Recently this topic was raised in a town hall style meeting, and the comments from the leadership raised several concerns. It appears that employee engagement is attempting to become a “buzzword” instead of an action item, and this bothers me greatly. Worse, many people lead teams with vague ideas about what employee engagement means and then shape their own biases into the employee engagement program, making a pogrom of inanity and suffering out of a tool for benefiting and improving employee relations.
When discussing employee engagement, we must first begin with a fundamental truth; employees do not work for a company, do not work for a brand; they work for a manager. An employee might like a company; they might enjoy having their professional brand aligned with a known branded organization. The employee might feel pride in associating with other employees under that brand. When the road gets difficult at the end of the day, an employee works for a manager. The relationship between a manager and an employee is one of trust operationalized and honed through shared experiences.
Employee Engagement – Defined
According to several online sources, the definition of employee engagement is, “Employee engagement is a fundamental concept in the effort to understand and describe, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the nature of the relationship between an organization and its employees.” If you believe this definition, you will miss the forest for the bark you are fixated upon! Employee engagement is fundamental; it is not a concept, a theory, or a buzzword. Employee engagement is a relationship between organizational leaders and the employees, but employee engagement is not about collecting qualitative or quantitative data for decision-making policy-based relationship guidance. At the most basic level, employee engagement is the impetus an employee chooses to onboard because of the motivational actions of the manager they report to.
Employees must choose to engage; when they choose not to engage, there is no enthusiasm in the employee, and this can be heard in every action taken by the employees on the company’s behalf. Is this clear; employee engagement is an individual action, where impetus leads to motivated and enthused action. While organizational leaders can and do influence motivation, they cannot force the employee to engage! Thus, revealing another aspect of why the definition found online is NOT acceptable for use in any employee engagement effort!
Employee engagement is the actions an employee is willing to take, indicating their motivation to perform their duties and extra-duties for a manager they like. Employee engagement is the epitome of operational trust realized in daily attitudes, behaviors, and mannerisms of employees who choose to be engaged in solving problems for their employer. While incentive programs can improve employee engagement, if the employee does not first choose to enjoy the incentive, the incentive program is wasted leadership efforts. The same can be said for every single “employee benefit.” If an employee cannot afford the employer’s benefits, those benefits are wasted money the employer needs elsewhere. Hence, the final point in defining employee engagement is the individualization of incentives and the individual relationship between managers and employees. Stop the one-size-fits-most offerings, and let’s get back to talking to people.
Listening has four distinct levels; currently, these are:
- Inactive listening – Hearing words, seeing written communication, zero impact mentally. Mainly because your internal voices drown out the possibility of communication.
- Selective listening – Hearing only that which confirms your own voices, opinions, and biases. While others are speaking, you are already forming your response.
- Active listening – Show the other person you are paying attention to, engage with meaning in a reply. You are focused on removing barriers to get your point across.
- Reflective listening – Paying attention to intent and content, reducing emotion, two-directional as both parties are engaged in achieving mutual understanding.
Inactive and selective listening can be heard through phone lines, instant messaging, text messaging, and easily observed during face-to-face communication. Worse, active listening launches trust, and when faked, destroys credibility, ruining relationships. Reflective listening can only achieve mutual understanding when both parties are choosing to listen intently and with the purpose of reaching mutual understanding. The most powerful tool in an organizational leader’s toolbox for quickly rectifying employee engagement is reflectively listening.
Communication occurs in two different modalities, verbal and non-verbal. Good communicators adapt their message to the audience using reflective listening and careful observation. Adapting the message requires first choosing, determining who the primary and secondary audience is, and then focusing the message on the primary audience. Next, adaptation requires prior planning, which includes mental preparation, practice, and channels for feedback. Finally, adaptation requires listening to achieve mutual understanding, careful observation, asking questions designed to lead to mutual understanding, and clarifying what is being said to achieve mutual understanding. The pattern described can be the tool that begins employee engagement but is not an end-all solution all by itself.
Appreciative inquiry is a growth mechanism that states that what a business organization needs, they already have enough of, provided they listen to their employees. Appreciative inquiry and common sense tell leaders who want to know and change their organization and how and where to begin. Appreciative inquiry-based leadership is 6-continuous steps that start small and cycle to more significant problems as momentum for excellence permeates through an organization. But the first step, just like in defeating a disabling addiction, is admitting there is a problem.
Here are the six operational steps for appreciative inquiry:
- Admit there is a problem and commit to change.
- Define the problem.
- Discover the variables and stay focused on the positive.
- Dream BIG!
- Design the future and outline the steps to that future.
- Destiny, create the destination you desire.
Follow the instructions on a shampoo bottle, “Wash, Rinse, Repeat.” The appreciative inquiry model can be scaled, repeated, implemented into small or large teams, and produce motivated members who become the force to create change. Allow yourself and your team to learn, this takes time, but through building motivation for excellence, time can be captured to perform.
Of all the steps in appreciative inquiry, it must be stressed that focusing on the positive is the only way to improve people. Even if you must make careful observations to catch people doing good, do it! Focusing on the positive provides the proper culture for engaging as many people as possible. Criticism, negativity, aspersions, and insults all feed a culture of “Not my problem,” and when the employee claims, “not my problem,” they will never engage until the culture changes.
Employee engagement requires structural changes to the organizational design. Employee engagement is going to bring immediate change to the organization. If the leaders, directors, managers, supervisors, team leaders, etc., are not prepared for and willing to change, employee engagement will die as an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle. As a business consultant, I have witnessed the death of employee engagement, and the death is long, protracted, and disastrous to the entire business. Worse, individuals refusing to change stand out like red dots on a white cloth as employee engagement dies.
Thus, the first step in employee engagement belongs not to the employee, but the employer, who must answer this question: “Are we a learning organization willing to change, or are we a knowing organization who does not need to change?” How the leadership answers this question will speak volumes to the employees closely observing and making their decisions accordingly. Depending upon how that question is answered will depend upon whether the business can move onto the second step or remain stuck on the first step.
The second step in employee engagement is training the organization to accept change and failure as tools for learning, growing, and developing. A toddler learning to walk will fall more than they stay up before they can run. The same is true when initiating employee engagement. Guess what; you are going to fail; can you as an organizational leader accept failing? Are you willing to admit you failed, made a mistake, and publicly acknowledge the blame and consequences? Are you willing to allow others to accept the praise for doing the right thing? Will you as an organizational leader accept change? How you answer these questions also speaks volumes to the employees you are trying to engage. Depending upon how you individually and collectively as a team answer these leadership questions will decide if you fall back to step one or advance to step three.
The third step in organizing employee engagement is total commitment. Are you onboard? Are all the leaders onboard? Being onboard means 100% commitment to the organization dreamed in the operational steps to appreciative inquiry. If not, do not launch an employee engagement program, for it will fail spectacularly! Never forget the cartoons where a character has one foot on a boat leaving the pier and one foot on the dock; they get wet and left behind!
Engaging with employees should be fun, it should be an enjoyable experience, and it should bring out the best in you! All because you want to see others engage, grow professionally, learn, develop, and become. Your efforts to teach engagement lead you to learn how to engage better. Seize these learning opportunities, choose to grow, but never forget to have fun. My best tool for engaging with employees, dad jokes! Really, really, really, bad dad jokes! For example, when Forrest Gump came to Amazon, what was his computer password?
When you get that joke, laugh; but wait for others to get it as well! Employee engagement is fun, exciting, and can be the best job you ever had as a professional. Just believe in yourself, believe in and invest the time in appreciative inquiry, organize yourself and your business, and always reflectively listen.
© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.