Why do some organizations succeed in spite of harsh external business conditions while others do not? Engagement is a key reason. It can help to create higher revenue, greater market share, better margins and greater earnings per share.
However, there is an engagement gap and growing cynicism about organizations’ efforts to create engagement. While the majority of leaders acknowledge its importance, the vast majority of employees report not being fully engaged. Further, customer satisfaction is at all-time lows, with buyers demonstrating reduced loyalty in consumer and business-to-business markets.
The reality is that improving employee and customer engagement is hard, and there are few models to guide leaders on how to achieve it.
Engagement occurs when employees and customers make an emotionally based choice to be loyal to a company. Organizations often fail in attempts to improve engagement, but not because they aren’t trying. Despite the expenditure of time and resources, employees and customers are not reacting as hoped. In 2009, the Gallup Organization found the number of actively disengaged workers actually has increased 21 percent.
The reason so many organizations’ well-intentioned efforts yield so few positive results is because their solutions have focused on systems rather than on values and culture. For example, one of the most common mistakes organizations make is to focus on measurement as a lever to encourage greater engagement. While measurement can be an important step along the way, alone it will not create the desired outcome.
Another significant cause of failure is a focus on outcomes. Most organizations see the ultimate goal as customer engagement because it is linked to revenue, market share and profitability. A company therefore takes steps to increase customer engagement while ignoring the fact that customer engagement is impossible without employee engagement. In fact, some efforts to engage customers can result in lower levels of employee engagement.
Perhaps the biggest failure is a persistent belief that an organization can create engagement. Engagement is a personal choice, not something a company can impose. Employees will choose to expend their discretionary energy. Customers will choose to be loyal advocates. An organization cannot force these choices.
What an organization can do is create the conditions under which engagement can occur, and provide employees — and then customers — with the opportunity to make the engagement choice. We call this the culture of engagement.
Creating the Culture of Engagement
Establishing such a culture is where learning leadership plays a critical and strategic role by creating the conditions for engagement. This means aligning senior leaders and their managers around the value of an engaged culture and understanding the components and requirements therein.
Effective leaders will focus attention on five key elements of the engagement culture:
Creating a culture of opportunity: When we enter a low-engagement culture, we usually find one of two mindsets. The first can be summarized as the “can we survive?” scenario, in which people live in crisis mode and the primary strategy is cost cutting and workforce reduction. The second could be called the “not another reorganization” scenario, where the approach is restructuring or refocusing the strategy. People wonder if changes will work this time.
In contrast, we see a different mindset in high-engagement cultures. The “how good can we get?” scenario is about focusing on potential and opportunity instead of loss. People want to feel that they contribute to a winning team, not to a losing team that’s barely hanging on.
Leaders need to use their current strategy to help employees move forward in the context of growth, not just survival. For example, if a company makes a strategic decision to outsource a particular function, that is certainly a cost savings and efficiency measure, but it’s also an opportunity for the organization to increase its effectiveness in customer service. How the organization’s leaders communicate the change is critical to how employees see the decision: either as further evidence that their survival is in jeopardy, particularly if jobs will be cut, or as an opportunity to grow and enhance their future success. The organization’s leaders can choose to communicate about the move upfront, emphasizing the flexibility and growth opportunities the change will bring. As a result, employees focus on new things they could do in coordination with the new outsourcing partner. Their question becomes “how good can we get?” as a result of this change.
Learning leaders must help employees understand the connection between their personal contributions and the organization’s ability to succeed.
Creating a culture of personal accountability: More often than not, employees do what is expected of them. Unfortunately, in low-engagement cultures, managers often fail to communicate expectations. While many organizations have good systems in place to establish and measure performance goals for individual jobs, most are less effective at clarifying behavioral expectations for individuals, regardless of their job function.
In high-engagement cultures, leaders at all levels understand the importance of communicating not only clear goals and objectives, but also the standards for how employees treat and communicate with customers and fellow employees. At the organizational level, this means modifying the performance management system to include goals for behavioral expectations in addition to measurable performance goals. At the individual manager level, it means preparing managers to have critical day-to-day conversations and conduct performance reviews in a way that balances clarity about requirements with clarity about behavioral expectations, reinforcing that meeting objectives is important, but so is how objectives are met.
The chief learning officer plays a critical role in ensuring that leaders at all levels know how to articulate employee expectations and how to hold them accountable for fulfilling those expectations.
Creating a culture of validation: Individuals want to know that the company’s leaders care about them as people, not just as employees. The fastest way to lose employee engagement is to make employees feel like they don’t matter. When leaders fail to take a personal interest in their employees, to recognize efforts, reinforce performance and provide opportunities for development, they teach people very quickly that their contributions don’t really matter. Worse, employees may begin to feel that they personally don’t matter. Without validation, employees either quit and stay or quit and leave, but they will quit. This is often not an instant decision but a gradual process of diminished engagement and energy loss. Employees start doing things out of compliance — because they have to — and withhold their full commitment — doing things because they want to.
Although most leaders are aware of their role in rewarding and recognizing high performance, most do not extend employee recognition on an ongoing, even daily, basis. Busy managers can easily forget that the most effective forms of recognition are those that touch a person in a personal way, that occur immediately after action and that employees perceive as genuine. The recognition could be as small as a brief note to acknowledge performance or a word of encouragement for the marathon someone is running on Saturday. These actions take little time and cost nothing, but the payoff is tremendous in terms of promoting employee feelings of appreciation and value. There can be only so many bonuses handed out and only one employee of the year. Yet every employee who is making a contribution needs to feel personally supported and valued.
Having a culture of validation requires learning leaders to go beyond a focus on learning or financial metrics. There must be processes in place to encourage ongoing validation and to ensure managers have the mindset and skills to recognize and reward employee contributions. Leaning leaders must ensure that managers understand the value and importance of feedback and recognition and that they have opportunities to learn how to reward and reinforce each individual member of their work teams.
Creating a culture of inclusion: People don’t hate changing — they hate being changed. Engagement occurs when employees are well-informed and involved and have an opportunity to openly express thoughts and feelings. Disengagement occurs when change is imposed.
It is a misperception that people are resistant to change. People can be surprisingly flexible if they feel included in the process. In the aforementioned outsourcing example, the company’s leaders could offer employees across the entire value chain an opportunity to express their thoughts, ideas and feelings before a decision is finalized. For example, the company might choose to hold a series of meetings to describe upcoming changes and the strategy behind them. Then employees will have an opportunity to discuss the impact of the change on them personally, make suggestions, ask questions and participate in discussions about how to make the most of the change while limiting its negative effects. Being involved in creating the solution and being included in implementation plans can ensure employees respond more positively to a potentially disruptive and stressful change in business operations.
In a high-engagement culture, the CLO ensures there are systems and communication channels in place to ensure two-way communication — a dialogue, not a monologue. For example, a Web conference on a company issue with a parallel Twitter feed lets employees comment on the Web conference. This allows information to flow out to the organization and comments and reactions to flow up to the leadership team and across functional lines unfiltered. Of course, for this to work, all of the organization’s managers must know how to listen effectively, as well as how to communicate and foster an environment of trust where employees don’t feel they are in the dark and where leaders trust employees and keep them well informed.
Creating a culture of community: How often do employees hear managers say, “Well, the company didn’t meet its revenue goals, but our department was successful?” In a high-engagement culture, they never say it. In low-engagement cultures, people often complain that their organization operates in silos, where people believe their primary responsibility is to represent their own narrow piece of the business, and success is measured in personal and department goals. What is not present is the sense that the organization is a community with shared interests and shared responsibility for success.
In high-engagement cultures, leaders address this problem by creating cross-functional teams and projects, establishing communication across business units and communicating the sense that every employee is part of the larger organizational community. In these organizations, success is measured first from the perspective of the entire organization, not the department or individual.
To achieve a culture of community, the CLO should focus on helping the organization shed its individualist behavior in favor of practices that promote trust, engagement and spontaneous collaboration aimed at sustainability. For example, sharing success stories that show how different functions work together to solve customer issues or create organizational growth, cross-functional problem-solving workshops, or companywide social networking systems allows people from different areas of the company to discover common interests and values. Learning leaders in high-engagement cultures consciously offer opportunities for people to collaborate in a way that nurtures employees’ commitment to one another and to their enterprise.
Driving the Culture of Engagement
Taken together, these five elements provide the conditions for people — first employees, then customers — to make the choice to engage. For learning professionals in the organization, the task is twofold.
First, the CLO must communicate to other senior executives the importance of creating a culture of engagement as a first step in engaging customers. While organizational leaders may want to focus on the ends, it is important to make sure they understand the futility of trying to create engagement without first creating the conditions for it.
Second, learning leaders need to ensure leaders at all levels understand which of the five elements represent their organization’s greatest challenge and equip them with the mindset and capabilities necessary to enable employees and customers to choose commitment, loyalty and engagement with the organization.
The end result? The chief learning officer improves organizational performance by creating the conditions under which employees and customers choose to be engaged.
Tom Roth is president of the global solutions group and Michael Leimbach is vice president of global research and design for Wilson Learning Worldwide. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.