Warren Bennis in his classic book, Why Leaders Can’t Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues, discussed the forces that impact leaders and diminished their ability to lead. Bennis knew that the...
Tried employee engagement and it did not work? Held company picnics, college sweatshirt and employee appreciation days and not getting a long-term impact to the bottom line? Then maybe you are doing employee engagement all wrong.
Engagement is all the rage in businesses today. Consultants and thought leadership gurus are on the bandwagon about how important employee engagement is. To a great extent, they are right. Employee engagement is one of the most important characteristics a company can build into its culture. Yet, despite all the talk and all the emphasis, employee engagement is largely misunderstood and misapplied. It is become a tent under which all the leadership charlatans have tried to sell their wares. This distorted view of engagement waters down and minimizes the true impact of engagement.
What do we need to understand about employee engagement?
1. Engagement is a partnership.
While it might be obvious, it needs to be stated: engagement is a partnership between two parties. Engagement cannot occur or produce value unless both leadership and employees participate.
Genuine partnerships require a proper attitude and outlook from both parties. It requires the mutual willingness to fulfill appropriate responsibilities without attempting to dominate the other. Partnerships require both parties to view each other as equals, treat each other with respect, consider each other’s needs, and support one another. (Something that I not happening today!) The proper attitude of both leadership and employees is essential if there is to be a fertile environment in which genuine engagement can develop.
Much like a marriage partnership, both parties must significantly contribute to the end result. The contributions are of different types but they must be aligned to a common goal if engagement is to be successful.
Many thought leaders assert that employee engagement does not occur because one or both parties will not try. They see small numbers willing to engage in a partnership to achieve high value. For example, “Gallup indicates that in the year 2012 the engagement level of both professional workers and clerical and office workers was only 30%. Service workers and government workers were just slightly lower at 29%. Managers, executives and officials in these firms had an engagement level of 36%.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/joefolkman/2014/03/06/seventy-percent-of-workers-not-engaged-what-about-the-managers/#72896c6b4b7a
Whether or not one agrees with Gallup’s findings on the percentages of engagement in the work force (and they are debatable), it is clear that more engagement at both leadership and employee levels would create better results.
Leadership lesson: If engagement is to work, both leaders and employees must be actively and willingly involved. Both parties must have an attitude of mutual respect and support and both must appreciate the contributions of the other.
2. Engagement occurs at the intersection of direction, excellence, meaning and commitment.
If employees and leadership must be involved for engagement to work, what do they contribute? What is the recipe for successful engagement?
There are four areas that form the intersection where engagement occurs. Again both partners must participate in each of the four areas, albeit somewhat differently.
Leadership provides direction by “blessing” the opportunity areas where engagement is to occur. These “engagement opportunities” may be identified by employees or managers but in either case, leadership’s approval to work on a given issue or opportunity is critical for success. Furthermore leadership defines what success looks like, what the desired specifications to be achieved are. Again this can be done after significant input from either employees or experts. In either case, leadership’s defining the end result is critical to structure the engagement effort. This legitimizes employees’ efforts to work on the issue with confidence and creativity that their ideas will be considered because they are focused in the right direction.
Employees contribute to the direction by identifying potential areas of improvement and by embracing and enhancing the end results to be achieved.
Excellence means that engagement is not done as a required exercise or for every low value activity that occurs in an organization. Engagement is too valuable and too costly to be wasted on low value areas. Excellence means the effort is worth doing and that the results will produce high value results. This means that from time to time a leader must be willing to say “no” to an area that is not worthy of additional analysis or thought.
Leadership contributes excellence in two ways. First they select (bless) areas to work on that matter to the organization, to customers and to employees. Second they challenge their staff to contribute tope quality innovative solutions by describing challenging (high-value) expectations of what the end result should “look like”. This allows employees to begin with the end in mind. Leadership excellence is focused on the “what” is done and the “why” (expectations) it is being done
Employees contribute excellence individually or in teams by developing creative and innovative solutions that meet and exceed the quality expectations defined by leadership. Employee excellence is focused on “how” the work is done. It focuses on developing a specific alternative that will achieve the desired goals. This addresses a key interest of employees since 64% of employees surveyed by The Economist magazine said “achieving excellence” was the top aspiration in their careers.
Commitment is the willingness to get involved and contribute. This requires putting “skin in the game” so that true engagement happens.
Leadership commits to engagement by providing the opportunities and blessing for employees to work on significant areas. Leaders commit through being willing to consider employee ideas on how to achieve desired results. Leadership commits by giving employees the data, time, authority and opportunity to work on high value areas.
Employees commit by providing their best thinking and creativity to the defined areas. They commit by challenging themselves to bring their ideas to the table but also to abandon those ideas in light of more excellent alternatives.
Meaning is important. More and more employees and leadership look to businesses to provide meaningful work. 82% of employees surveyed by The Economist magazine indicated that they were concerns with finding either meaning or purpose in their careers. Thus true engagement provides significant motivational value.
Leadership provides meaning in the engagement process by selecting important areas for focus and by explaining why the areas selected are critical and important.
Employees contribute meaning to their work by producing top quality recommendations or alternatives to be considered.
Leadership Lesson: As one can tell by the description of each of the four areas above, these four dimensions do not stand-alone but overlap and bleed into each other. Each area requires partnership between leadership and employees if success is to occur. Enthusiasm and passion result when people get excited about committing to high value projects that will make a difference. 51% of employees polled by The Economist magazine said that passion was the top aspiration in their careers. Thus true engagement produces a long-term excitement that causes people to want to contribute on a deeper and more frequent basis.
3. The critical engagement skill is decision making
Part of the reason for the lack of engagement is attitude, an area that gets focused on by Gallup and others. Sometimes engagement does not occur because employees are not “invited” to participate. The largest reason for the lack of engagement is a lack of skill.
Leaders that simply sit back and allow employees to do what ever they want are not preparing staff to appropriately engage. In fact they create higher frustration for themselves and staff. Employees need skills to engage with issues or others. Employees struggle with being able to work cooperatively with others and having their voices heard. They become frustrated that the loudest or more powerful participants get their way rather than looking for optimal solutions.
Engagement requires a systematic decision making process that allows all participants to be heard and have their ideas evaluated. It requires a process that allows teams of collaborators to select optimal solutions rather than politically correct or organizationally endorsed solutions. It requires a process that makes the individual or team’s thinking visible so the leader can truly understand their thought process. It allows the leader to coach where that thinking is not complete. Finally it requires a systematic decision making process that allows leadership to define what success looks like and to evaluate alternatives to either coach if the alternative is not satisfactory or to praise and recognize if it is.
Perhaps the most important and significant step leadership can take in creating a culture of engagement is to implement a systematic decision making process. It is the single most important activity a leader who wants to create genuine engagement can take.
(A testimonial:this is a process that I use with clients to bring together employees from across the organization and engage them in analyzing and making a recommendation focused around a critical performance area. Organizations that adopt this type of process as a part of their organization culture and use it religiously experience high returns in both quantity and quality of work and in the amount of engagement experiences by the organization).
4. In true engagement everybody wins.
Engagement is not an end in itself. It is not money spent to make employees happy without any return to the organization. Engagement must produce results if it is to be worth the effort (and it does take time and effort!).
Leadership and employees alike expect high value results to be produced through the process of engagement. If the old adage, “two heads are better than one” is true, then it is legitimate to expect that the recommendations of the engaged individual or team will produce superior results. In addition to better and higher quality solutions coming from engagement there is an additional benefit. Commitment grows in engaged individuals around solutions they developed. Therefore the commitment of staff to implement and make work the proposed solution is a major benefit in creating the desired changes.
There is a second result of true engagement. Employees feel satisfaction in that they see the recommendations they made contribute in significant ways to the success and betterment of the organization in which they work. Leadership receives satisfaction in the involvement and development of people, the development of superior solutions, and staff’s willingness to implement those changes. Most importantly, leaders experience the result of genuine leadership as they involve staff in producing desired results.
When both leaders and employees experience those kinds of results, engagement will not be a fad that quickly passes into oblivion. Rather it becomes an essential part of the organizational culture. This makes the organization a much better place to work than when company picnics and college sweatshirt days are held to make people happy.
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