Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Reflecting Fully on Staff Engagement Problems

Are these disengaged staff completing yet another engagement survey?
The change we need to make is to redefine engagement beyond an “annual HR measure” to a continuous, holistic part of an entire business strategy. If your people love their work and the environment you have created, they will treat customers better, innovate, and continuously improve your business.
Reference: It's Time To Rethink The 'Employee Engagement' Issue, by Forbes contributor Josh Bersin.

I remember a company that enlisted the Gallup model and survey to gauge engagement among its staff across its many business units.  In that first year, the company ranked well below the global average on enthused and committed staff.  There was notable improvement in the second year, after a concerted effort by a team from HR and the business units to make the company a better place for everyone to work at.  In the third year, however, there was slippage downward on the survey.  By the fourth year, the CEO decided to halt that engagement process altogether.

What happened?

There was considerable turnover in the upper echelons in the third year, and sent the company reeling from disappointing, worrisome changes.  As a whole it struggled to hit performance targets, so changes were needed, to be sure.  But unfortunately some of the incoming executives were a turn for the worse, as far as capability, motivation and engagement were concerned.  Here's one emblematic example of their gross missteps:  A good many employees arrived late for work, left early, and-or otherwise whiled away their work hours.

The new executives' solution?

They installed a new system that required staff to scan their IDs to enter certain offices and buildings and even parking garage.  At the end of the day, each manager received a report of their staff members' whereabouts throughout the day.  The executive brain thrust must have reasoned that the problem required better tracking and that better tracking would solve the problem, that is, via the manager's intervention.

Unfortunately, managers who struggled to manage their problematic staff struggled even more under the new system.  The issue of truancy was a real quandary, and the larger disengagement among staff were complicated indeed.  But the expensive solution caused even greater rifts among staff and between managers and staff.  It created a police state for a company that very much needed advice, support and coaching on how to deal with an intransigent staff issue.

But even more pronounced of an issue were the shifts the company made in its upper echelons and the actions of its incoming executives.

How well could they step back, reflect on the broader problem, and grasp the very root of that problem, never mind rush to, and impose, an ultimately misguided solution?  

This issue has no happy ending, at least not yet, as the company has continued to struggle with the issue, well beyond the fourth year.  Executives were simply not so willing and-or able to step back and self-examine.

Bersin speaks to realities and challenges facing scores of companies (emphasis, added):
Creating a high performance work environment is a complex problem. We have to communicate a mission and values, train managers and leaders to live these values, and then carefully select the right people who fit. And once people join, we have to continuously improve, redesign, and tweak the work environment to make it modern, humane, and enjoyable.

I would suggest that using the word “engagement” often limits our thinking. It’s assumes that our job is to reach out and “engage” people, rather than to build an organization that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and fun.
The Gallup model and survey are in fact holistic, and account for the foregoing points.  But if companies relegate it all to an annual review, then they narrow the big picture and oversimplify the process.  Managing the complexity of any company is no easy task indeed, but it is nothing short of an imperative.  Thankfully, they don't need to scale a big mountain climb in one or two steps.

They can begin with a simple step of stepping back, perhaps by a small contingency of HR and business unit managers, and addressing issues in a broader but step-by-step process.  They must come to a grip on what those issues truly and what really needs to be done.  It doesn't mean scuttling their annual review or even as Bersin suggests going beyond engagement.  It does mean that the more entrenched and complicated the problems are, the more conscientious, patient and complex the solutions have to be.  The idea is not to resort to another model, approach or tool, and thus enlist a laundry list of them, but rather to let the problem discussion and examination guide that contingency to workable, accurate solutions.

For that company in the example I describe, it meant acknowledging the radical changes it had gone through.  It meant the executives stepping back, and their underlying tactfully but persistently helping them do so.  It meant, yes, a pause to the engagement process, but not to dispense with it altogether, rather to reflect on, and settle, the turbulence that surrounded it.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

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