Think bigger about engagement at work

John Wenger
Director
Quantum Shift
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Shifting to a new way of thinking is required when our tried and tested ways of explaining the world no longer fit our experience.  For example, performance management systems keep people on track with achieving their KPI’s, but they have limited use in generating genuine engagement at work.  Year after year, surveys show that employees are becoming less and less engaged at work.  The phenomenon that Roger Herman calls ‘warm chair attrition’ is here to stay unless we think bigger about how to generate workplaces where people feel compelled to come in every day.  Despite stubbornly high unemployment, there is still a talent shortage, so you don’t want your good people to jump ship and leave behind the less capable to run things.

Not only is engagement about loyalty and low staff turnover, it is also connected to productivity.  How do you get people to accomplish more in the same time but without increasing stress, lowering morale and compromising quality or safety?  It’s definitely not done purely through KPI’s.

One key link between people capability and the bottom line is growing and developing transformational leaders-the ones who listen to people and can gauge how they feel.  These are the people who overlay leadership onto a good set of management skills in ways which motivates people to engage more.

Ask yourself these questions:

Is there a culture of autonomy and accountability woven into the fabric of our organisation?  People want their work to be meaningful, they want to work for successful organisations and they feel satisfied when their contributions are valued.  This implies a culture where regular and frequent conversations about performance are par for the course; where people are treated with respect; where initiative and creativity are encouraged and rewarded, not shunned or ignored.

How do we show that we care about people?  Transformational leaders understand that this is not just about caring for employees, but also about creating and nurturing a culture of caring for each other through the whole of an organisation.  This is also not something we can just pay lip service to; it needs to be genuine caring.

Do we have mechanisms whereby we can identify those people who are ‘naturally chosen’ by staff members, as potential leadership material?  These people may have the ‘raw materials’, such as a caring attitude, good listening skills or ability to mentor others.  We need to grow these people and invest in developing the other qualities they will need as they take up more visible leadership roles.

How much do we invest in learning and development? People want to improve their capabilities to perform a wide range of tasks at work.  This involves ‘soft skills’ training as well the technical stuff.  If we are thinking about leader development, it's probably important to remember that they will have had their fill of 'hard' or technical training and will require more ongoing, long-term development in the areas of communication, self-awareness and relationship management.

Do we focus on developing the ‘people skills’ of our managers?  It’s been said that people join good organisations but leave bad leaders.  Managers direct, but leaders inspire, nurture, get genuinely interested in people and set good examples.  Research into this area shows that about 2/3 of a manager’s job is related to ‘people skills’, with only 1/3 related to their technical know-how.

What do we do when we ‘fail’?  Are mistakes seen as opportunities to learn and find new ways of doing things?  Remember the (probably apocryphal) story of Thomas Edison:  when his assistants came to him bemoaning the fact that they had tried 500 ways of getting this new-fangled 'light-bulb' thing to work, but to no avail, Edison is reputed to have said, "That's great! Now we know 500 things NOT to do.  Keep going."

Considering these questions leads us to bigger thinking about business, staff engagement and the bottom line.  The problem we see is often not the real problem and bigger thinking can help us to uncover other truths that are screaming out for attention.

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