What to do BEFORE the “Engagement Survey”

darkedinburgh_couple2Gather ‘round and let me tell you a story about employee engagement. This is a simple tale. When you hear it you’ll realize it required neither the purchase of shiny new technology nor the services of a high-priced consultant. No project plan and no additional dollars budgeted for tchotkes in an attempt to curry favor with the masses. Not even a strategy map.

Engagement, of course, is not a strategy. Rather it’s the outcome after implementing steps designed to accomplish some fairly specific things. Organizations usually set out with the intent of creating a better work environment, promoting trust, increasing collaboration, or strengthening an organizational culture that aligns with their values and vision.

Google “engagement” and you’ll uncover numerous definitions (and find yourself the victim of retargeted ads from any number of vendors and service providers trying to get you to spend money money money!). Most pundits are in agreement, of course, that engagement is not the same as employee happiness or employee satisfaction. Although I venture to guess many of us who’ve worked in hellish companies would have traded our souls for a few days of happiness or satisfaction. Am I right?

Nevertheless, most people who worry about this sort of thing concur that engagement means emotional commitment. It refers to employees who care about both their own work and performance and the organization. They go the extra mile. You never hear an engaged employee utter the phrase “that’s not my job.” Stuff like that.

This doesn’t remove an expectation of some quid pro quo such as the psychological contract concept as developed by Denise M. Rousseau which refers to the mutual beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between an employer and an employee. If there’s a contract “breach” around pay or working conditions Sally Employee may walk out the door. But Sally, dare I say, also isn’t going to extend a whole lot of discretionary effort while she’s an active employee if the CEO is a mythical creature and her own manager is a tool.

My personal definition of engagement has long been “the extent to which employee attitudes, actions, and behaviors demonstrate a commitment to and alignment with the goals of the organization.”

So why do organizations fail in devising actions and strategies when they’re hoping for an outcome of enhanced engagement? When they desire that alignment and commitment?

I’ll tell you why.

The buzzword bandwagon pulls up, everyone hops on, and before you know it Joe CEO is attempting to measure something with a lack of internal clarity on work factors or conditions. He lacks the rudimentary knowledge about the critical drivers of trust, collaboration, cultural alignment or yes…even the basics of the psychological contract. Comments like “people seem unhappy” or “turnover is increasing” or “we’ve lost our collective mojo” can very quickly lead organizations, at the behest of Joe CEO, down the path of collecting annual survey data with no underlying rhyme or reason.

So now to the story. (Finally. Am I right?)

An organizational leader was recently hired to take the reins of a mid-sized operation. Along with all the necessary stuff to sort out – “Are we efficient? How are our customers being served? When is my laptop going to arrive?” – he knew that employees (people! human beings!) were the foundation to everything he might plan for the future.

So he held some roundtables. Easy peasy, to some degree; most every new leader, unless she or he is incredibly anti-social does something similar. Usually.

Here’s the cool thing though; the point of this particular tale. This new leader spent the first several months working in every department and in most every job across the organization. Full shifts. Days, nights, weekends. He donned the appropriate uniform and worked side-by-side with employees with 20+ year tenure and newbies who had just landed the gig themselves. And no; not in some Undercover Boss bullcrap-for-the-camera sort of way.

He gained clarity by walking the walk and demonstrating a willingness to fully and completely understand what-people-do-and-deal-with before launching any snazzy sexy consultant-sold initiative designed to increase excitement, motivation or innovation. Absent surveys and measurements and “scoring.”

Is gathering data – through a feedback mechanism or an engagement survey tool – somewhere in his future? Sure it is.

But it will launch with understanding and on a foundation of human connections. It will be real-time. It will be integrated and holistic …not a stand alone checklist. It will reinforce support for employees; support that has already been demonstrated.  Deep-in-the-gut things that can actually impact attitudes, behaviors, and actions.

Survey or not.


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