What Causes Employees to Engage?



For a long time I avoided using the words employee engagement. Even in my book, Business at the Speed of Now, I barely allowed the phrase to appear on its pages. That’s because few people understand what it is and even fewer people know how to deliver on its promise.

In the past few posts to this blog I shared the three most common approaches to engagement and made clear the fatal flaw(s) of each.

Engagement by exhortation (words) never works because campaigns and talk don’t create sustainable changes in behavior. Telling employees to “go make changes” can’t work because the reality is not only is that not sufficient to drive smart changes, but the reality is the leaders will never allow the ideas to be implemented anyway.

Engagement through performance management doesn’t work either. This approach assumes that if everyone were accountable to do his or her part, the organization will be successful as a whole. The flaw in this approach is it assumes management can plan without error exactly what each person must accomplish, and that each individual has control over every bit of the work they do. Business processes just don’t function that way.

Engagement by tools and techniques shows great promise because efforts such as lean projects actually do engage employees in that they rely on the knowledge of those we do the work. While this “events” approach does engage employees, events do not morph into daily standard practice.

So what does work?

What causes employees to engage is a management system that expects them to take action, fix broken processes, and respond to customer requests. A management system is the set of routines and processes used to run the business and cause it to adapt actions at every level in order to achieve the goals.

How do you cause engagement? You design the management system to expect it.

Here’s an example of expected engagement:
• Employees are given ownership for the process or processes they work in and are accountable for its performance.
• Measures are in place and categorize performance as red, yellow, or green.
• Every quarter the department and company conduct Quarterly Business Reviews and every process that is in red or yellow will have time on the agenda.
• Employees know once a process is in red or yellow they are expected to take corrective action using a structured problem solving process; they also know progress on the corrective action is expected to be reported at the business review.

The 10 Elements of Full Engagement
To fully engage, an employee needs:
1. Understanding of the business goals and business aspirations
2. Understanding of how the goals connect to their work
3. Understanding of their specific accountabilities
4. To feel sufficiently safe to be transparent about problems
5. Understanding of the language of the business well enough to speak it
6. Sufficient knowledge/skills/resources/tools to do their job competently
7. To have the skills to solve problems effectively
8. To have the authority to solve the problems encountered
9. To have the skills and information to make good decisions
10. To have the authority to make decisions

Engagement is not magical. It is the natural response of employees to the system of management leaders use to run their organizations.

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