Why is it that some organizations believe that employee engagement is either “a thing to do to employees” or it is “a destination” that is over once it is reached?
Employee engagement is neither of these things.
To help you understand this, take a look at the root word. Engagement is a concept or way of thinking that stems from the verb “engage.” The idea behind engagement (employee or customer) is to get the full commitment, passion, and energy from that group toward your company, product, service or brand.
But over time, it seems that within organizations, something has gone terribly awry with this concept of engagement with the many of the people who work there.
So what happened to engaging people?
Engagement has turned into the age-old “creating a budget” exercise. If you make a budget, you probably feel good about setting a responsible course for fiscal prudence. But unless you actually USE the budget, this is just a wasteful exercise in futility. The same thing holds true with employee engagement. Otherwise, futility reigns.
This concept started to dawn on me at the tail end of a recent conversation with a client. The client executives were in the midst of talking about changes in the credit card business, huge losses in receivables, etc.
What should we do?” they asked. In addition to some sound advice about process changes, the other piece of advice transpired like this:
“Ask your employees. They are passionate and engaged. Let them help you.”
“Our employees? We don’t want to scare them. And, they probably won’t understand what is going on anyway” was the Senior executive’s response.
“Really?” I asked becoming incredulous. “It seems to me that every employee can understand a simple message like we are losing money or don’t have enough new customers.”
“Now you are making it much too simple” stated the senior executive. “We have decided to bring in a consulting company to help us figure out how to get back on track.”
If anyone has seen Office Space, you can imagine this experience. As the many “Bob’s” walked around gathering “information,” the rumor mill was running rampant. As is the problem with many “change efforts,” the vast majority of information is misinformation. In the absence of any communication from the organization, employees make assumptions. We, as human beings, do a great job making things up.
In the end, the client organization decided that layoffs were the best way to get back on track. Although it has been proven that layoffs are not the best method to improve performance, they can be useful depending on the goal or desired outcome. The layoffs were not the worst part though.
The worst part was how they handled it.
Effective Engagement Examined
On the first Monday of August that year, certain employees were met by security guards around their desks. One of them was holding a box. The employee wasescorted to a trailer in the parking lot, asked to sign some papers, given a severance check and asked to leave the premise.
The following year, we were back with the same senior leader group talking about Employee Engagement. Their employee engagement assessment scores (surprise!) had gone down.
“Employee Engagement has to be a focus of the organization moving forward.” the CEO stated. “We have to be a more focused organization.”
“Could it be that the employees are feeling like no one engaged them on recent issues, initiatives and organizational changes.” I asked.
“That’s not what engagement is about!” The CEO stated. “It is about making this a great workplace, not asking people their opinion about how the business should be run. That is why we are here.”
You can imagine how the rest of the conversation went.
Needless to say that the company was never the same. Not because it laid off employees, but because it did not honor the culture of the organization nor the intelligence of the folks that worked there.
The Success of Change
Here are four things that every organization needs to do to vastly increase the success of change due to performance, market erosion, etc.:
1. Find out the state of the state
Dips in organizational performance can come at any time for many reasons. It is vitally important that leaders, managers and employees are aware of the condition of the organization. This is from an “are we engaged” perspective AND from a “how do the financial numbers say we are doing” perspective.
2. Be thoughtful and thorough in communication
All the experts are adamant about communication as the key for successful organizational change. But, companies STILL don’t do a good job in communicating in a cohesive, comprehensive, and transparent manner. Employees don’t trust what they hear from companies because it is sanitized and word-smithed. It is absolutely vital that PRIOR to any change being implemented that communication is planned and developed. Be ready to tell groups what is happening and why.
3. Engage your employees in solving the problem
Employees know that there are problems and how to solve them. They often know before leaders because THEY ARE DOING THE WORK. When there is an issue identified or on the horizon, get employees that are involved with the issue to help figure out how to solve it. This is engagement. Employees engaged in solving a problem that will help the business and they have expertise in is the essence of creating an “engaged workforce.” Let employees help solve the issues. Outside consultants can help lead conversations, guide direction and give best practice solutions.
If you can’t trust employees to solve problems why are they working for you?
4. Arm your managers to be successful
The front line of change initiatives is the manager. This is where change can either be monumentally successful or a dismal failure. Employees will go to their managers first to find out what they know. Make sure your managers know something. It would be preferable if they know the facts, how to present them, what not to say and are as transparent about it as possible. If managers are not well equipped, then they will join the crowd of disengaged and drag their team down with them.
Don’t go out and do another Engagement Initiative. Engage your employees and customers into making your organizations better by engaging them. Ask their help to solve problems, offer ideas and drive innovation. Doing so will honor their intelligence, support the culture and assuredly drive success.
Anil Saxena is the President of Cube 2.14, an organizational development consulting firm that works with clients to increase both customer and employee engagement while decreasing turnover, improving customer retention, and increasing profitability within organizations.
Saxena is a certified High Impact coach and trainer and a Joint Application Design facilitator. He is also certified by both Rush Systems and IBM as a focus group facilitator. He is an inaugural member of Northwestern University’s Learning and Organizational Change program, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.