Realizing the promise of employee engagement

Posted by on Aug 14, 2012

Ensuring your Great Expectations don’t turn into The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

knowlan_logo_large2As the old joke goes, in a ham-and-eggs breakfast the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.

That isn’t far off the mark for the difference between employee involvement and true employee engagement. Someone can be involved in something as a bystander, but they have to take action to be engaged.

Today’s article is the first of a 3-part series for leaders who are considering making employee engagement an important part of their strategy.

In today’s article – part 1 – we’ll talk about what employee engagement is and describe the critical conditions required for success. In the second, we’ll examine how to set strategic objectives for employee engagement and how it can be measured and tracked. And in the third, we’ll outline one successful approach for improving performance through employee engagement.

Why employee engagement makes us nervous

Whenever we hear a client talk about “employee engagement” we can’t help feeling a little nervous. This is the result of experience – we’ve worked on employee engagement initiatives in 4 organizations, involving more than 1,000 employees in at least 60 employee teams. If we had to use a movie title to summarize this experience, we’d describe how managers thought they had a ticket to “Great Expectations” but ended up in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.

While employee engagement holds great promise, it also presents substantial risk when things go wrong, and this can happen more easily than most imagine.

That doesn’t mean that employee engagement is a bad idea, as we wrote last year (See article here.)  Rather, it has to be done for the right reasons and in the right way to produce worthwhile benefits.  Success requires the right context and conditions.

So when two of our most recent clients identified employee engagement as a critical success factor in their strategic plans, we did some serious thinking about how to condense our experience into a few pages to help them make the right choices.

What is employee engagement?

Much of the strategy-level discussion about employee engagement seems to focus on two thorny questions.

1. What is the right objective for employee engagement?

2. How should it be measured and tracked?

We’ll deal with both questions next week. We think it’s more important to start by defining employee engagement. Everything begins with the right definition.

We favour this two-part definition for reasons which we hope will become obvious.

Employee engagement is (1) the connection employees feel to their jobs, and (2) their willingness to make changes to help their company succeed.

The presence of the first part does not guarantee the second. Most readers will be familiar with situations in which employees’ connection to their jobs created resistance to changes that would have helped the company. This is at the root of many labour disputes, but it is also present in many non-union settings.

Successful employee engagement initiatives require three essential ingredients:

  1. Trust: Employees must believe that management is serious about giving them more say in their work, and that the stated reasons for increasing employee engagement are management’s real reasons.
  2. Alignment: Employees must believe there is a genuine benefit for them in the outcomes management wants to achieve. Those benefits need not be monetary.
  3. Information: Employees must understand the organization’s most important goals, how their work contributes to them, and must have immediate positive feedback to gauge the effectiveness of their improvement efforts.

Employee engagement initiatives that lack any one of these three are much more likely to fail.

No matter what method is used to engage employees, the initiative should aim to increase organizational effectiveness by getting employees more engaged within their own jobs. Engagement should focus on work-level improvements they can influence in their own work, not on things someone else should do.

Employee Engagement Creates Value

Improvement targets for employee engagement initiatives can include productivity, quality, cost reduction, waste elimination, timeliness, customer satisfaction or a host of other improvements. It is likely that any of them will increase value creation, but what you choose as your objective for employee engagement, and how you measure the results, are important non-trivial choices.

We’ll explore the challenges of setting objectives for employee engagement, and for measuring and tracking progress, in more depth in next week’s article.

© Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. 2012