Someone asked me the other day, “What’s the single biggest mistake companies make when they try to boost employee engagement?” The question threw me a bit because I’m generally talking about what it takes to do engagement right rather than what organizations do wrong to mess it up. It’s also hard to pick just one mistake out of the grab-bag of blunders that companies often make.
It didn’t take me long, however, to come up with an answer. “They get caught in the program trap,” I told jim. It’s the classic reaction from most companies when they get swept up in a big business trend. They assume it’s a good thing, but they don’t have a clear idea of what it looks like or how to make it work.
In the case of employee engagement, instead of making fundamental shifts in the way organizations involve employees in the day-to-day operation of the business, they come up with programs, perks and parties that will help improve their scores in the latest “great places to work” contest.
Avoiding the trap
If you want to avoid the “engagement program trap,” here are examples of things to watch out for:
Recognition spotlights: An employee-of-the-month award may sound appealing, but think about it. What a crazy thing to do to a team. People appreciate being appreciated for sure, but plaques, awards and other showcased recognition for individual effort have a short shelf-life, and they do little to forge a cohesive, high-performing team effort. It’s the ongoing, routine acknowledgement of day-to-day contributions made by everyone on the team that has the greatest impact on performance.
Presentation-style town hall meetings: Most of these periodic events come off more like lectures and data dumps than genuine efforts to get employees tuned into information and decisions. At the end of the typical meeting, the host asks if anyone has any questions. Usually, there’s very little substantive response. It’s essential to keep employees aware of what’s going on, or course, but if all you’re doing is dispensing information, send out an e-mail.
A more interactive approach is to ask employees to discuss designated topics in groups, and report on what they discuss. Bottom line, if it’s not two-way, it’s not communication — it’s just message distribution.
Wallpaper dashboards: It’s hard to find an organization that doesn’t post data somehow showing where they stand on key performance indicators. The problem is, there’s rarely a routine, systematic process for employees to engage in dialogue about what’s underway or what needs to be done to improve those numbers. It may look “engaging,” but it doesn’t do much for people or performance.
Suggestion committees and incentives: Few workplace practices are as well-meaning and fundamentally flawed as this one. The premise is to encourage employees to submit ideas for improvement, and a special committee decides if it will be implemented and how much employees should be paid for it.
But people on those committees have other work to do, and they’re often ill-equipped to judge an idea without doing some kind of evaluation, which take even more time they don’t have. So even the simplest ideas can die on the vine waiting for a decision.
The best way for employees to get fully engaged is through a process that creates a continuous improvement “habit” built around short, structured meetings once or twice a week for teams to submit, review and implement improvement ideas on their own.
Just look at the anemic participation rate of employees in most suggestion programs, and it’s easy to see how ineffective most of them are. If an improvement process isn’t generating an average of at least one documented implemented improvement per employee per month, all you’ve got is a program, not a process.
Focus on systems and processes
Avoiding the minefield of engagement “traps” is actually pretty simple — but it’s not easy. The temptation can be overwhelming to employ spiffy one-off tactics and spout high-sounding exhortations about employee empowerment. It takes little effort, and it puts on a good show.
If you want to produce meaningful, long-term results, however, the antidote to the program trap is fully integrated systems and processes that hard-wire a deeper level of engagement into everyday operations.
Les Landes is president of Landes and Associates. For information, visit www.landesassociates.com.