Six Employee Engagement Strategies Of High-Impact Organizations
Two broad assumptions form the foundation for modern workforce engagement strategies. First, workforce engagement is the responsibility of every employee. it is the responsibility of the employee to arrive at work excited to give their best. If they don’t, remediation is required. The second assumption is that workforce engagement is the leader’s responsibility, and it is up to her to design and execute the strategy. For example, people are hired for their professional and technical skills. However, it is the leader’s responsibility to capture the other parts of the workforce, their creativity, passion for innovation, transformation, and problem-solving. This article will focus on the second assumption that executing a well-designed employee engagement strategy is the responsibility of leadership.
Why Employee Engagement Strategies are Mandatory for Elite Performance
Data from the Gallup organization demonstrate that over the last twenty years, the number of actively engaged employees has steadily improved. From 26% in 2000 to 35% 2019. This is the good news. The bad news is that the percentage of nonengaged employees has stagnated. From 56% in 2000 to 52% in 2019.
Who are Nonengaged Workers and People?
Nonengaged employees represent the single largest economic opportunity in a thriving economy. Turn nonengaged workers into actively engaged employees and there is an immediate jump in productivity, profits, quality, and customer satisfaction. But who are they? They are the employees who come to work, do their job and go home. Their jobs mean little to them outside their ability to pay a mortgage and get their kids through college. They contribute little to innovation and discretionary value creation. For an employee engagement strategy to work, it must focus on these employees.
The Impact When Nonengaged Employees Become Actively Engaged
Actively engaged or just “engaged” workers and employees bring the best of themselves to the workplace. They want to be there. They feel empowered to contribute their best. They speak up when they see an opportunity to improve the performance of their team. This might be the improvement of a process that will eliminate waste, or contribute a new idea. This alone makes employee engagement the single most important factor in elite organizational performance. In short, employees are not only empowered but they feel empowered. They feel courageous and bold.
For example, when David Marquet took over the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear powered attack submarine, it was the worst-performing ship in the fleet. Two years later it was the highest performing submarine and it continued to improve. When he took command, Captain Marquet determined that to turn around the performance of the ship, he had to transform the experience of his sailors (employees). Instead of one captain telling 134 sailors what to do, he needed all 135 sailors actively and energetically engaged with their work and their team. The result, in two years the ship went from last place to first place.
The Story of Brian – Employee Engagement Strategy Based on Leadership as a “Relational Enterprise”
Brian is a brilliant Civil Engineer working for one of the world’s largest engineering firms. His story is very similar to many first-time leaders. Over ten years with the firm he steadily proved himself an outstanding engineer. His client work was excellent. Consequently, the firm rewarded him with additional responsibilities. Eventually, he was managing multiple projects based on his superior technical skills. However, a day came when he was assigned a clear leadership role. He was put in charge of multiple geographically diverse teams, in various customer segments, with different skill sets than his own. He had just leaped from being a manager to being a leader.
For emerging leaders, it is “sink or swim”
His firm, like so many, did nothing to invest in Brian’s success. Even though he was recognized as an emerging leader of an international engineering firm with billions in annual revenues, learning to lead was left up to him. It was the equivalent of handing him the keys to a sailboat with instructions to sail around the world. Unfortunately, education in how to sail, navigate, repair the boat, and communicate with the outside world in a howling gale was up to him. Metaphorically, his firm said, “good luck, we hope you make it back home safely.”
How Brian built an engagement strategy around relationship
Fortunately for Brian, he is a system thinker. So, he applied this discipline to his leadership. Except instead of designing a system to treat wastewater, he created a system of leadership. His research led him to the conclusion that leadership is fundamentally a “relational enterprise.” Therefore, his leadership must produce relationships. He also discovered that relationship not only meant with him as the leader of the team but within the team as well. As his system grew, he saw the value of his system as turnover within the team fell.
Brian also recognized that he needed a way of measuring his leadership. He needed to know if his leadership was producing relationships with and among his team. So he asked for his HR department’s help and came up with a 360 evaluation of his leadership. The results? His team is creating so much customer value that he cannot hire engineers fast enough to meet their clients’ demands.
Six Employee Engagement Strategies That Work
1. Make employee engagement a strategy aligned with the broader business strategy
Brian’s story illustrates the idea that workforce engagement can become a competitive advantage. By strategically creating a high engagement team, they were delivering customer value at a rate where they could not keep up with demand. While some will understand employee engagement as a simple tool to get more production out of a workforce, high-impact teams recognize the opportunity to strategically create a competitive advantage.
Bold Business Strategies Require a Bold, Fearless, and Highly Engaged People
Gallup reports that two-thirds of the US workforce is either nonengaged or actively nonengaged. World wide, this number is as high as 85%. Yet, organizations will spend $Billions on strategy development. Personally, I have conducted many strategy sessions and I have been a participant in many as well. Yet, I don’t remember one where the level of workforce engagement was discussed as a requirement. It strikes me odd, that anyone believes they can execute a bold and courageous strategy when two-thirds of emplolyees either don’t care, or they are drilling holes in the back of the boat.
2. Design the Daily Employee Experience.
Research points to many factors that contribute to a high employee engagement. These factors include:
a. A noble organizational mission.
b. A sense of psychological safety.
c. The opportunities to collaborate and innovate.
However, according to a recent report published in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled, A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company, the authors state, “the level and quality of interpersonal collaboration actually have the greatest impact on employee engagement.” Brian, by determining that his leadership had to produce relationships, was designing the foundation for collaboration. His employees individually and the entire team could “feel” relationship and the freedom to collaborate. As a result, they have more work than they can handle and they cannot hire engineers fast enough.
3. Recognize the Value of the Entire Person
Brian realized that his workforce was more than just a collection of professional and technical robots. He learned to understand them to be whole human beings. Each one was worthy of respect by the simple fact that they are human. So, building relationships meant that he was building a relationship with the whole humanness of his employees. As he said to me, “my first step was to get to know them as…people.
So Brian did something simple, yet amazingly powerful. When a team member came to see him, he began to ask a few personal questions. Simple things, like “how is the family” or “how are your children?”
4. Know the passions of your People
I was speaking with an elementary school principal one morning. This school had experienced a massive transformation in the academic achievement of its students. In just five years, the school went from failing to the highest performing elementary school out of eighteen schools. Like Brian, this principal understood that she needed to know her staff, not just as teachers, administrators, counselors, nurses, and custodians. She needed to know their passions. In this way, she could set up mentoring relationships between a teacher passionate about math with a teacher who was passionate about English grammar. In this way, her staff could collaborate around what they were passionate about.
5. Develop Bold and Fearless Human Beings
High impact organizations recognize that their employee engagement strategies must include the development of the whole person. Millennials and the following generation has made it clear, and they are not interested in being lead or becoming followers of anyone. However, they are passionate about personal and professional development. They want to maximize the value of their lives, both professionally and personally. When I confirmed this observation with the school principal referenced above, her response was, “of course, why would I want half a teacher walking in my door?” I think the same could be said of a software developer, a hospital administrator, a nurse, or manufacturing working assembling cars.
In the same way, healthcare, manufacturing, and the U.S. Military understand that if they can develop their employees into stronger, more self-confident, and empowered human beings, they create a bolder, courageous and dynamic workforce.
How an Award-Winning Healthcare System Captures the Engagement of Employees Through Whole Person Development and Increases Patient Safety
A regional hospital that is consistently ranked as one of the safest hospitals in America, and some have speculated in the world, recognizes that developing a whole person creates more value. For example, they have recognized that public speaking is one of the most fear-inducing activities of people. Therefore, they intentionally provide opportunities for their workforce to speak publicly. While providing an environment of safety, they ask rank and file employees to run meetings, give presentations, and speak at company events. In doing so, they develop self-confident employees who are more personally empowered.
The result of this development translates into the operating room, where staff are encouraged to “speak up” if they see the potential for error. In addition, staff are encouraged to initiate improvements in processes that will directly benefit the safety of the patient or their experience.
6. Reward Risk as an Employee Engagement Strategy
An employer cannot force or demand more employee engagement than was is required. However, leaders can be like farmers. They can till the soil, prepare the soil, fertilize the soil, and use the best seed they can afford. But they cannot make the corn grow. They can only provide the best conditions for their crop to flourish. Similarly, smart employers know that if they design a quality workforce engagement strategy, that that they will create the best environment for their employees to flourish.
How a manufacturing company engages the workforce to find and eliminate waste
One of the ingredients of a successful workforce engagement strategy is to reward risk. For example, in my book’s research, Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance, I found a manufacturing firm with 200 employees. They have adopted Kaizen and the Toyota Production System for both their manufacturing and management system. They have created a culture of high employee engagement to find and eliminate risk. Central to this strategy is to reward any employee with Personal Time Off (PTO) for conducting a kaizen. It does not matter if it is for the company or even for their personal benefit. They reward their team for seeing an opportunity and taking the risk to see if it works.
How Leaders are Responsible to Execute Employee Engagement Strategies
Brian’s company is a firm with 19,000 employees. He is one of 300 emerging leaders. Therefore, 300 emerging leaders are fumbling through a chaotic process of becoming leaders. The good news is that Brian is smart enough to figure out his own system of leadership. The company’s bad news is that there are 299 other emerging leaders trying to figure it out. Some will do well because of natural gifts and talent. Some will drown in the process, and others will figure it out by expensive trial and error.
Workforce Engagement Strategies Are Not Difficult
But what would happen to this firm if they trained all 300 leaders to a system designed to produce relationships? Of course, some people are just naturally gifted relationship builders. However, first-time leaders can learn everything Brian did. For example, when Brian determined that he needed to build relationships with his team, he began by simple conversation. When his staff came to him with problems, he would first ask a few questions about themselves. Then he learned that he could do the same at their workstations. It was his version of a genba. Similarly, when he took out cubicle dividers in favor of an open office, it was not because of the latest design trends. He did it because he wanted to open the office for greater relationship building and collaboration.
How Leader Rounding or the Daily Genba Increased Workforce Engagement
Example 1: A Level 1 Trauma Center
During an interview, the Chief Medical Officer of a level 1 trauma center told me about his experience with two hospital CEOs. One seldom got out of her office, and most communication was via email. Engagement with the staff was low because no one knew who she was. However, when another CEO replaced her, he immediately moved his office from the penthouse executive suite to the first floor, where he could observe the hospital’s rhythms and pulse. He regularly made “rounds” to each department, including the Trauma Center. Consequently, he established relationships as names turned into faces. The staff learned they could trust the new CEO. Engagement levels soared.
Example 2: A Large Integrated Healthcare System
Similarly, another hospital CEO took this rounding idea to another level and made it a requirement of an entire system of leadership. Rounding by his leaders and managers became a daily requirement, and all other activities were secondary to this one activity. For those who found this personally difficult, the hospital provided coaches and mentors. A result, they ranked in the 96th percentile for workforce engagement and Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 Companies to Work For three straight years.
How High-Impact Organizations Sustain Employee Engagement
In the MITSloan report referenced above, they argue that an organization of noble purpose alone will not engage the workforce. It is not that simple but ultimately, it is the day-to-day experience of the employee that will sustain their engagement. For example, healthcare workers enjoy the nobility of making people well. However, the turnover rate of nurses is just slightly less than the national averages. In addition, between 2015 and 2020, hospitals in America turned over 89% of their entire workforce. Yet, in hospitals with the highest levels of workforce engagement, their turnover rates hoover around single digets.
Workforce Engagement Strategies That Work
The individual worker is rewarded if they consistently demonstrate high levels of engagement. Conversely, design remediation activities if they don’t. Conversely, high impact teams are taking a different route. They understand that the determining factor in workforce engagement is the relationships with the team. In response, they place the responsibility of engagement on the shoulders of their leadership. They then design and train every leader and manager to the requirements of a leadership system that will lay a solid foundation for the workforce to engage with their work fully – intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally.
About the Author
Daniel Edds, MBA is the author of Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance. This is the first book of its kind that describes in simple and easy to understand case studies and stories how high impact organizations are recreating the world of work and leadership.
For fuller discussion of this topic we have a complimentary copy of a Special Report, Workforce Engagement Strategies, and Steps available in our resource page.