What Makes Employee Engagement Actually Work?

Full Transcript Below

[ANNOUNCER]: Breaking down everyday workplace issues and diagnosing the hidden sickness not just the obvious symptom, our hosts James and Coby.


[COBY]: Did we lose a patient?


[JAMES]: No that’s just my lunch.


[COBY]: Hey thanks for joining us. I’m Coby, he’s James, so let’s get started with a question. What makes Employee Engagement actually work?


[JAMES]: So I’m gonna go completely out of character on this one and actually answer the question right off. Because this is something that we talk about a lot and if you want your employee engagement strategies to work, then it’s fairly simple. You have to focus on the outcomes, not the actions. Essentially you cannot DO engagement, you can only CREATE engagement. And that’s the mindset that you have to have if you want your engagement strategies to actually bear any fruit.


[COBY]: Yeah and I think that’s that’s a really good way to put it. Because I think so much the time, the focus we have on employee engagement is we need to do the things, we need to do engagement, we need to be in, you know, engaging with people, we need to be creating the engagement by all these different actions. That we do… but not realizing that engagement isn’t something that you’re really supposed to do, its something supposed to be the outcome of the other stuff that you’re supposed to do. It’s supposed to be the result of the right climate, the right workplace culture, the right employee experience. It’s the natural consequence of doing a lot of things right with employee experience, that creates engagement. Because engagement is about motivation and enthusiasm. And so you can’t focus on enthusiasm on people, right? Maybe think of even in that term, think of engagement maybe less as a synonym of actions, and more think of it liking like enthusiasm. You can’t have, you can’t you know work on things to do enthusiasm. Enthusiasm has to come from being the natural consequence of the right environment.


[JAMES]: Well what we want is we want people who are engaged in the work. When we say, when people use the term Employee Engagement, and we talk about these problems all the time with how the common understandings of Employee Engagement really have led us astray. Because what we actually want are people who will engage in our workplace, who will give the proper motivation and enthusiasm, who will bring a sense of well enthusiasm to the job. We don’t want to create environments where people dread going into work every day. We know that there are huge benefits if people can actually engage in the process of work, so it’s we’ve gone from this idea of engaging in the process of work, to blanket term calling it Employee Engagement. Which has kind of caused these problems of ‘well we have to do engagement, we have to do engagement surveys, we have to do a certain number of touch points with our employees. You know we have to have these different programs that are in place we have to create outings for our staff, and team building exercise for our staff, and doing all of these engagement activities’. When what you should be focused on is how do I create an environment, like you said Coby. It’s about motivation and enthusiasm. How do I create that environment where people actually care about the work? Where they actually engage in the work? and it’s not just going through the routines or just going through the process?


[COBY]: Yeah and I mean we did a whole episode a little while ago about about why Employee Engagement is so difficult. I mean we kind of really spend a lot of that time kind of talking about what not to do. And we were really pretty hard on the traditional ‘fixing up the break room’, ‘company picnics’, you know ‘the mission statements is our engagement’..


[JAMES]: Employee of the Month.


[COBY]: Yeah, because I think those are not, by themselves, bad actions. But those are not the simple, check box, ‘we did engagement now people are engaged’. Those don’t work for that purpose. As part of like a fully fleshed out environment where people do feel that this enthusiasm and motivation, those can be very powerful ways to have morale built and all those kinds of stuff too. But again…


[JAMES]: We can have those types of actions in an engagement strategy, right? And I think this is… we try to simplify terms and which ends up confusing things. So there are actions that you can take that will help to create the environment where people can be more engaged. Those, whether it’s an employee of the month program, and I’ve been critical of them in the past I just I don’t like them. I think the funniest description I ever heard of an employee engagement, or an employee of the month program is that it’s the one way that you can be both the winner and the loser at the same time. But there’s different strategies, different actions will work in different environments. But it needs to be part of a larger strategy of how… what environment are you creating? And then what actions can we take that will actually move us towards creating that environment where people can engage in work?


[COBY]: Yeah and I think it’s so important to really again, fundamentally change how we understand engagement, as you said. Because like I mean, when we work with businesses and, you know high level HR professionals, and stuff like that, and they talk to us about how excited they are, they’re rolling out these new engagement programs, and they’re looking forward to the successful outcome from things like the employee of the month or the company picnic. You know those kind of things like that… and again, very good intentions. Trying to hit the right notes, but because of that fundamental misunderstanding of thinking of Engagement as actions not as the results, or the natural outcomes of the right environment, tends to make people put the wrong effort into… or sorry, put the focus on the wrong effort. And they end up making  a lot of the mistakes that really will blowup in their face. And then they’re  disappointed and defeated that they’ve tried all these things. And now “What makes stuff happy? They’re never happy!” And it ends up being about kind of like blaming… almost like blaming the staff for not… the success not being there. When really again, even though they had the best intentions going in, doing the wrong actions or putting the focus on the wrong place, and not getting the result that you’re looking for is kind of why people keep hitting their head against the wall. Doing it over and over again. So it really does start with that fundamental rethinking of how we understand engagement.


[JAMES]: Yeah and you’re right. I want to capitalize on one thing that you said, because it is about good intentions. And people approach engagement with the best of intentions, right? With the earnest desire to actually improve the workplace. And we’ve seen this, I mean there’s a client, we’ve used the story in some of our training before, of a client that we work with several years ago who they had gone from being an employee in the business to actually purchasing the business and growing it. And they had quite ambitious growth goals for the company. And the way… they had a plan and how they were going to scale that. And they had such a great rapport and connection with the staff and they wanted to make sure that they were doing things right, right out of the gate, and that they were creating the best environment possible. So they started doing a lot of these common actions that, if you Google employee engagement strategies, you’re going to come up with many of these things. We had an opportunity to work with this person and kind of go through, after they had tried some of these things, and they weren’t getting the results. And working with them we were working on a couple different strategies with them, but working with them we were able to kind of work with them, work with the staff and identify that it wasn’t the actions, the employee engagement actions that they were creating, that staff actually cared about. It was how this leader, how this business owner was able to help them. Like the impact that they were having in the community, right? It was about the way that they were able to actually perform their jobs, and the trust that this person showed them. It was about the environment that they created, almost by default. Because they had, like it was very much this person’s natural skill set that they wanted to provide this great environment, and the actions that they started to try to create, or to do engagement, ended up having less impact than just treating people with respect, showing recognition and appreciation, in valuing the skills and the expertise that people have, in providing them with some autonomy and some freedom in how they engage with work. That was what created engagement in her team, not the different, you know, ‘oh we’re going to have a a company outing’. Yeah I mean they had fun, they were all friends, they went on outing. But it didn’t actually turn into any type of ROI for the business other than ‘oh it was just a fun activity that we did’.


[COBY]: Yeah and we’ve had other conversations with other clients, and with other people in our training programs, and one of the things that kind of comes up a lot too was like, well the advice we keep reading on the internet and you hear from speakers and stuff like that is just listen to employees, listen to employees, listen to employees. And that is great advice, provided you have the work environment, the conditions, the culture that allows employees to actually speak up and share what their thoughts and needs are. Like we talked about this a couple different times, but especially in the episode we did on why employee engagement’s so difficult,  about employee surveys. Now we feel employee surveys can be a very effective tool in kind of measuring engagement and understanding, kind of getting some data, on your current climate and your current culture. But the thing that we have to remember is that engagement cannot be forced or inserted in a vacuum. It needs to be the results or come from a culture that has built sustainably on the foundations you need that we talk about in our Workplace Culture Hierarchy. We have an episode on our Workplace Culture Hierarchy that really kind of breaks it down, and engagement is kind of near the top. You have to build those bottom layers. But again especially when it comes to things like Psychological Safety, if you don’t have Psychological Safety you cannot trust the feedback that you get, but also if you don’t have Psychological Safety, and you don’t have a mutual sense of respect amongst employees, you can try to listen to them but they’re not going to want to share anything with you. So it’s this idea of inserting, or kind of forcing engagement strategies into a climate or a workplace culture that is not prepared for it, can actually create a lot of backlash and a lot of like false assumptions. Like if you insert a survey and you get a lot of, like you know, lukewarm responses back, you’re like “Okay, well nothing’s bad, so everything must be good. So let’s keep moving forward”. But that’s not a good snapshot of your workplace, and then you might making decisions based on that or you end up inserting activities, or solutions, or investments into in the areas that will actually almost like cause a bit of turmoil, and creating what we call a ‘Chaos Solution’. You’ve tried something, but it wasn’t ready for it, like the idea of inserting like a rewards program that ends up becoming this highly competitive, cutthroat program that ends up like, hurting your actual morale, and long-term retention, and people are potentially abusing it. Because again, you inserted something into the culture that wasn’t prepared for it.


[JAMES]: And again we need to go back to the fact that there has to be some sort of strategy involved with what you’re doing. Any of these actions on their own are unlikely to produce the results that you want. I had a conversation with a colleague from, who works, he’s a manager in a production facility. We got together for coffee a while back and we were talking about a few things, and they had just started a new recognition program, right? Fantastic, the intent of the program was ‘we want to show our employees that we value the work that they do and we want to create a system where our managers can, in real time, reward people for the work that they’ve done’. So their program essentially had two components to it. The first part was that employees could nominate anyone else in the organization who had done something nice for them. So whether it was about, you know, filling in covering a shift. “I’m gonna do something, can you pick up my shift?”. “Yes. Great, I can nominate that person who helped me out for a $25 gift card to whatever”. The second part of the program was designed for managers to be able to recognize their team members when they go above and beyond. When they do something that is that they consider is worthy of recognition. And each week, managers would have an allotment of the number of gift cards that they should give out based on… I don’t know what all the factors were, we didn’t get into that level of detail. But the intent was to allow managers to respond in real time. And the intent behind both of those initiatives in this recognition strategy were great, right? You want your team members to be thanking, and recognizing, and appreciating what they do for each other, and you absolutely have to have managers who show authentic, timely recognition to their team. The problem was not in the intent, but in the execution of it. And they had been running this for a couple months by the time he and I got together, and were chatting about things, and they had what they found is that they had really, really great participation from the employee program, in like one or two departments. But the vast majority of the plant just didn’t engage in the employee nomination scheme at all. So it ended up just being the same small subset of people who ended up getting recognized. And because they had this quota, they would give out X number of gift cards every month. It ended up being just the same people getting these gift cards over and over again, and they were barely even hitting 20% participation through the entire plant. And the other piece is that managers defaulted to just a schedule system, right? Because you’re talking about giving away something of value, something with a monetary value to your employees. So the automatically defaulted to “Well I can’t be shown to be giving favoritism. I can’t give Johnny something that I don’t give Susie, right? I’ll be accused of whatever. So it’s okay well I’ve got five gift cards to give away and I’ve got eight team members, so we’ll just list them one to eight week. One to five gets one the next week, we just keep cycling through”. Which is a very Equal approach to delivering these programs. I mean everybody gets treated the exact same, everybody has equal access to these. But it doesn’t actually fulfill the goal, it doesn’t actually fulfill what the intent of the program was. And we I mean this is a specific example to a local plant, and one contact. Like we get together for coffee every once in a while and we talk about different things, and this is something that they were dealing with. But these types of programs are fairly common as an engagement strategy, right? And the thing that drives me nuts. Recognition is absolutely a key component of creating an environment where people can feel engaged. Recognition, appreciation,  especially top down, is hugely impactful. But the problem is it became a tick box. Or it became a “I can’t possibly show favoritism, so I’m just gonna do what keeps, what’s easy for me to accomplish, and keeps me out of trouble”.


[COBY]: Yeah, and I think that the the tick box is really one of the biggest red flags for doing something around engagement incorrectly. Or when the employee experience is measured in tick boxes, then it’s a matter of like “Well we just want to just want to cross this off the list so we can get back to work”. When the whole point of engagement, is actually about improving in the employee performance and outcomes, right? It’s about engagement is part of…  as a step to creating the workplace culture where employees can bring their best to work everyday. Where they want to bring their best to work everyday. So well one of the things that I think, again, gets a bit detached is that our engagement strategies, or maybe the lack thereof is a better way to put it, we’re not really too sure what the outcome is. Like it’s almost like we know we’re supposed to do something, so we insert something and hope that it was the right thing to do. But again, what is the point of the of the engagement pieces, right? Because really the whole idea about about creating a really effective and high performing organizational culture, and employee experience is business outcomes. It’s about higher productivity, better efficiency, higher retention, and these are the things that will benefit the organization. Why they should be investing in the right strategies that will actually have the effect. But I mean if you look at it, like you say, as a tick box piece, it’s something we have to, we’re obligated to do. But we want to get out of the way, so we can go back to to work, focus on the business, that is the fundamental mistake about why we’re doing it wrong.


[JAMES]: Yeah, well when it’s not incorporated into your core operational strategy, when it’s just… when any of these pieces are treated as auxiliary to your workplace. Whether you treat… whether it’s your workplace culture in general, which we’ve seen people treat as just an auxiliary piece that’s nice to have and we’ll get to it when we get to it. Whether it’s employee engagement specifically, of well it’s something that we know we need to do, but it doesn’t actually… it’s not part of our core operational philosophy, so we’re just gonna throw a few actions at the wall and hopefully something will stick. When we talk about having a strategy, you need to actually incorporate it into your regular, like your operational strategy. Like a business should know what they’re working towards operationally, what their goals are. Engagement should be part of a larger strategy. And if you’re trying to create, well let’s go back to our question. What do you… how do you actually create… I’m totally butchering the question. Why don’t you tell me what the question was.


[COBY]: What makes Employee Engagement actually work?


[JAMES]: Right so if you want it to actually work… see this is why I should have notes in front of me rather than just go off the cuff.


[COBY]: But here we are.


[JAMES]: That’s not what you get with a podcast, with this podcast. You get me rambling. So if you want it to work, there’s a few things. You need to have a strategy, and you need to focus on the outcomes. But you need to know what those outcomes should be in order to inform your strategy. So when we talk about what are the outcomes, we talk about you need to create an environment where people feel respected, trusted, encouraged, and inspired. That’s what we are trying to do. So what activities, what actions, what approach can we take where we can make people feel… not make people… where we can help people to feel that they are respected, right? Recognition programs can be a great tool for that, but they need to be authentic, they need to be timely, and they need to be appreciable. It needs to be from the manager and it needs to be in a way that the person who is receiving the recognition actually understands and values, right? How do you create trust in the workplace? Well we talk about this in a number of different ways, and there’s you can go back to previous podcasts to listen to our conversations around how do you build trust in the workplace. All of these things need to be incorporated into your strategy, as the outcomes that we’re trying to accomplish. Because if you can hit those outcomes of creating an environment where people actually feel respected, by not only their team members, but by the management, by the organization, where they feel like they are trusted. Where they can use their professional judgment and where they can have some level of autonomy over their work. Where they are motivating have and they’re inspired to actually perform their best these things will change your organization.


[COBY]: Yeah and I think too, it’s really important to not kind of forget about the fact that the way that we are viewing, like you say, the outcomes of the actions that we take around engagement, what is it that we’re trying to achieve. And I think a cause of a lot of the mistakes is the almost like assumption that engagement and happiness are the same thing. Because I do think that we’re like, ‘well engagement; happy employees, right? That’s what that means”. And I think that we put too much emphasis on happy. Trying to make employees happy. Like happiness surveys. Happy is a word that I think has done some unintentional harm when it comes to understanding how we create  Employee Engagement, and how we create our culture. So again, like the company picnic. You know, if people have fun, they’re happy. We’ve done a good job. But like you said, it has to be timely, authentic, and appreciable. And timely especially. Like if you’re… part of your employee engagement is an annual company picnic, well you’re not responding to good work as it happens. You’re saving it… you’re saying to everybody for all the work you did, a big thank you, you know months after you pushed yourself to the brink to meet those deadlines, right? Because the whole idea is I think that there’s this misconception around trying to make people happy is the same… is what Employee Engagement is for. And we’re trying to measure happiness level, which is also so subjective. But I think that we have to shed that idea. I think we have to move away from happiness to think more towards motivation and enthusiasm. Because again, it’s about… because again those are the result, the natural consequences from creating a culture where people are respected and inspired and trusted and encouraged. And I think that those are the things that we need to be putting actions into. Addressing each of those. And if we do those, then the natural consequence of doing them will be improving motivation enthusiasm; engaged employees. But I think a great place to actually… like almost like a litmus test for how well we understand the employee experience, it’s probably going back to what you said around recognition. Because recognition is kind of a good sample. How we understand and try efforts around employee recognition could probably be very telling to how we try and do employee engagement, broadly. And I really think that, going back to your story about trying to institute the gift card program that they guy you were talking about was doing. It’s again, kind of like you’re trying to to create equal access to monetary things. And personally I dislike the idea of monetary rewards as part of a recognition program. Mostly because it… because when you attach recognition to compensation, and it becomes a routine thing, then it doesn’t become recognition. It becomes compensation. Like Christmas bonuses. There’s lots of stories of organizations that gave out annual Christmas bonuses, like gift cards, and then it became, “well we can’t not do those because people rely on those, they are part of the annual compensation…”


[JAMES]: We’ve set the expectation that this is now something that you get every year”.


[COBY]: Yeah. Then it becomes taxable compensation, right? So then because… and then there’s a change in leadership and they’re not doing the Christmas bonuses anymore, well employees rely on that compensation. So you’ve actually… you haven’t actually… it’s not that you didn’t recognize them, you reduced their annual income. So there’s a… it’s a very difficult thing. So I’m always very hesitant around monetary recognition programs in general, just because of that dependence. But also, like you said, the favoritism, right? I do think that avoiding favoritism is one of the major downfalls of recognition programs. Because of things just like they were saying, we don’t want… we didn’t want to seem like we were biased or we were playing favorites, or this or that. So we just remove the entire point.


[JAMES]: Well and then it just becomes a participation award, right? Thanks for showing up, here’s a gift card. That’s not recognition. And that’s not the intent, that is not the intent of what the program was supposed to be. And we default into these settings that completely undermine our strategy, if we had one to begin with.


[COBY]: Yeah and I do think though that a big part of it is really going to be about just showing people respect. Because I mean the day-to-day, taking the time to listen to somebody. You know authentically thanking them for the work that they do, Like those are the, you know, the less tangible, harder to measure, harder boxes to check, when you actually create that, when we actually do those things. Its so much easier just to buy a recognition program, insert it, and check, check, check, check, we are great at recognizing people! Okay that was a little sassy there. But it’s one of those things where a lot of these programs, recognition, Employee Engagement, that are boxed off the shelf or inserted again into a culture that’s not ready for them, ends up being just about trying to create the tangible, measurable boxes to check. But not actually creating what people really want which is the culture and the employee experience that will allow them to bring their best to work every day. Because I mean you can’t company picnic and employee rewards program yourself away from problems like micromanagement, or harassment, or you know people not trusting you to use your professional judgment, right? Like it’s one of those things where those Band-Aids don’t you know… won’t actually improve the culture. Which is what you need to create that environment so people can bring their motivational enthusiasm to work.


[JAMES]: And if you are a manager, or you lead a team, and you’re trying to figure out how do I… Okay so a recognition program doesn’t work, but how do I actually show my team members that I appreciate what they do, and recognize their work? It needs to be individual. it needs to be one-on-one. right? I know like Coby, you mentioned a couple things that are really important. Professional judgment is a great… allowing people to use their professional judgment is a great way of showing that you respect and that you appreciate them. I know for me that’s a huge piece. In my work, I need to be able to share my opinions, because I’ve got a lot of them,  but I need to be able to share my opinions. I need to be able to question the why. Not just what we do, but why we do it. And it’s not that I’m trying to be a difficult person when I do those things, I just default to being a difficult person I guess, but it’s that… by engaging in that way with a manager and having somebody who values my perspective in that way that has… that’s what makes me feel like I am valued and appreciated at work. And I’ve had a couple managers, I’ve been very fortunate to have a couple managers in my previous work who have understood that, and have done a very good job of making me feel appreciated for the… even despite the fact that I can be a challenging person at times. But it needs to be authentic. So a honest ‘you know what? I appreciated when you did this type of thing. Or you know I recognize that you’ve got a lot of these really great skills, how can we better use them?’. These types of things, a blanket program is not going to cover. There’s a time and a place for organizational wide recognition, but if you want to actually make the difference and start to build an environment where people can engage in work, and you want to start with recognition, then it has to be personal. It needs to be timely, so if they’ve done something you need to follow up in a timely manner and let them know that you appreciate what they’ve done, and how that work has contributed to the overall success. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated either, right? It requires intention, and it requires time and effort, and that’s really, I think, the hardest part of all of this. Is that it requires time and attention.


[COBY]: Yeah I mean so much… when it comes to employee engagement and a lot of things around employee experience, we want the ‘set and forget it’, auto programmed message, consistent, just you know a little bit of actions to yield success. And this is something that we have to be aware of. Because again, the ideas around… what people… like I said, people want the individual in what will make them feel appreciated. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking them, you know, does a thank you… is a thank you enough? Like how can I make you understand that I really appreciate your work? Sometimes they know, sometimes they don’t. So one thing… we could really get into recognition with a lot of depth. We have a program called Sevenfold Recognition where we actually dig into kind of the different ways people feel  recognized, and like that. I mean we should do an episode about that the future, I think that would be a really great episode. But again, kind of going back to the individual side of it. Because I mean recognition is a great example of… or it’s a great like a litmus test for how recognition is present in the workplace. Its a great, you know again, sample for how engagement is kind of understood and present in the workplace. But another one, just kind of briefly touched on, we previously did an episode around purpose. And engagement and purpose are strongly aligned too. Like if purpose is done right, that improves motivation that improves enthusiasm. So it’s one of those elements that we need to realize that engagement is kind of like the sum of multi-parts. It’s not a solid thing on its own. If you have recognition, and you have purpose, and you show respect, and you trust employees, and all those kind of things, like then those efforts, those actions, will create the outcome that is engagement. Where employees are enthusiastic and motivated in their jobs, and they bring their best to work every day, and they want to bring the best work every day. And it’s really important for us to not forget about the fact that it is a sum of parts. That doing some things really well kind of helps us build towards fulfilling the whole, the sum, that is the engagement that we’re looking for.


[JAMES]: Yeah and again we’re going back to kind of the first answer that I gave. That you need to focus on the outcome, you can’t do engagement, right? Engagement is the outcome of the actions that you take.


[COBY]: Right. All right I think I’ll wrap all this up. Do you have anything else to add?


[JAMES]: Uh no I think I’m good.


[COBY]: Okay so the question is what makes Employee Engagement actually work? Well the truth is it’s not about an action, it’s about the outcome, the results, the natural consequences that yield the results of what we try and do to make employees feel respected, and inspired, and trusted, and encouraged in their work. Because creating the right conditions is really what we have to do. Because to do that you don’t do engagement, you inspire people to be more engaged, more enthusiastic, and more motivated in their work, as a natural result of the culture that you create. And a really good example of how a workplace may be using engagement in the right or wrong way could be around how they’re currently trying to use recognition. Because recognition is a great example of how a lot of the actions, or how a lot of the views that we have around engagement kind of play out in the workplace. And again like I said before, it could be a litmus test for how the employee experience is understood. Because engagement cannot be created in a vacuum, we have to build that foundation around it. And we want to make sure that we’re achieving the proper outcomes by doing the small everyday thing that people actually care about, that actually improves their work day-to-day. And with recognition, if we’re doing that right, we’re making it timely, authentic, and appreciable, and understood by the person. Because things like monetary rewards or actions that are kind of like, you know, check boxes or ‘set it and forget it’ tend to end up almost like undercutting our intentions. They can actually do more harm than good. So at the end, it’s about the outcomes, not the actions. And understanding the impact that kind of, that the preferences that people have, and how they individually are motivated, and enthusiastic, that tends to play a big part of it. Because people are complex. And they have different things that affect them, and if you want to really have engaged employees, then we have to make sure that the conditions of our workplace are built with intention, and with strategy, that will allow them to bring their motivation and enthusiasm to work every day. All right, so that about does it for us. So for a full archive of our podcasts and access to the video version hosted on our YouTube channel visit our website at roman3.ca/podcast. Thanks for joining us.


[ANNOUNCER]: For more information on topics like these don’t forget to visit us at roman3.ca. Side effects of this podcast may include improved retention, high productivity, increased market share, employees breaking out in spontaneous dance, dry mouth, aversion to the sound of James’s voice, desire to find a better podcast…

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