How to “Do” Employee Engagement – Not Just Talk About It!
The following article was written by our good friend and professional colleague, Halley Bock, CEO of Fierce Inc. Fierce is a world class leadership training and development company headquartered in Pioneer Square, Seattle, Washington, but with clients working with Fierce leadership concepts all over the globe.
This particular piece appeared in a recent Fierce newsletter, but was originally posted on TrainingMagazine.com. We thought our readers and other friends of PSN would benefit from reading about simple, hands on ways to engage employees in meaningful ways.
Thanks to Gallup’s annual State of the American Workplace survey, we know that employee engagement statistics continue to fall short of expectations and what we know is possible for our companies and ourselves. The short and sweet of it is that only 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged, with the actively disengaged costing our economy somewhere in the range of $450 billion to $500 billion per year. That’s a lot of dough to leave on the table and certainly nothing to pride ourselves on. And while so many managers are aware of this issue—we know we need our employees engaged and we can discuss this topic at great length—we don’t necessarily know how to do employee engagement. It remains a statistic we strive for: intangible, elusive, and ever increasing in importance.
When it comes to employee engagement, three key trends have surfaced as the most critical for increasing and maintaining high levels of engagement: Candor, Collaboration, and Development. Big topics, yes. But when broken down, we begin to see how we can get our hands on the levers and actually do engagement.
According to a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, companies rated by their employees as being in the top quartile in openness of communication delivered an average total shareholder return of 7.9 percent over a recent 10-year period, compared with 2.1 percent at companies in other quartiles. According to another study by Corporate Executive Board, the key indicator most strongly correlated with 10-year returns is employees’ comfort in speaking up, even when they have negative things to say. Clearly, candor is important and explains why companies with higher engagement create more profit. Here’s how to do candor:
Tell the truth, always. Corporate America continues to squander employee trust, be it through the housing crisis and subsequent collapse of the economy, or the recently revealed GM safety issues and subsequent recall. Little by little, lie after lie and deceit after deceit gets revealed to scores of innocent employees who unknowingly participated in massive schemes rooted in corruption, greed, and mendacity. The devastation to our livelihoods and trust is immense. The only viable way for organizations to regain trust is simple: Tell the truth and keep telling the truth. No. Matter. What. Avoid making excuses for employees, believing they are unable to handle the truth because the truth is, they can handle it. What they can’t handle are the lies and the “massaged” truths. By speaking the truth in a skillful way, employees can rise to the challenge and actively engage themselves in the solution.
Ask for the truth, frequently. Candor is a two-way street—an unending feedback loop—that should be traveled often. As much as we deliver candid feedback (both positive and critical), ask for the same in return. No matter what a person’s title, we all have blind spots and could use a refreshing, outside perspective on what we’re doing well and what we could improve.
In our own survey, The Six Key Trends That Increase Employee Productivity and Engagement, 98 percent of respondents believe exploring other points of view improves decisions. Gallup found that engagement increases at all levels of tenure as employees continue to participate in focused initiatives to improve their engagement. Imagine that: engaging employees in their own engagement through collaborative means. Here are some ideas on how to do collaboration in a way that directly feeds into increasing engagement:
Work the lattice, drop the ladder. The ongoing resilience and health of any organism, animate or inanimate, depends largely on its ability to withstand change. Structures that are able to weather these storms are typically well footed, with reinforcements that tie in both vertically and horizontally. Why we believe higher safety, stability, and success exist through creating siloed organizations remains a great mystery to me. Decisions made within a vacuum are dangerous as they are less informed and, therefore, run a higher risk of failure. When making decisions that affect a strategy, customers, and/or employees, take the time to seek multiple, diverse perspectives. Reach across the lattice of the entire organization, pull in insights that will create a better outcome, and strengthen engagement across the board.
Create an engagement committee. As per Gallup’s own statistic, employees appreciate having a hand in creating and sustaining their own engagement. This explains why many firms with coveted top engagement levels have teams or committees focused solely on this initiative, or on being a “best place to work.” A company’s engagement culture is not something that can be managed from the top down. Culture is an outcome that results from the quality of relationships employees have with one another, with their company, and with their leaders. Because it is such a vast ocean and because engagement is created through different means for different people, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to create a cross-boundary committee to help guide this ship. By inviting employees in at the ground level we can increase engagement levels immediately. The upside only gets better from there.
Individual development and the ability to make an impact on an organization is an increasingly hot topic for high potentials and Millennials. To pull another statistic from Gallup’s survey, Gen X and Baby Boomers are the least engaged, but Millennials are the most likely of all generations to leave their companies in the next 12 months if the job market improves. Why? Because they often feel road-blocked from reaching their full potential due to outdated development and promotion programs. These are typically programs that are blindly followed and have very little to do with the individual on the other end. Rather than do development on behalf of others, let’s involve employees so they can do development for themselves.
Ask the questions, lose the assumptions. Another danger of living within the confines of a ladder, silo, or closed system is that we lose sight of all the possibilities and begin to view the world in a fairly one-dimensional way. We begin to assume that the only way to progress in a company is to go “up.” Or that it involves managing more people. Or that it means adding an “S” to the “VP” within a title. Or that it certainly must involve a merit increase. In short, we begin to make assumptions that may have a lot to do with our own values and experience but may have little or nothing to do with the individual sitting in front of us. Before envisioning a development path for employees and starting them down that journey, ask them how it is they see themselves growing within the organization. Put the onus on them to create a vision of their future and then develop a path that speaks to them. In essence, engage them in their own development right from the beginning.
Challenge status quo. Gone are the days of applying one rule across multiple cases with the expectation that it will “hold water” for an extended time. The world, and thereby business, has become too dynamic and so have the generations of people we employ. To engage today’s workforce and meet their development needs, focus on individuals and their capabilities when assessing new opportunities. For example, revisit how quickly a high-performing employee potentially could make the jump from a junior to senior position. Does it really have to be after a two-year term or after having managed x number of projects or people? If employing a remote workforce is currently off-limits yet a top player requires this shift, lean into the possibility and seriously consider why this would not/could not work. Chances are, those fears are not based on reality and are tied to something else that needs to be challenged. Bottom line, when a top performer challenges your beliefs, rather than defend the policy or your stance, get curious with yourself and the employee. Genuine exploration into a juicy topic alongside any employee automatically will create engagement, and will do so no matter what the outcome.
In summary, engagement requires engagement. There’s a lot of doing required—transforming this huge, amorphous topic into something tangible that we can act on. It won’t happen as a result of offering extravagant perks but comes through reinforcing each and every connection within an organization. Creating an intentional culture by focusing on candor, collaboration, and individualized development will put a company well on the path to achieving the statistics we all aspire to.