By Thomas J. Lee
Don’t tell me. This year, as in previous years, your organization fielded another employee engagement survey, and the numbers that came back were hardly different from last year—or from the year before.
The overall scores may be somewhere in the middle, a little above average, or below what any self-respecting organization should tolerate. Where the scores are—and where they were last year—isn’t so important as the fact they haven’t budged.
If that song is a familiar tune, it really isn’t surprising. Nor are you alone. Many other organizations are in the same boat—without a sail or a rudder or an oar. Sooner or later they have to ask themselves why they field the survey year after year, only to be told the same thing year after year.
Mediocre or stagnant engagement is far more significant, and far more worrisome, than a simple matter of low morale or satisfaction. While these terms are often conflated and confused, it’s important to distinguish between engagement and other kinds of positive mental attitude, like satisfaction and morale, in the workplace.
Engagement is at the heart of sustainable business success. Organizations with low people engagement find it very difficult to grow; indeed, they can grow only inorganically. They lose customers, they stifle creativity and innovation, they wallow in backbiting and infighting. The best people look for the exits. Decent new people must be paid at a premium, and unless the culture changes, which it hasn't been doing, the promising new talent will be short-lived as well.
But mediocre engagement isn’t a hopeless, irredeemable situation. You can act positively on it, and you should. Moreover, wherever you are in a corporate hierarchy, you can exercise initiative. You need not ask for permission or wait for higher-ups to act before you do.
So what exactly can you do about it?
Though more involved than they appear, here are four important strategies any organization can follow to build a culture of high people engagement, so that employees welcome change and can break on through to the next level.
Make sure everyone on your staff (or in your department, division, plant, office) knows and understands the strategic direction, customer expectations, competitive pressures, operating sensitivities, and day-to-day priorities. Insist on clear line of sight between everyone's job and the organization's strategies. Use the word "customer" only in reference to the ultimate, external customer, and make certain that the customer's reasons for choosing your organization over a competitor in the marketplace are clear. Share metrics and strategic information promptly and directly.
Create an atmosphere of critical and creative thinking about the business. Encourage collaboration and the open, free exchange of ideas and suggestions. Be certain there is a safe harbor for tough questions that can even strike you as impertinent. Ask deep, probing questions about the business, and invite everyone to a dialogue around them. Above all, avoid any implication of punishing the messenger for the message.
Recognize that people find motivation both in reasons that reach their mind and emotions that touch their heart. Communication that enables an organization to meet its commitments is usually the stuff of prose: dry, factual, logical. Communication that enables people to reach their full potential is often the stuff of poetry—not of poems per se, but an inspiring and evocative narrative that celebrates and encourages ordinary people to go to extraordinary lengths for something important to the soul. People want and need this.
Prize fresh thinking. Maintain a safe harbor for suggestions and tough questions about the business and even your own leadership. Welcome unorthodox ideas. Teach everyone how to build on someone else's kernel of creativity. Ask not just why something should be done by why it couldn't or shouldn't be done. Encourage people to experiment. Remove barriers to the casual, quick exchange of information and insights. Always be looking for the next big thing.
By following these four strategies, you will find yourself creating much more focus, curiosity, passion, and courage in the workplace. That's important, for, as we have said over and over in this space, nothing of much significance has ever been achieved, and nothing of much value has ever been invented or developed, without a lot of focus, a lot of curiosity, a lot of passion, and a lot of courage.