Few concepts have been so thoroughly explored as the notion of employee engagement, and the value of a committed, focused and energetic workforce. More resources have been deployed against this effort than anything I have witnessed in over twenty years, going back to the golden age of TQM and process re-engineering.
Data suggests that as much as 40% to 60% of a company’s employee base are either disengaged or actively pursuing alternative career options. With the US economy in a seemingly endless transition from recession to low-growth, and a dearth of positive employment figures, the ranks of disillusioned workers continues to grow monthly.
Sales are not increasing fast enough. Raw materials costs are rising faster than companies can increase their prices. The only way to fatten the bottom line is through productivity increases, and that means either getting more from your work force via layoff or attrition, or increasing the output per employee through individual focus and commitment.
Most companies have driven costs out to the point where there is little left to cut. Hence, the focus on maximizing employee engagement, with its dual promise of targeted retention coupled with enhanced innovation, productivity and performance. Every organization, no matter what size or scope, would materially benefit from a more engaged workforce.
So why aren’t we doing a better job at it?
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer authored a useful book on the topic called The Progress Principle (2011, Harvard Business Review Press). In it, the authors cite considerable data to identify four key “traps” that leadership must avoid if their workforce is going to commit emotionally and behaviorally with the mission of the company. These potential pitfalls are triggers that negatively impact the inner work-life of employees, and all of them routinely occur through failed leadership and management practices. They are, in effect, the drivers that deliver the opposite of engagement.
The factors include:
- Sending signals from the top of the organization that say one thing, but accept a lower standard in pursuit of expedience;
- When leadership lays out one set of strategic imperatives and then shifts direction in a seemingly reactionary or haphazard manner, creating chaos and continuous misdirection;
- Inarticulate or confusing policies, processes and protocols that send a message to the rank-and-file employees that leadership is not aligned around what or how results are to be achieved; and,
- Setting goals so big that nobody believes they can be attained, let alone understanding how the company plans to achieve them.
Messrs. Amabile and Kramer suggest that these pitfalls are hard to spot and more challenging still to avoid. In my experience, I believe them to be spot on. If you have read more than a few posts on ideationz, you know that I stand on the cornerstones of alignment, willingness and ability, and a clear sight line to key performance indicators as fundamental to creating a culture where engagement can prosper and be sustained. The authors, I believe, would agree with one added component: Employees must sense progress (individually and organizationally) in order to feel that there is value in what they do on the job. Progress, via data or anecdote, is essential, and must be articulated, visible and recognized.
There is a lot to consider when you look around your own company. Do your senior leaders consistently demonstrate solidarity around the mission, vision and values of the firm? Is there a real effort to align every employee, so that there is no doubt as to responsibility, role and accountability for each position? Are the core metrics aligned with the stated mission of the organization? Do the employees have access to the resources necessary to prosper innovation and positive change?
These are all questions that should be considered if your company is going to be poised to realize productivity, engagement and performance objectives. Progress along the way warrants, and mandates, communicating everyday advances, and making each employee feel that their contribution makes a difference.