August 17, 2015
We’ve all seen the articles that begin something like this: “Despite the billions of dollars spent over the past 15 years to increase employee engagement, recent surveys show that there has been no widespread, appreciable improvement in engagement levels.”
We all agree that this is unfortunate, since having more employees more highly engaged will lead to better business results.
Here’s a third thing that we all have in common. We all want short lists—three items would be ideal—of things that we can do to make this happen.
And that’s the problem. The nature of employee engagement is such that it is not amenable to such quick-hit approaches. Increasing its levels calls for leaders to rethink their fundamental approach, to challenge some of their assumptions about how to tackle this important matter.
But since it will take time to make such profound changes, herewith a list—and it’s the preferred three-items in length—of things that you can do today to start driving engagement levels up.
1. Stop confusing correlation with causality. The current enthusiasm for engagement began with multiple studies showing a strong positive correlation between high levels of engagement and better business results. But saying that engagement causes business success is like saying that water is attracted to tall buildings since large cities are located along riverfronts and coastlines. Engagement can be defined as “the extent to which an individual is moved to invest additional effort and energy in the tasks at hand.” Success breeds excitement. Successful enterprises are more fun—one might even say, more engaging—to be a part of.
2. Stop basing your efforts on the wrong definition of Engagement. Engagement is a common word, generally connoting connection or interaction. Gears are said to engage in a transmission. Opposing armies are said to engage on a battlefield. Business leaders hold all-hands meetings in order to increase opportunities for connection, and such meetings will often include breakout sessions that foster increased interaction. But while such tactics jibe with the interaction/connection definition of engagement, that definition is very different from the effort/energy definition cited in #1.
3. Temper your managerial OCD. Let’s face it. We like things nice and neat and tidy. Under control. We like flow charts and spreadsheets and regression analyses. But Employee Engagement—real, no foolin’ energy/effort engagement—is more a matter of institutional soulcraft than project management. Achieving it requires doing the hard, slogging work necessary to understand the individual employee as a person, not a cog in a machine. It means coming to grips with the untidy reality that each employee is different, responsive to different stimuli that will cause him or her to invest the additional energy and effort you’re after.
There’s no getting around the fact that dealing with the people stuff can be less neat and controlled than we might like. But a desire for tidiness does not constitute proof of the absence of messiness. The application of the wrong definition, however appealing that definition might be, will not get you to where you want to go. And even though it may have been decades since you took that introductory course in statistics, correlation is still not the same thing as causality.