (Costa, 2014). Human Resource practitioners have long understood the idea of work engagement, and engagement programs are increasing in the workplace. However, many of these “engagement programs” are not producing the desired results because an attitude of engagement cannot be trained into individuals; rather, engagement is internal to individuals (Matuson, 2015). In fact, less than one-third of workers surveyed in a recent Gallup poll felt engaged in their work (Adkins, 2015). To increase employee engagement, employees must want to be engaged, which means the state of mind held by individuals in the workplace or project team needs to be changed to an attitude of engagement. In this white paper, several mechanisms to foster highly engaged workers and team members will be offered after a brief discussion of engagement, what outcomes can be expected from engaged employees, and how employee engagement is influenced by work, team, and leader characteristics.

Increasing employee engagement should be a high priority for project managers and organizational leaders. Engagement is important in project teams because engagement has been shown to positively affect successful project performance. For instance, research has shown that engagement increases task performance, attitudes toward customers, and the level of efficacy (attitude about one's competence) held by a team (Torrente, Salanova, Llorens, & Schaufeli, 2012). Research has also suggested that engaged employees demonstrate higher levels of job satisfaction, greater organizational commitment, and a reduced intention to leave the organization (Saks, 2006). As project and team leaders, it is important to foster a working environment that creates conditions for these positive behavioral outcomes. When employees are engaged, the team is successful.

Engagement, Defined

There are several conceptualizations of engagement that focus on how much an individual is involved in their job and their workplace (Simpson, 2009). Personal engagement arises when individuals are emotionally, cognitively, and physically participating in their role at work (Kahn, 1990). Engagement at work is a state of mind expressed in specific behaviors that are influenced by an individual's personality and outlook on life (Macey & Schneider, 2008). Engagement was first articulated in the 1990s as an extension of job attachment theory to include the relationship between an individual's perception of themselves and their job (Kahn, 1990). More recent conceptualizations of engagement attempt to separate components of engagement into an individual psychological state, observable performance-related behaviors, a disposition, or a combination of these factors (Macey & Schneider, 2008), and to distinguish work engagement from the similar construct of burnout (Schaufeli, Martínez, Pinto, Salanova, & Bakker, 2002; Schaufeli, Taris, & van Rhenen, 2008). Engagement has been conceptualized as two distinct constructs, where work engagement is about the activity being performed in one's job and personal engagement focuses on the role held by an individual at work (Tims, Bakker, Derks, & van Rhenen, 2013).

Work engagement is a state of mind held by team members that includes thinking about the work and being absorbed in the work being done (Saks, 2006). Engagement in this context has been characterized by an individual's level of vigor, dedication, and absorption (Schaufeli et al., 2002). Vigor is the energy given to a task or job by an individual; dedication is the amount of enthusiasm and pride one has in a given job; and absorption is the ability to fully concentrate and focus on a given task or job (Schaufeli et al., 2002).

Engagement is a contrast to burnout (Maslach & Goldberg, 1998; Schaufeli et al., 2002). Burnout is a phenomenon at work where individuals are exhausted, cynical of their workplace, and ineffective at work (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). When individuals feel “burned out,” interpersonal conflict and stress develop, causing both job performance and personal health to be negatively affected. Exhaustion is represented by lack of energy, the opposite of vigor; cynicism negates dedication to one's work, and ineffectiveness does not allow an individual to become absorbed in their work. Schaufeli et al. (2008) suggest that burnout and engagement are distinct and opposite aspects of overall employee well-being at work, with exhaustion in contrast to vigor and cynicism in contrast to dedication. Thus, when a project manager or leader supports employee engagement, she is also decreasing the chances of employee burnout.

At the individual level, outcomes of job engagement include job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and engagement of extra-role behaviors toward the organization (Saks, 2006). Job satisfaction and commitment to an organization contribute to individual well-being, which subsequently influences future job engagement. Satisfied and committed employees are engaged employees (Macey & Schneider, 2008).

High levels of individual job engagement are also negatively associated with intentions to quit (Saks, 2006). When individuals are disengaged (i.e., experience the opposite of engagement), they experience low levels of meaning, safety, and commitment in their work (Kahn, 1990). When individuals do not feel commitment or meaning in their work, they begin to withdraw emotionally, cognitively, and eventually, physically from their job (Maslach & Goldberg, 1998).

Engagement has also been defined as a team-level construct (Costa, 2014; Fearon, McLaughlin, & Morris, 2013). At the team level, work-related well-being is shared among team members and develops over time with repeated interactions among team members (Costa, 2014). Team work engagement is built from a sense of collective efficacy, arising from a shared belief in the team's value to the organization and capability to perform effectively (Fearon et al., 2013). Team work engagement also influences individual work engagement (Tims et al., 2013), thus a manager who focuses on building team collective efficacy and engagement will also influence the work engagement of individual team members.

At the team level, high levels of team work engagement lead to high levels of team performance (Tims et al., 2013; Torrente et al., 2012). When teams held a high level of engagement (vigor, dedication, and absorption) in their work, this led to higher levels of both task-related and relationship-oriented performance (Torrente et al., 2012).

Fostering Individual and Team Work Engagement

Engagement can more appropriately be seen as a combination of psychological and motivational factors that take into account individual dispositions, workplace attributes, and leader behaviors directed toward the individual (Macey & Schneider, 2008) and is negatively correlated with job burnout (Schaufeli et al., 2002; Schaufeli et al., 2008). There are several phenomena that can influence individual engagement, with the primary being individual characteristics, work attributes, team characteristics, and leader behaviors (Costa, 2014; Macey & Schneider, 2008).

The Individual and Their Work

At the individual level, antecedents of engagement include individual characteristics, rewarding work relationships and psychological safety, alignment of organizational and personal values, and work and task attributes (Fearon et al., 2013). Individual characteristics that contribute to higher levels of work engagement include a proactive personality, conscientiousness, positive outlook, and a proactive search for challenging work (Macey & Schneider, 2008). Positive-oriented people show fewer tendencies for emotional exhaustion at work and leaving the organization (Thoresen, Kaplan, Barsky, Warren, & de Chermont, 2003). A person is engaged when they are conscientious about their work and look for opportunities to build capabilities that support their job and organization.

Rewarding work relationships are another condition leading to work engagement, and arise from social interaction among coworkers. Work teams are social units where individuals act interdependently toward the achievement of common goals (Cohen & Bailey, 1997). As such, team members develop relationships with other members of their team over time. Social resources develop, such as a supportive team climate, activity coordination and cooperation, and teamwork behaviors (Torrente et al., 2012). These resources contribute to a highly-functioning team by removing barriers to cooperation. Social support provided by the organization to the team is another key driver of team work engagement (Saks, 2006). Social support contributes to a feeling of psychological safety, which is another contributor of work engagement. Individuals who feel supported and safe will be more dedicated to their work and their team.

Similar to social support, building a common set of shared values among team members contributes to higher levels of individual and team work engagement. Shared (collective) work values leads to fulfillment of basic psychological needs in team members. Basic psychological needs include the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Individuals develop and grow as they work to satisfy these needs, and this movement toward autonomy, competence, and relatedness is a main driver of personal development. These basic needs are more easily satisfied in work environments focused on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic values. Team level shared work values have been shown to influence team member psychological needs satisfaction by encouraging individuals to embrace values that help them develop more fully (Schreurs, van Emmerik, Van den Broeck, & Guenter, 2014).

Work and task attributes have also been found to have a strong influence on employee engagement and commitment to work. Work attributes can include variety, challenge, and autonomy of the work (Macey & Schneider, 2008; Torrente et al., 2012). Job crafting is an important aspect of work that contributes to higher levels of work engagement and includes the individual or team's ability to acquire and use structural job resources (autonomy), develop social job resources (relatedness), increase challenging job demands (competence), and decrease job demands that hinder the team's performance (Tims et al., 2013).

The Team

Team processes and characteristics are another set of mechanisms that influence employee and team work engagement. Team characteristics that contribute to engaged work teams, and subsequent project success, include team social resources, team processes, and collective efficacy (Fearon et al., 2013; Torrente et al., 2012). Team social resources include those resources that contribute to the well-being of the team, including a positive team climate (Torrente et al., 2012) and relationship-focused team processes like cooperation and conflict management (Macey & Schneider, 2008; Rousseau, Aubé, & Savoie, 2006; Torrente et al., 2012).

Team social resources may influence team work engagement through emotional contagion and shared experiences (Torrente et al., 2012). Emotional contagion is a process that occurs in teams where team members influence one another consciously or unconsciously to feel or act in a consistent manner (Elfenbein, 2014). For example, a team climate of cooperation and positivity is likely to induce cooperative behaviors and displays of positive attitudes in team members. Shared experiences of past successes (or failures) are also likely to influence team members to be engaged (or disengaged) in subsequent team activities. This is likely due to higher levels of self and collective efficacy, which have been shown to contribute to higher levels of work engagement (Fearon et al., 2013). Collective efficacy is a generalized belief held by the group that they have the skills and competence to effectively perform and achieve organizational goals (Fearon et al., 2013). When teams feel confident and competent, they will be more engaged in project work.

Organizations should proactively foster team social resources and promote team-oriented policies to maximize performance of teams (Torrente et al., 2012). The organization in which the team is situated is responsible for providing job resources and opportunities for social interactions among members of the organization. This should lead to higher job engagement (involvement in the actual work to be performed) and higher organizational engagement (interaction with the organization) (Fearon et al., 2013).

The Team Leader

Leaders are the glue that bring all aspects of employee engagement together. Leaders can influence engagement by enacting specific leadership behaviors, by focusing on the work completed by individuals within the team, and by supporting a team climate conducive to workplace engagement.

Leader behaviors contribute to performance, and include behaviors focused on both tasks and team members. Task-focused behaviors (like rewarding for performance, reducing task and role ambiguity, and negotiating resources for the team) contributed to increased perceptions of team effectiveness (Burke et al., 2006). Person-focused behaviors (like inspiring and challenging team members, satisfying employee psychological and social needs, and allowing the team to have autonomy in team decisions) also contributed positively to team performance (Burke et al., 2006). Good team leaders should balance relation-oriented behaviors with task-oriented behaviors to maximize effective use of team resources (Torrente et al., 2012) that support higher levels of team engagement.

Leaders can also influence work attributes that support higher levels of work engagement. As discussed previously, job crafting is a way for leaders to adjust work characteristics for optimal performance. Team leaders should also allow team members to assist with job definition and decision-making where possible, and support balance of work and life obligations. The result is greater employee voice and more productive manager-employer interactions (Fearon et al., 2013).

To develop an engagement-supportive team climate, leaders can foster common work values in the team and reduce opportunities for burnout among individual team members. Team leaders should manage interpersonal problems proactively and in a caring manner to foster a supportive team climate (Torrente et al., 2012). Effective team leaders ensure proper channels of communication are available and used among team members, in order to reduce stress felt by team members (Torrente et al., 2012).

Strategies to Increase Engagement

Engagement at the team level can only exist if there is agreement among team members that the team is, on the whole, engaged in the team's work. Thus, in order to build team engagement, the project manager must foster engagement in the individual team members. Project managers can take steps to develop and maintain high levels of engagement by engaging in five key behaviors that will enable, inspire, motivate, and empower team members to take pride in their work.

1. Be a role model for work engagement.

Engaged leaders inspire followers to be engaged. Role modeling has been shown to be a crucial leader behavior to foster desired performance in individuals and teams (Cartwright & Holmes, 2006). When a leader is engaged in the work of the team, and shows high levels of energy, commitment, and focus, team members will also demonstrate higher levels of energy, commitment, and focus to the achievement of team goals.

2. Provide social and structural resources for the team.

It is the responsibility of the project leader to ensure that the team has all the resources necessary to complete their work. Required team resources include physical and intellectual materials and information to support completion of work tasks and goals, but required team resources also include social and emotional resources such as a space for socializing and developing relationships with other team members that contribute to a positive team climate. An effective leader not only removes obstacles to goal achievement, they create an environment of safety and security within which team members can feel comfortable and confident about working together to achieve team goals.

3. Provide challenging assignments to the team.

People who enjoy working on challenging assignments are more likely to be engaged in a workplace that offers challenging work. Thus, as a team leader, it is important to satisfy the need for challenging work by offering opportunities for skill development and capability strengthening. Allow team members the opportunity to try tasks that may be outside their current set of capabilities, as this will strengthen their commitment to the team and support the team's effectiveness. One way this can be done is by job sharing or team members coaching and mentoring one another.

4. Allow the team to share in the process of designing work and plans to achieve team goals.

As stated previously, job crafting is an important aspect of work that contributes to higher levels of work engagement and includes the individual or team's ability to acquire and use structural job resources (autonomy), develop social job resources, increase challenging job demands, and decrease job demands that hinder the team's performance (Tims et al., 2013). When team members can define how work is to be done and develop tools to complete that work, they are more invested and committed to the team and to the goals of the team, which leads to greater focus on high quality work production. Where it is possible, allow team members to define how work will be done and give them opportunities to develop tools and processes that can be used to complete the team's work.

5. Remove obstacles that are hindering team success.

Project and team leaders know that one key responsibility is to remove obstacles that are hindering team success. Obstacles can include unclear requirements from stakeholders, lack of support from the organization in which the team is embedded, and lack of resources to meet team goals. Project leaders can minimize the effects of these obstacles by managing and clarifying stakeholder expectations, representing and defending the team to the organization, and ensuring the team has the resources they need to effectively do their job. When external pressures are minimized, the team can more fully focus on the work to be done. When the team can more fully focus on their work, they are absorbed by and energized about their work, and thus, demonstrate higher levels of work engagement.

Conclusion

As discussed above, employee engagement is one mechanism that can foster greater project performance, and the project manager plays a pivotal role in fostering employee engagement. Higher levels of engagement lead, not only to greater project performance, but also higher levels of job satisfaction and lower levels of job burnout. Creating a tem environment that is challenging, supportive and fulfilling, where obstacles to success are minimized fosters engagement. When team members are energetic, dedicated, and absorbed in their work, they will be more effective team members and the team will be seen by project stakeholders and the organization as high-performing and successful.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2015, Juanita M. Woods
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA

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