1: Recognise the problem
What are you engaging people for? Engagement as a quest has lost its way; it has become separated from its original purpose, becoming an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Engagement needs a business focus, currently engagement seems to be for the sake of it rather than engagement to deliver a business result.
Companies waste a small fortune each year undertaking expensive employee engagement surveys that waste time, cost a lot and produce data of questionable value. Engagement surveys focus on what people intend to do rather than what they actually do. It's like asking whether someone intends exercising regularly - most people would say yes. It is something they know is important to do and they have every intention of exercising, but never get round to actually doing it. Thinking about it and doing it are two very different things.
Whilst engagement surveys are of dubious value, engagement is important. In organizational terms, engagement refers to the value generated by a person for the business in excess of that which might reasonably be expected. Employee engagement is the level of goodwill the individual has towards the business as demonstrated through discretionary effort. Just as the quest on the 1997 film 'Goodwill Hunting' was about engaging a genius in behaviour change to liberate his true potential, the challenge for leaders is to engage the goodwill of people in their organisations to achieve business goals.
2: Understand what engagement really is
An engaged workforce has the right people (trait) in the right state of mind (state), doing the right things (behaviour) for the benefit of the business (R.O.I.) and themselves. It starts by having people with the right traits. People who are self motivated and self-driven and who demonstrate the characteristics you need in your business. Next is getting these people into the right state of mind such that they want to do well and are prepared to go the extra mile. Finally and most importantly they follow through with actions commensurate with their intent.
As leaders we can do much to help or hinder engagement.
3: Stop getting in their way
The fundamental principle that underpins engagement is that at a deep and profound level, people wish to be engaged - they are predisposed towards engagement.
Think of engagement like water cascading down the mountainside - it wants to get to the valley floor. Engagement is all about channelling the water to maximise the force to generate power to achieve results. As leaders, we have to stop doing the things that get in the way of that natural desire to be engaged. We have to avoid damming the flow and producing pools of stagnant lifeless water lacking in energy. Understanding engagement is about the study of actions or behaviours that may be inhibiting engagement as much as it is about actions or behaviours to promote engagement.
Sometimes it could be getting rid of processes or procedures that have limited benefit to the organisation but whose removal could make a significant difference to employees. These symbolic changes can have a significant impact on levels of engagement.
4: Be an engaging line manager
The single, overwhelmingly most important driver of employee engagement is their line manager - this means it starts in the boardroom. It is the line manager's ability to generate positive feelings and the right state of mind in their employees, that helps generate increased productivity. In 2004, the Corporate Leadership Council researched the levers of engagement and listed too many to be useful. However when we examined these more closely, we concluded they could be summarised into 23, of which the following 20 were attributable to the line manager. The line manager should:
1. Demonstrate strong commitment to diversity
2. Adapt to changing circumstances
3. Clearly articulate organisational goals
4. Accurately evaluate employee potential
5. Put the right people in the right roles at the right time
6. Demonstrate honesty and integrity
7. Set realistic performance expectations
8. Encourage and manages innovation
9. Break down projects into manageable components
10. Help find solutions to problems
11. Accept responsibility for successes and failures
12. Helps reports understand how to complete work projects
13. Explain the importance of a person's job to the success of the organisation
14. Have a reputation of integrity
15. Encourage employee development
16. Persuade employees to move in a direction
17. Give high quality informal feedback
18. Accurately evaluate employee performance
19. Make sacrifices for direct reports
20. Demonstrate a passion to succeed
Whilst summarised here, each of these points merits discussion in its own right. The message is clear, if you want to be seen as a highly engaging leader - demonstrate the above.
5: Make sure your people know why they are doing what they are doing
For a number of years now, when working with teams we have asked people to write down their key goals. We have then asked them to write down their boss's key goals, and then their boss's boss and so on through to the overall business objectives. We rarely make it past their boss's goals. And yet we know from the research that a key element of being engaged is to know how what you do adds value.
An individual's goals need to be understood at a peer-to-peer level as well as being part of a hierarchy of goals. If people better understand why they are doing what they are doing and how best it should be done, they can make informed decisions when faced with options. When they have this understanding, they are likely to be more engaged.
As an aside, the question that precedes 'how do your goals fit into the strategic goals of the business' is to check whether people understand the purpose of the business. In our experience, particularly at more junior levels, sometimes people do not have a clue! Nor even do they know how the business makes money.
6. Make sure the individual benefits
As well as helping deliver the business objective, help each person get value from the work from a personal perspective. This could be through developing their skills, getting a sense of satisfaction, or through addressing an issue that has been causing problems. Personal fulfilment is widely recognised as an important dimension in performance.
7. Communication is critical
We are specifically talking about internal communication, the aim of which is to emotionally connect with employees. In as much as the line manager needs to demonstrate the super levers listed earlier - communication needs to both reinforce and demonstrate the same principles. Communication is also a key part of ensuring people understand why they are doing what they are doing, for what purpose and how they should be doing it.
People must be able to connect with the communication and see the messages as real and honest. Communication must have an integrity that echoes reality, which screams 'we get what you do' and we value what you do. Communication has the opportunity to make people into business heroes, focusing on behaviour that the business values and in so doing helping build the culture of the business. This can be achieved in part by the style and composition of the imagery used. Think about communication with the aim of achieving 4 goals:
1. Purpose: Understanding why we do what we do and what we are aiming to achieve
2. Progress: How and what are we doing that is getting us there
3. People: Who is making the difference
4. Performance: Reward and recognition
Use imagery that maximizes the emotional connection, use messages that grab attention and that reinforce what you value. Show real people, doing real jobs making a real difference - make the people the heroes. Use the super levers to focus what you communicate, to maximize its impact. Use styles that fit with the mindset of the people they are aimed at.
8. You need the right people in place
It's incredibly difficult, if not impossible to engage someone who doesn't want to be engaged. Recruit the right people with the right traits to begin with. In addition to recruiting the right skills and organizational skills, make sure you asses against the super levers when recruiting, inducting, performance managing and developing people.
9. Crack the context and you're 90% of the way there
We have saved one of the most powerful drivers for last. Stanley Millgram wrote, "It is not so much the kind of person a man is, as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act." And as much evidence has shown, it is context that drives behaviour more than anything else. For example a speed camera, whether you like it or not, most of the time you will slow down. The fear of getting points on your licence drives your behaviour. In the same way lowering the temperature in an office will change what people choose to wear - the context is driving their behaviour. Reducing car parking spaces will see some people come into work earlier in order to get a place.
We can use the same principles to create an environment that drives employees to do things likely to help them become more engaged.
There are four tools at your disposal for creating the right context:
1) At the highest level is government legislation. For example, the rules on Health and Safety mean that organisations have to follow certain processes and principles in order to be able to trade. People put on high visibility jackets when required because failure to do so could result in dismissal as the company attempts to ensure it is complying with the law on health and safety.
2) The contract of employment offers many opportunities to drive specific behaviours. For example, dress codes, maintaining confidentiality and expectations over mobility etc. The employee agrees at the outset the acceptable way of behaving as defined in the contract.
3) What you measure is what you get. If you want to drive collaboration - set goals that require collaboration and remunerate accordingly. If you want to promote individual effort, set individual goals and reward the individual rather than the team. People do what gets measured and what's in their best interests.
4) The culture in the business. If the people at the top demonstrate by their actions (not just their words - it will help create a culture where 'it's simply the way we do things around here'. For example if you want to promote cross-functional working - instead of sitting in an office within your function, sit amongst your people and arrange people into cross functional groups. Culture is made up of customs and habits that drive behaviour. Make sure the customs and habits in your business are driving the behaviour you wish to see.
10: You don't need a survey to tell you people are engaged
If you rely on a number in a survey to tell you how people are feeling - you are in the wrong job. Get out there; get on the shop floor. Listen to people. The feedback you receive will tell you how well you are doing. You will know when people are engaged and when they are not.
Engagement is more than an intention to do something. It's about being engaged in achieving a business goal. As leaders, we need to think in terms of the context we create to allow engagement to flourish, how we communicate and most importantly the way we recruit, manage and lead others. Engagement is not something we have to generate - it's already there. We need to make sure we don't get in the way and do what we can to channel it to the benefit of our customers, the business and our employees.