In recent years, employee engagement has become a popular topic amongst HR professionals and senior leaders. I am mystified by the mystery of it. With all due respect to the conversationalists, it’s almost as if employees – that is, people – were a separate and confounding species whose behaviors we don’t quite understand.  Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “When do I feel engaged?” Your answer is likely similar to mine. I feel engaged when somebody asks for and values my opinion. I feel engaged  when somebody needs my expertise to solve a difficult problem. Simple, right? So why does “engagement” seem so difficult to come by in larger companies and organizations? One reason may be that as a company grows, it becomes easier for the people who work there to lose their connection to the company.

Successful Companies Hire Strong People

On Day 1 of a company’s life, it’s fair to say that 100% of the people working in and on a company are 100% engaged. This is the founder and perhaps a handful of colleagues or co-founders who have likely risked their own money to bet on the success of their new enterprise. As the company succeeds, more people join the effort. At first, the company hires experts who bring depth of their experience, then the experts hire staff as the workload grows. A small company tends to run lean, so it needs everybody on-board to be directly involved in crafting bigger success. Still 100% engagement.

As a company continues to grow and succeed, there comes a point when you look around, and somehow it doesn’t quite feel like one tribe anymore. Instead, there have become many functional tribes that work as a confederation toward company success. The company has become compartmentalized. People are working as much for the success of the tribe as for success of the company. Prevailing thought is that success of the tribes makes for company success.  In order to keep the tribes all working in the same direction, a group of leaders – now known as the Leadership Team (LT) – begins to make decisions and coordinate amongst themselves and their tribes. The work of the tribes becomes to align to the plans from the LT and then execute.

Our example company appears to be thriving. The tribes hire the best and brightest and most experienced people they can find. The LT crafts the company strategic plan. Everything is going splendidly… except, wait… there’s some grumbling and a few people have recently left for “other opportunities.” HR decides that this might be a good time to do an engagement survey. Carefully crafted questions are presented to the “employees” and the high engagement marks are celebrated by the LT. Phew! It looks like the departures aren’t a trend and all is good. Except that it isn’t. You can feel it. What used to be crackling energy is now relative quiet. What happened?

Strong People Want Strong Engagement

This is the reality in corporations across America and across the world. According to Gallup (in “State of the American Workplace”), two thirds of US full-time employees are either actively or passively disengaged from their work. Why? I’m sure one could do a PhD thesis on this question and its possible answers. Instead, let’s think back to that mirror at the beginning of this article. “I feel engaged when somebody asks for and values my opinion. I feel engaged  when somebody needs my expertise is to solve a difficult problem.”

In our growing company, we’ve hired the smartest people we can find, then we’ve asked them to focus on executing on the strategic plan developed by the LT. Their other ideas about how the company might do some things better are nice, but they’re kind of a distraction from our main task — better to focus on the plan. Soon, those super smart people we hired are using only part of their expertise in their work. They’re busy and yet, they’re bored. As individuals, they feel only remotely connected to the success of the company. So how engaged are they now? And why is it okay to pay for all of these super-capable people, only to waste much of what they could be contributing? What might happen if everyone were energized?

How effective might we be if we were able to create an environment where people could bring their whole selves to their work? What if every person in a company felt direct connection to the success of the company? How might great inspiration, insight, and ideas make their way into play from any corner of the organization? While 100% engagement and participation may not be practically attainable in a large organization, there is certainly much room for improvement.

Engage People By Engaging Them:  Ask

We could start by listening. Questions such as “How might we better serve our customers?” or “What one change might best enable you to be more effective in your work?” or “If you had the power to change one thing about our culture, what would it be?” have the power to take people beyond their day jobs and into thinking about how to create success in the business. There are tools available today that make it easy to ask questions of your entire team, organization, or company and then hear what they have to say in a sorted and prioritized manner, ready for action.

We could create a way to execute on ideas. What if the whole company could see the answers to these questions in real time and could choose the answers they thought were most valuable? Peer selection gives everybody a voice in determining what the truly important things are. These are the things that matter to them and that they believe should matter to the company. Leaders sometimes fear that this level of transparency will create unrest and that they will lose control. In reality, these are the very things that people are already talking about in hallway conversations and over coffee.

Then Do

Now that we’ve asked the question and gotten some answers, what if we took the top answer to the question and did something about it. Just one thing. What if we tapped the person who supplied the top answer and gave her the opportunity to solve it with the full support of the LT?  And if micro-funding were needed, provide a little money then, too. Suppose we did this serially, so that we were always putting new ideas into play? Would more people begin to add their answers into the mix? Probably. Would more people wake up thinking about the business instead of their daily corner? It’s likely. Might more people feel like their capabilities matter? Also likely. And if more people did these things and were part of company success, might engagement just happen? Definitely.

It’s easy to write these things in a blog. It’s also not as difficult as you may think to implement. Give it a try – a little at a time. And if we can help, just ask. Engage your team more fully and something remarkable might happen – they’ll be engaged.

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