When it comes to employee engagement, everything counts

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

It’s 10 a.m., time for the meeting to start. The first participants arrived at five minutes to 10 a.m. and are now silently staring at their smart phones. At 10 after 10 a.m. another couple of meeting attendants arrive but this is still not everyone who is expected. By twenty minutes after the hour everyone is there and the meeting finally gets started. Worst of all, you the business leader who called the meeting, arrived at 10:15!

Day after day, week after week this scene is repeated in companies all across the company and we continue to be mystified by the fact that only 27 percent of our workforce reports being fully engaged. This is a pretty simple example and by and large engaging employees is not rocket science. Maybe we might start the revolution by being on time for meetings and insisting that everyone else is too!

Does this seem too simplistic? Consider this, employee engagement is a function of the relationship —OK say connection if it is easier — between the employee, the work they are performing and their understanding and responsibility for the mission of the organization. Insofar as this is true, anything that encourages or discourages employee engagement has a direct bearing on business outcomes.

Here’s a few things that encourage engagement:

  • Frequent compliments directly for work done well
  • Regular interactions where ideas are sought out from employees for ways to improve
  • Action taken on employee ideas and recognition made of whose ideas are paying off
  • Freedom to perform the work in ways the employees sees fit
  • Assignments based on employee’s talents and skills
  • Conversation with employees about their personal goals and future plans

In the MBA class that I teach at Western Washington University I talk to the students a lot about the dismal state of employee engagement. Day one includes a brief lecturette called “Everything Counts!” It takes a few minutes for the message to sink in yet essentially the central theme is this. When it comes to getting things done with people, producing results, it is commonly accepted by business leaders that execution is much more important than good ideas, and execution is dependent on the quality of working relationships. Anything that interferes with execution is an unmeasurable cost to the business.

“Most companies don’t fail for lack of talent or strategic vision – they fail for lack of execution. In leading businesses today, success is 5 percent strategy and 95 percent execution.”

—Percey Barnevick, former Chairman and CEO of ASEA Brown Bovari

Anything that attacks or strengthens working relationships matters. Since, and this is key, productive working relationships are like scalpels are for surgeons, the ability/skill to establish effective working relationships must never be assumed, it needs to be taught and included as part of all new employees’ orientation to an organization. Unfortunately, the default setting for relationships in the workplace is “employment.” The mindset of employment contains a whole collection of assumptions concerning expected behavior, most of which are grounded in an anticipation of compliance without concern for engagement.

Talking to an industrial era manager or employer about the importance of engagement would have been like speaking a foreign language. You might expect a response like, “Engagement, what are you talking about? I need my people here on time so we can start the production line and then they have to be able to put these bolts on sixty time an hour for eight straight hours, if they can’t do that I’ll get someone to take their place! Almost anyone can do this job.” And these managers/owners were not wrong. Those conditions pertained in our economy for more than forty years in the post-WWII era.

Anymore, and you know this, not everyone can perform the roles your business needs now, not everything is so cut and dried or cookie cutter. Something as simple as customer satisfaction is as much art as skill and people who excel at this are in big demand.

Your best people are likely your best people because they are performing work that corresponds with their strengths. Do not discourage your top performers or any employees for that matter by practices like these:

  • Contacting employees while they are off on vacation
  • Sending emails during off work hours, weekends and evenings
  • Saying “yes but…” as your frequent response to employee’s ideas, pointing to the flaws in their thinking. Try “Yes and…”, the next time an employee steps up and build on what they offer.
  • Starting and ending meetings late
  • Answering phone calls during one-on-one conversations
  • Watching your computer screen during employee one-on-one conversations
  • Checking your smart phone during meetings, especially meetings you called

I know these seem like simple suggestions, I also know from observation that everything counts and employees are always watching.


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