Employee engagement levels have the attention of many C-Suite executives. The latest research by Towers Watson (2012), a human resources consulting firm, confirms the wide acknowledgement that employee engagement is a critical element for high levels of financial and operational results. Any executive who doesn’t pay attention to employee engagement might be accused incompetence and/or malpractice. This is especially true in light of the Tower Watson research which shows the average percentage of employees who are highly engaged comes in at only 35%. We need improvement. Here are three good ideas that will help us.
There are multiple models about how to achieve engagement. Many of them are very similar. The one outlined here might make some uncomfortable because it requires employees to be trusted. That need for trust will make some executives nervous. It will seem too risky to some.
For purposes of simplicity I name these ideas The “A”’s of Engagement Model
The first “A” is for Anxiety. Anxiety is often considered a negative force (emotion) that causes stress and stagnation. Positive anxiety, on the other hand, is the urgent emotional need to act before an opportunity is lost. Positive anxiety is useful for learning and development. A balance between the challenge a person experiences doing a task and the skills he/she uses to perform those tasks will generate positive anxiety. This positive anxiety is required for engagement and necessary for learning.
Unfortunately feeling comfortable (or satisfaction) usually does not create development. Neither does negative stress. Unfortunately the stress most employees feel today is negative and caused by pressure to perform using threats or bribes. Pay for performance policies and/or performance appraisal ratings are substituted for the required positive stress and results in a reduction in engagement. Positive anxiety is intrinsic (internal), self-imposed, and naturally healthy.
People can use positive anxiety to make positive change. A great example of positive anxiety in practice is seen in the process of learning “speed reading.” Many “speed reading” teaching techniques require the student to push themselves to reading speeds 5 or even 10 times faster than their normal pace. This “push” creates positive anxiety and trains the eyes and the brain to adapt to a much higher speed. The push creates positive change even though during this push causes an experience of anxiety.
It is not only permissible for leaders to create positive anxiety in the work environment for employees, it is their obligation. Leaders have the most influence over the messages that come from the work environment.
The second “A” is for Autonomy. Autonomy is the freedom to determine actions and decisions. Autonomy is a higher standard than just empowerment. Empowerment is the act of giving power to someone. Empowerment suggests there must be an authorization by management to perform a task or responsibility. Autonomy is about freedom for self-government or self-management. With autonomy the employee decides when and how to act to solve a problem. No authorization by management is necessary.
Autonomy is best provided when employees understand the principles under which they can make decisions on their own. This doesn’t mean specific processes and/or detailed steps are missing. Toyota, for example, has four principles employees must follow to work toward improvement in their plants.
Principle 1 states that all hand-offs between internal suppliers and internal customers must have clear steps in a specific sequence and these steps are defined by a customer. The second principle states that every supplier-to-customer hand-off is direct and unambiguous. The third principle demands that the pathway for these hand-offs must be simple and direct. The forth principle states that improvements can be made by anyone and at any time as long as those changes are done using the scientific method. This final principle is the most influential for allowing employees to demonstrate autonomy. In these principles the decisions are dependent upon what employees want and not on decisions from above.
The final “A” is for Advancement. Employees need to see how their efforts truly make a difference. This advancement must not just be progress for the sake of progress. It must be in context of a higher purpose and vision. In order for advancement to happen the progress seen by employees must be toward a vision and aligned with the values of the organization.
Three elements are needed to achieve advancement. First, we must understand the aim of our actions. The aim is also often known as the mission or purpose. It’s the “why” the dogs and pigeons don’t need and can’t understand. We must be able to answer the question, “Why are we taking this action? What’s the point?” For example, if our task is to clean a table we must know for what purpose the table will be used. Is it a table to clean fish or to do open heart surgery? The purpose will determine the method we decide to use for our task.
Secondly, we must have feedback from our tasks and that feedback should be immediate (or as close to immediate as possible) and frequent. Without immediate and frequent feedback we will lose motivation. The delay between action and information must be as short as possible to optimize engagement and minimize frustration. The other day I planted grass seed. Although I know it takes about 10 days to germinate and to show little sprouts, every day after planting I watered the spots and looked for evidence of progress. It was frustrating for those first 10 days with no feedback.
Finally, we must see progress toward achieving our aim. Without progress frustration will emerge and frustration will damage engagement. The combination of taking action toward a clear compelling purpose, receiving feedback, and seeing credible progress will create the experience of advancement.
The experience employees have with these “A”’s generates powerful employee engagement. The “A”’s create a recipe for success and will help executive to achieve the organization results they seek. All three elements work as a system. They must all be present. Too often leaders leave out one or more of these A’s. When they do engagement and results suffer. Too often they forget about explaining the “why” and just present the reward with pay-for-performance.