Seven Steps to Ignite Employee Engagement

June 20, 2012

By Jenny Schade

Employee engagement or commitment is obviously critical. I don’t need to cite the countless studies linking employee engagement with outcomes such as productivity and retention. Obviously, if employees aren’t finding meaning in their work, don’t understand how what they are doing contributes to the organization’s goals and are considering leaving the company, something needs to change.

In 25 years of consulting for Fortune 500 organizations, I have never encountered a successful organization with miserable employees. Simply put, committed and motivated employees translate to committed and motivated customers.

While surveys are very effective at flagging low morale, they are notoriously poor at identifying solutions for improvement. Having encountered this situation with my clients, I developed the Seven Steps to Ignite Employee Engagement:

Engagement Step One: Get input from your people. They know what’s contributing to the low engagement and have good ideas about how to fix it. They just need to be asked–in the right way. I’m not talking about having your communications or human resources professionals run employee focus groups. For interviews with employees about a sensitive subject such as engagement, you need an outside consultant that employees feel they can trust to preserve their confidentiality. After all, how honest would you be about your intent to stay at your organization if you knew the interviewer represented the company?

You need a skilled interviewer who knows how to help employees speak openly while obtaining the input you need to move the business forward. In fact, our clients find that the benefits of the interviews begin as soon as discussions are being scheduled. Again and again we hear, “I’m impressed that they’ve hired you to talk with us. That tells me they do care.” Of course, the interviews alone won’t suffice. It’s critical to acknowledge and follow up on identified issues. Failure to do so could lower morale even further.

Engagement Step Two: Address the cause–don’t blame. As you seek to understand why employees are feeling so negative, you may learn about people and actions that make you angry and upset. Resist the temptation to confront individuals about specific events. That kind of confrontation will lead to a backlash of blame that will only make employees reticent about speaking up in the future. Instead, focus on what about your culture or system is spawning negative behavior. Address the cause to enable improvement.

Engagement Step Three: Don’t get hung up on survey benchmarks. Your company is unique–with its own culture, strategy and goals. If your employee survey results indicate a pattern of low satisfaction levels, you know there is a need for improvement. Being five percent lower than the benchmark or seven percent higher doesn’t change that. If 60% of your employees indicate that they intend to stay with your company and the benchmark is 52%, should you breathe easily? If you do, you may miss an opportunity to reach an even higher level of engagement.

Engagement Step Four: Be honest about the findings with employees. And be straightforward. Resist the urge to package employees’ input under a catchy theme, e.g., “The ABC’s of Engagement.” Every time I interview employees on sensitive subjects such as engagement, I get feedback that employees are talking to each other during the process and that they want to hear what comes out of the interviews. Employees know what they told the interviewer and if important issues are omitted from what is shared with them or packaged in a cutesy way, they will know it and distrust the organization. Obviously, this will not help improve engagement. It’s important to candidly report the key issues that emerge in research and then announce an action plan to make improvements.

Engagement Step Five: Implement interventions. After the survey findings are in, and employees are interviewed to identify interventions, the hard part begins. It’s critical to make some changes. Does this sound obvious? Unfortunately, there are organizations that, upon completion of the research and identification of interventions, don’t proceed with the most difficult part–implementing change. Some companies make plans to re-survey their employees one year after the original survey to gauge improvement, even though they have done nothing differently since the original survey. That’s a recipe for disaster! If a company has identified engagement issues after a baseline survey and does nothing about them, I can guarantee conditions will be worse one year later.

Engagement Step Six: Involve senior leadership in the research and intervention process. Engagement is a serious business. This is one of those subjects that employees need to hear about from leadership. Leaders need to encourage employees to participate in the research. Leaders need to communicate research findings. And leaders need to wholeheartedly endorse and participate in interventions.

In fact, leadership is most likely going to need to make and model new behaviors in order for change to cascade down through the organization. For example, we worked with one organization whose goal was to significantly increase innovation; however, employees felt their company’s culture inhibited sharing ideas. For this culture to change, it was critical to work individually with members of leadership to provide them with input about behaving in ways that conveyed trust and openness to their teams.

Engagement Step Seven: After interventions have been implemented, conduct follow-up research to gauge progress. Give yourself a year to 18 months for change to be effective, and then re-survey employees and conduct interviews for further depth. Some clients are impatient with waiting this long, but we encourage giving the organization time to really make some improvements.

The news that employee engagement is low is always difficult to hear, but it is most definitely not a terminal diagnosis. Involving leadership and employees at every level in improving the organization is a revitalizing experience with a powerful return.

About the Author:
Jenny Schade is President of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and motivate employees and customers.
© JRS Consulting, Inc.

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