Are your employee engagement efforts doing exactly the opposite?

While there's a lot of talk about the value of employee engagement, the actions many companies take lead to one-way, often ill-timed, occasional requests for feedback. There are steps you can take to engage your staff and benefit your company – are you ready for a paradigm shift?

Many articles and studies continue to validate that staff engagement has a huge effect on performance, as described in detail in the Harvard Business Review report The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance. It shows 71% of respondents ranking employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organizational success and 72% ranking recognition for high performers as having a significant impact on employee engagement, yet only 24% say employees in their organization are highly engaged!  Clearly there’s a disconnect in the actions taken and the outcome of those actions.

Well, why should we care about employee engagement?

A recent Gallop poll shows just 15 percent of employees worldwide say they are engaged at work, and estimates that disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion annually in lost productivity. Other studies have consistently shown a correlation between higher staff engagement and improvement in recruiting, retention, company customer service and image, innovation, growth and profitability. Not too shabby reasons to care!

In “The resurgence of the CIO,” you can see that I like to use Wikipedia (not WikiLeaks!) to define a context of discussion. If nothing else, I’m consistent. To paraphrase Wikipedia, engagement is “the period of time between a marriage proposal and a marriage. The duration of the courtship varies vastly and is largely dependent on cultural norms or upon the agreement of the parties involved.” 

When you think about it, and maybe it was more the norm when I graduated a few eons ago, we spend more far time with our company than with our partner or spouse, and there is an implied “marriage” with the expectations that go along with it. How well those expectations are met will impact the enjoyment and duration of the marriage. Interesting if you think about it in that manner.

So, what’s the problem?  Why aren’t we able to engage our employees?

From what I’ve seen in many companies, we're stuck in the mode of asking for feedback at often arbitrary intervals (such as once a year in the infamous annual employee survey – ugh!), rather than allowing staff to provide focused feedback when they experience something that affects them, positively or negatively. "Pulling" feedback at arbitrary intervals, rather than giving the staff the ability to "push" their feedback to us, is a paradigm shift that most companies aren't prepared for.

Like in the movie A Few Good Men we say we want the truth, but we "can't handle the truth!" And there are understandable reasons for this, such as (and this is only a small list as I’m limited in how long many pages my submission can be!)

  • Employees always complain, so why should we just open Pandora’s Box for griping?
  • We can’t address every complaint that employees have, and they’ll be more upset without any response.
  • All they think about is how it impacts them, but we have to think about the whole department/division/company.
  • I don’t have the time or resources to go through all the feedback, I barely have the time to go through my own mail.

Engagement is a two-way process, not an occasional anonymous survey with often intangible results. Trust is hard to build, yet so easy to lose when staff feedback is suppressed, ignored or used to penalize them.

Then what’s the solution? What steps can we take to implement a true employee engagement program?

I have rarely found the senior management perspective of how employees feel to be accurate, even from some senior executives I truly admired. Employees need to feel that their voice matters, will be listened to and acted on. If positive recognition isn't conveyed for the successful areas, as well as with actions on areas that need improvement, feedback will just end or made to mirror the desired company goal out of expediency or for job preservation. You may want the truth, but are you able to handle it and act on it?

In my experience, while regular and pulse surveys can provide useful information, the most actionable information is gathered from employee experiences. This occurs when they interact with the people, processes, products and projects they are involved with on an ongoing basis real-time.

A study from Northeastern University highlights some steps you can take towards improving engagement. I’ve also found that this can be made part of your continuous improvement culture if you build a program that incorporates goal based KPIs based on the area you’re targeting, such as: onboarding, a technical or process change, your corporate culture, or learning & development. You also need to provide a simple easy to use platform to allow staff to provide feedback about how well those KPIs are being experienced on an ongoing basis, not just when you decide to survey them.

In that way, you build a program of continuous monitoring and improvement based on real time experiences rather than snapshot-in-time polls. The polls are easy to do, but don’t answer the question of “why.” They just provide a good litmus test of where you stand at that moment, based on the feelings and memory the staff has at that particular time. The paradigm shift you need to make includes adopting:

  • A fundamental belief that feedback from staff can help expose what's working and what’s not. Certainly not always, but substantially. If you don’t believe this then why do you even survey them if you don’t trust what they’re telling you?
  • An ability to review the feedback on a timely basis, and to take actions where appropriate. Both commending good performance and values, as well as addressing any significant areas that need improvement.
  • Publicize those actions. Show everyone that steps are being taken and that they are not punitive, nor do they require anonymity. If constructive criticism is commended and rewarded, then it will provide them with positive reinforcement to continue providing helpful feedback and keep them engaged.

This can occur when onboarding employees, seeing how they perform against their KPI's before and after they’re promoted, implementing a new major technology (which is the perfect storm of change management!), or undergoing an organizational or process change. Unfortunately, their feedback is rarely asked for and even less often responded to - until the problem gets so large it can't be ignored and is far more complex and costly to fix.

The straight talk

I've been asked how you create staff feedback, since most staff are concerned about providing honest feedback unless it's anonymous.  I’m not a fan of anonymous feedback other than as a snapshot of where you are, since it's usually not actionable and doesn't provide experiential examples.

The 1st step to creating the staff feedback loop is to build trust.  I suggest showing success and then scaling it out. You need to consistently communicate to the group what the objective is, let them know how the feedback will be used and who will see it, and show them that all feedback is equally welcome, whether supportive or showing opportunities for improvement.  I also initially start by selecting a group led by a leader who wants feedback and is prepared to take actions to both communicate where things are going well, as well as where improvement are needed. Word gets around quickly as you show success. Talk is cheap. Staff want to see action when you ask for their feedback

We need to start building trust by taking positive staff engagement steps, rather than just some expedient surveys, to show the staff that their voice matters, and invest in our most important asset – our people! At least that's my experience over almost 4 decades in different companies and industries. The question is, "can we handle the truth" when we ask for this information from our staff?  I think we can if we really want to. What are your thoughts?

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

Get the best of CIO ... delivered. Sign up for our FREE email newsletters!