At the Heart of “Employee Engagement” – Focus on Action, not Words

Apr 2012
Issue 25

by Ross Stern

One consequence of being in the workforce for a few decades is that you begin to see old concepts get recycled and refurbished and presented by newer members of the workforce as revolutionary new concepts and the greatest thing since sliced bread. In just my own slice of the working world – attending to the people side of business – I have seen the area go from being called “Personnel” to “Human Resources” to “Human Capital,” and now I think the term in vogue is “Talent Management.”

Don’t get me wrong – it’s important for concepts to evolve, and the names we use for things are substantively and symbolically important. But I have always tried to avoid getting too hung up on specific terminology in favor of looking behind the concepts to ensure that the “right” things are being done, not just talked about. In this context, I have some concerns about what’s happening in the arena currently being called “employee engagement.”

It used to be that we focused on “employee satisfaction,” but today leaders are not content to have their people be “satisfied.” Instead, leaders want their people to be “engaged” because – the thinking goes – if they are engaged, involved, invested, etc., they will work enthusiastically to further the interests of the enterprise, and they will be more likely to stay committed and connected to the organization over time.

That all sounds right to me … until you address the key question: What do leaders do to try to encourage such engagement?

“We need a new Vision Statement …”

All too often, it seems, there is a great deal of focus on the words, not the actions. For example, we have all seen compelling company visions where the ethos of a particular organization is distilled into a sort of “corporate haiku” for the masses to salute and embrace. In these situations, a lot of money is spent on a company’s strategic visioning – consultants are hired, task forces are established, focus groups are assembled, and the resulting statements are pithy and memorable, as they call us to a higher level of purpose and performance.

We are initially invigorated by such lofty visions but, at some point, many often get disillusioned as leadership changes and we see a new “flavor of the month” or as we see laudable goals crumble under the pressure of a down economy, new pressures on earnings, and the paramount need to show positive short-term results.

This suggests a very real disconnect between vision and action and, in general, the corporate world does not seem to be doing all that well on the “engagement” scale. According to a recent survey conducted by Right Management, 84% of employees polled said “they plan to look for a new position in 2012.” (Survey Finds Wide Employee Discontent,, 11/29/11) According to Right’s EVP, Bram Lowsky, these findings “serve as a barometer of worker distrust in management as well as job commitment.”

Faced with the sobering situation that four out of five workers are ready to move at the “right” opportunity, what steps can a company meaningfully take to ensure that they keep their best performers?

Create a connected culture

My simple answer is that, if you want people to be connected to each other and to the organization, you should develop a culture that encourages connection. A company characterized by a high degree of such connection has employees that are more engaged, more productive, and less likely to jump ship.

If you wonder what this type of connection looks like, I suggest you consider the relationship that you have with friends. By this, I do not mean your 590 Facebook friends or your dozens of LinkedIn connections. I am thinking of close friends, genuine friends – friends to whom, if they need help, we give it. If they are lonely, we call or visit. If they mess up, we show grace. If we are surprised by an action, we give the benefit of the doubt. If they grieve, we grieve with them. If they celebrate, we are part of the celebration. In short, we are connected. Now wonder, what would work be like if we had similar points of connection with our colleagues there – connections anchored in human compassion?

The Gallup Organization, a leader in assessing workplace dynamics, has for many years been using the well-known “Q-12 Survey” to measure key factors in employee retention. The 12 core questions in the survey are as follows:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

The first few questions establish a baseline for what the employee “gets” – are my job assignments clear, do I have the right tools, am I assigned to a job which can take advantage of my skills?

But it’s the next batch of questions that really capture my interest, as they predominately focus on the strength of human relationships at work. Has someone noticed me, does someone care, does anyone encourage me, do my feelings count, do my colleagues share my passion for doing good work, do I have a best friend? These are all points that require placing a high premium on human connection. But what to do to make it happen?

Make personal connections

Mike Stallard, a friend and colleague for many years, is the president of E Pluribus Partners – a New York-based consulting firm that focuses on corporate culture and helping leaders create engaging work environments. Mike and his partners have found that:

In their pursuit of positive business results, most organizations have become masters of “task excellence,” i.e., the “hard,” mechanical and analytically-oriented aspects of business … But it’s just not enough. Only when leaders motivate people by creating an engaging work environment do they realize the energy, optimism, trust, cooperation, innovation, and productivity necessary to produce the sustainable peak performance of people. (What Managers Say, What Employees Hear, Praeger Publishers, 2006)

To help address this concern, they recommend seven steps that leaders can take to strengthen connection in the workplace:

  1. Make a human connection with as many people as possible. Go well beyond the normal perfunctory politeness, get to know the names of family members and what they are doing, inquire about hobbies and personal interests, build lots of points of relational contact, make a deliberate effort to discover how interesting your people really are.
  2. Treat and speak to employees as partners. Treat your people as peers. There is no room for condescension or patronizing behavior. Each person has dignity and value to offer.
  3. Get rid of leaders who are uncivil to others. Toxic behavior is just that – a poison that infiltrates the atmosphere and spreads disease. It must not be tolerated or excused, or it will eventually destroy its host.
  4. Help employees find the right positions. As employees grow and develop new skills, look for new ways in which they can add value. Don’t unnecessarily pigeonhole them into the position they were hired into – help them spread their wings and fly.
  5. Decentralize decision making and eliminate unnecessary rules. Decentralized decision making improves morale by empowering lower level employees. A tightly rule-bound organization has very little flex – look for rules that can become simply guidelines.
  6. Recognize the human need for balance. Recognize the ebb and flow of demands on your people’s personal lives and accommodate where you can.
  7. Inform people, seek their ideas, and consider their views. Make sure your people know what is going on, gather input from them, and implement their suggestions where possible.

As we all exhibit more and more of these types of behaviors, we will strengthen the human bonds that tie us together, and we will create workplaces that feed on loyalty and respect. We will create workplaces where the success of the organization is inextricably linked to the success of the individual, and vice versa. It won’t matter what words are on the walls or what crises hit, our company’s values will be lived out in the day-to-day rubbing of shoulders as we labor together.

Now that’s a culture worth working for …

From last month:

What We Heard

Last month, Gabrielle Wallace – author of What does it take to be a Great Consultant? challenged readers to add to her Top 10 list of Great Consultant Attributes, and she reports:

Thanks to all of you who sent in suggestions. Here’s a sampling of new Great Consultant Attributes:
[list type=bullets-gray ]

  • Current
  • Competent (and credible)
  • Deeply experienced
  • Clear and persuasive
  • Likeable (at least in the selling process)

All great additions … and one person wrote in a voice of experience: “It is one of the biggest challenges to have the courage to offer a different solution or respectfully disagree with a client.” I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks for reading, responding, and let’s continue the dialogue!

Gabrielle Wallace ([email protected])


Next month:

Life Coach, Schmife Coach!

How do you convince your Polish mother-in-law that you need a life coach? Well, you don’t … but that doesn’t change the fact that you could still really use a pro in your corner to advise you on next moves. Tune in next month for the insights of business-savvy Tracy Spevak on when, why, and how to consider the support of a life coach. The tenuous “balance” in your life could depend on it … !