If you want employee engagement to work, you need to cut the bullshit

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I wouldn’t necessarily call ‘employee engagement ideas’ top of mind for most decision-makers and senior business leaders. For some, employee engagement ideas are crucial. In fact, if you watched last night’s episode of Silicon Valley (Season 3, Episode 2), there’s a whole sequence where the new CEO of Pied Piper tells the old CEO (Richard) that they need gluten-free waffles and other perks because those perks get you the talent. I think a lot of Bay Area CEOs probably think that way, and a few others here and there. But in general, I think revenue growth and KPIs tend to overwhelm employee engagement ideas on the daily to-do lists of the people that can actually drive business change. Oh, and generally-pointless meetings and calls.

So, what are actually good employee engagement ideas? And how do you move forward with them?

Employee Engagement Ideas: The dirty little secret

Here’s a story from a recent place I worked. The business hired a consultant to do an employee engagement survey. About 70 percent of the employees participated in the survey — that’s good! — and eventually, we had an all-hands meeting to discuss the results. This company worked in 3–4 different offices plus remote workers, so it was a big conference call with video chat, etc. The consultant led the section about employee engagement results.

The meeting went down like this: the CEO of our company talked about how important this was. I was at the location with him and 3–4 of his top lieutenants, right? So he talks about the importance of employee engagement and employee engagement ideas … and then he passes it off to the consultant, who starts going through the results.

Instantly, once the consultant was speaking, the CEO kept paying attention and taking notes — good! — but all the lieutenants tuned out. One dude was on Facebook on his phone under the table. No joke. Ignore the fact that he’s in his 50s and that’s kinda weird as is, and just focus on the disrespect aspect of it.

That whole sequence inspired this post for me.

A few months later, I was at a party with some work people and I overheard a discussion from one of those tuned-out lieutenants. I’m sure you know what he/she said, but it was along the lines of … “I don’t get paid/bonus’ed to worry about employee engagement ideas, so forget that. I have my own targets I gotta hit!”

I’ve had bosses like that for years — and BTW, these people speaking in this story weren’t my boss — which in turn inspired this post.

So look, here’s the dirty little secret of employee engagement ideas: most people don’t care about it. They’re not tasked to care about it, and their performance evaluations and chances at more money aren’t tied to it. Also, employee engagement as a base-level concept is hard to measure — and things that are hard to measure tend to be ignored in businesses. (Generalization, but true.) What’s sad about all that is that employee engagement actually isn’t hard to measure, but again — people don’t care because it’s not their thing and their tasks, so no one puts thought into it. Instead, they kick it to HR. HR isn’t an empowered department by any means — at most companies it just gets people fired and puts out Chinese fire drills around seemingly bad employees — and so anything running up through HR either (a) scares people or (b) people ignore it.

And there’s your base problem with employee engagement ideas.

Employee Engagement Ideas: Excuses 101

There are thousands of employee engagement ideas out on the Internet. Like, thousands. Here, let me give you two examples from one article that’s relatively easy to find. It’s from Forbes and it’s about “keystone moments” around employee engagement.

Here’s Example No. 1:

  • Most organisations when it comes to asking for feedback from their customers tend to organise this centrally. The problem with this approach is that it can tend to generate a significant time lag between the customer’s experience and any survey being sent out. In addition, taking this type of approach can mean that firms are slow to complete the feedback loop i.e. the results of the feedback often reach the person who has served that customer last. Realising this, Principality empowers the employees that are serving their customers to ask for feedback immediately after a service experience. They also encourage them to ask for suggestions on how their services can be better. This approach has been the ‘cement’ around which they have built a more customer focused and engaged organisation and has allowed them to achieve feedback survey response rates in the region of 50%, numerous suggestions from customers about innovations and ways that they can improve their service, customer satisfaction scores in the region of 88% and employee engagement scores of circa 90%.

Cool. Here’s Example No. 2:

  • Aviva ’s continual challenge is to figure out how to be more efficient. However, a few years ago, they were finding that whatever they tried to improve their service resulted in things getting worse. Therefore, they decided they had to try something different and started using a ‘systems thinking’ approach. This allowed them to focus on what matters to customers and remove any ‘work’ that wasn’t of value to customers. Doing so has meant they have been able to increase efficiency, improve satisfaction, reduce complaints, reduce the number of customers calling back, reduce resource requirements, improve satisfaction and provide the customers with a better deal and service. Meanwhile, where this approach has been implemented, customer satisfaction has improved significantly and is now in the region of 80–90%, whereas employee engagement is now 70% where before it was below 50%. Finally, by focusing on doing the right sort of ‘work’, this approach has also allowed them to save tens of millions of pounds every year in operational costs.

Both of those are actually pretty good examples of “finding the problem” and then “applying employee engagement ideas” and then “tracking the success” and so on and so forth. It’s all standard business stuff — ID a problem, set up a plan to attack the problem, figure out how to track success of the plan, evaluate, move on, etc.

Here’s what happens at most companies when someone brings up employee engagement ideas. An executive bellows:

“That’s all well and good, but there’s no time! We’ve got targets to hit!”

That’s Variation A. That’s a form of what I discussed above. Variation B is this:

“That’s great for them, but it’s a different type of company/industry/vertical/their revenue is better! It wouldn’t work here!”

So now we’ve come to the hard crossroads around employee engagement ideas, right? You’ve got two massive problems that need to be solved:

  • In general (not always), executives don’t care about the concept.

Hm. So now what?

How can we empower employee engagement ideas?

It’s tough, for sure — but let’s try to outline a way.

Move it out of HR: This is crucial. Like I said above, people don’t view HR the right way because of how HR has evolved as a function at most companies. Anything out of HR is usually not seen as “business-facing.” If you want people to care, it needs to be “business-facing.” So move things connected to employee engagement ideas away from HR. I’d argue marketing is the most logical spot, although you want to say “executives” is the best place. Problem is, they have other stuff to focus on and will kick it back to HR. Brutal loop there.

Showcase the business value: This sounds like some buzzword bullshit you’d read in a half-assed Fast Company article, so let me clarify. What I mean is this: find about three KPIs. Something like:

  • Satisfaction with manager as tied to turnover rate

That’s a jumping off point. Your KPIs will vary by what you do. But basically, create a narrative or story. “When people hate their jobs and their wanker bosses, they leave. When they leave, we lose/spend this much money. And when they stay and aren’t engaged, we’re losing this much money because they’re doing deliverables work and not value work.”

Basically, “employee engagement ideas” has to be tied to “we lose this much money” or “we make this much money” or else the true decision-makers of most organizations aren’t going to care.

Cut the bullshit: Every speech and article about employee engagement ideas, give or take, is total buzzword-driven garbage. “We embrace our customer-focused vision and believe employees play a key role in that mission of purpose-driven alignment,” says a CEO on stage at a trade show … and then 2 hours later, he’s holed up in his hotel suite with his top dogs chasing nickels in the couch cushions of their vertical. When I say “cut the bullshit,” here’s what I mean: if you think you might care about employee engagement, move towards it logically. If you don’t care and you absolutely know you don’t care, never bring it up. Because when you bring it up but then are constantly two-faced about it and it clearly doesn’t really matter to you, that also sends a message to employees. And it’s not a good one.

Track it: Measure it, but try to do this organically. Not just once-a-year surveys that are then reported at a meeting where some exec is diddling his Facebook under the table. That’s meaningless. I’ve never been a big fan of net promoter scores because they’re not really organic either, but it’s better than nothing, you know? Do weekly blasts. TINYPulse. Waggl. Whatever you choose to use. Track it, measure it, report on it, etc. Make people see and say “Oh, this seems to matter.” All monkeys do what they see. That’s as true as anything for employee engagement ideas.

What else you got in terms of how to maximize employee engagement ideas? I’m all ears.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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