So we had a pretty gnarly snow and ice storm this last week in the PNW so I had time for a lot of contemplation and catching up on my reading.

As per usual, topics that speak to the concepts behind employee engagement continue to attract my attention and focus.

I will be honest; I am perplexed with why more organizations don’t invest in a strategy that clearly leads to significantly improved performance in every conceivable key performance indicator. Especially today, when studies are recoding that voluntary turnover was up by almost 50% between 2012 and 2013 and the cost of a new hire is up 15% for the same period.
When you add those statistics to the fact that on average engaged employees contribute almost 50% more per capita and you have to ask – “what’s up”?

Engagement has taken a pretty good pounding because a lot of people still see it as some kind of a motivation tool or a survey to be conducted by the HR organization. Others see it as soft science.

The reality as well demonstrated by organizations like Zappo’s is that engagement is about culture and alignment. “Happiness” is a byproduct.

The other reality is that most employees are reasonably engaged or have the potential to be engaged when they first join an organization; their engagement level usually diminishes over time as reality sets in.

Executives tend to be more engaged that front line employees. Not a huge surprise as they make considerably more money and hopefully have much clearer line of sight on the organizations objectives and progress. The bad news is that is that this often gives them a distorted view of the engagement level of employees across the organization.

A recent BlessingWhite study indicates that the majority of employees see their next significant career opportunity as being outside of their current employer and having control over their own career.

To me that says that fully recognizing that the social contract has cycled back to where employees see themselves in the driver’s seat and no longer view careers in the linear context they have previously means great employers will be looking at a new partner style relationship with employees, especially the best and brightest.

For me that means that we should put a stake through the heart of the concept of human capital, managing people as a two dimensional asset rather than whole people.
The really bad news is that front line sales and service employees typically record the lowest levels of engagement, and it is this level where your brand meets reality.

My experience has taught me that there are a couple of key ways to create and sustain engagement:

  • Hire the right people. I talk and write a lot about things like building a foundation based on trust, respect, and congruency. The reason I do that is because those characteristics of a culture have been proven over and over again to generate outcomes we want.
  • Invest in front line leadership. The criticality of front line management shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. Heskett talked extensively about the impact of even one bad manager in his book The Service Profit Chain, and it has been discussed extensively by others as well. Employees have different expectations of their manager/supervisor than previously. The concept of manager as boss is severely outdated. Employees expect their manager to partner with and coach them in their career.
  • Engagement is a culture, not a program and it doesn’t belong to or live in HR. If you ask most human resource professionals what their critical contribution to their organization is the vast majority will answer compliance. Compliance isn’t engaging, it represents the bottom rung of the trust ladder being based on authority and rules.
  • Engagement is not a survey. If you have no intention of making meaningful changes don’t annoy your employees by asking them to respond to a survey. Pre-survey they might give you the benefit of ignorance. Post survey they know you are either incompetent or apathetic.
  • Although leadership and management are a continuum and every manager doesn’t have to be an enlightened leader every manager must be competent at some core skill sets among which I include; setting clear expectations, giving and receiving feedback constructively, diagnosing performance issues and taking appropriate corrective action, coaching to optimize performance, and creating line of sight between organizational and individual goals. These skill sets are critical to every management role. The bad news is they don’t teach these in business school or most university curriculums of any discipline.
  • The best organizations have a clearly defined employment brand. An employment brand clearly identifies for current and prospective employees what you are about. It is reinforced in hiring, training, performance management, and the reward system. Every organization has an employment brand; superior organizations are managing theirs proactively.
  • So I can’t guarantee that if you follow my rather simple prescription you will suddenly see massive productivity improvements, but you will see improvement if you do the work.

    If you are a small organization I recommend you invest your resources primarily in two areas:
  • Hire the right people up front.
  • Train your frontline supervisors

    Experience and the data suggest these are the two most important steps you can take…


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