Thursday, August 13, 2009

Employee Engagement

As I visit with leaders, senior managers, and executives of organizations of all sizes, a common complaint I hear is about employee engagement. Examples include: “I don’t know where to find good employees anymore. People just don’t seem to care.”; “Young employees don’t care about work anymore. All they want to do is go have fun.”; and, “Employees seem to think they are entitled to a job. They do the bare minimum to keep from getting fired but very few care enough about the company to really work for its success.” You get the idea. Very few of these organizational executives look at these concerns as symptoms of their own lack of leadership.

Today, I would like to address this topic head on by discussing employee engagement and how to increase it in your organization.

Peter Block in his book Flawless Consulting, describes engagement as the art of brining people together. I like to expand this thought to include bringing people and their talents, passions, experience, and skills together to work towards a common goal. Block states that in the end engagement is more powerful than articulating a clear vision, establishing performance standards, developing a rewards system, increasing training, or instituting formal measurement processes. It is not that those are not important features of excellent organizations, they are, but he believes we have over emphasized them at the cost of underemphasizing the power of engagement through dialog.

Traditionally, the steps of organizational change include: establishing a vision, setting standards for what is expected, building a reward system to reinforce the behavior, provide training if new skills are required, and then measuring the change. The problem with these necessary but insufficient steps is they assume the people in our organizations are placid objects that we can manage and manipulate. Do you resent feeling like you are being manipulated into doing something you don’t want to do? I certainly do. Even if it is something I want to do, if I believe my behavior is being manipulated, rather than asking me to give it freely, I have feelings of resentment and a desire to resist.

Like Block, I believe this also manifests itself in our organizations. We need to create opportunities for dialog with organizational members. These are not just forums for management to expound on their vision of strategic plans but a true dialog where organizational member of all stripes can explain why the organization is important to them, where they think the organization should go and what it should be doing, and how their personal values tie to the services and products the organization creates.

Establishing an opportunity for all organizational employees to dialog about the organization, its values, goals, outputs, and how that relates to the individuals values, and interests may seem like too great an investment, perhaps even a waste of time. There is thought among some in management that all that needs to be done is set a clear enough goal and people will work for it; and if they don’t they should be shed from the organization as quickly as possible.

However, I believe this approach neglects the energy, enthusiasm, and performance that can be realized from fully engaged people. Each of us is more than a “pair of hands” or a limited set of skills to be applied as management sees fit to solve a problem. When we care about the reason the organization exists; when the overlap between our values and the organization’s are clear; when our goals and objectives align with and support those of the organization, engagement occurs and we will do all we can to help the organization, and thus ourselves, succeed.

For a short time we can force engagement through fear, intimidation, or manipulation. In the long run it will only persist if freely given. I believe it will only be freely given if mutual understanding is developed. This does not have to be terribly time consuming but it does take effort. Even very large organizations have made an excellent beginning in a matter of a couple of days through whole system change activities and then ongoing dialogs that continue to invite organizational members to contribute and which actively listen to and respond to what is said. I personally have led organizations of several hundred members through such a process and have witnessed success in lower turnover, greater stated satisfaction in employee surveys, and high performance in terms of output and profitability.

If our organization members are not as committed as we would like; if they don’t work as hard as we want; if they don’t seem to really have the best interests of the organization at heart, whose fault is it? If as organizational leaders we hold even some of the blame, should we not quit making self justifying excuses and condemnations and take action? Employee engagement is possible. All we have to do is open ourselves and our organizations to the possibility.


  1. I don't believe that fear and intimidation foster engagement in the short or long run; they foster compliance and mistrust. In this environment, those employees who don't feel motivated to leave (and these people probably are the ones who need to stay) will help to sabotage any genuine efforts to change. These hostages to the organization, no matter what level, can bring down the organization.

  2. This is an excellent point Barbara. I more correctly should have said that fear and intimidation can create the feigned impression of engagement. I believe that organizations, as with people, in reap what they sew. I believe you are correct that hostile compliance and mistrust are the fruits of fear and intimidation. Thank you for your observation.