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We Want Employee Engagement – But… Engagement in What?

The benefits of “employee engagement” are said to include better customer satisfaction, higher productivity, increased staff retention, etc.  Articles on improving “employee engagement” talk about how leaders don’t “treat employees respectfully”, or “take good care of employees”. There are surveys to measure those things, of course.

But if what we really want is better behaviors and attitudes from employees, let’s be straight about that. Because if we want employees to be “engaged”, then we have to offer something for them to be engaged in.  The unanswered question is, “Employees engaged in what?” Really, there is only one good answer:

  1. Employees are engaged when working to accomplish a clearly stated goal or objective.

The problem, however, is like that of the long-married couple, where the wife says, “We have been married for 46 years. Why don’t you ever say you love me?”  And the husband says, “I told you on our wedding day – how often am I supposed to repeat it?”

A once-a-year presentation by the CEO or Department Director about the progress and optimistic future of the company just isn’t enough. What gets people “engaged” in their work is something that is tied to a sense of accomplishment.  (Note: the word “accomplish” is derived from the Latin for “to fulfill or complete together.)

There are several tactics for engaging employees, but first you need to be up to something. An organization change? A new project or program? A task that is an important part of a larger goal?  You need something to engage people in working toward something – something that makes a difference to the organization and to other people in that organization. Just “doing stuff” is not engaging, and doesn’t activate “employee engagement”. So, you need a goal or end-point to be accomplished.

Then, you need to talk about the value of accomplishing that “something” – preferably more than every 46 years, and more than just at the annual retreat or holiday party. Here are three ways I’ve seen “engagement” work in organizations, large and small. They are all about communication: dialogue and discussion.

  1. Q&A sessions. After you roll out your newest strategic plan, or your next goal or project for people, have a few smaller-group “breakout session” where people get to ask and answer questions. This could be done in a round-table or a conference room. It’s good to have a recorder there, taking notes on what questions are important to people, and which answers need more development. It also shows people you are paying attention to their input.
  2. Success sessions. Once people are clear about the goals and objectives, another kind of discussion is to capture ideas (again, take notes) on what success will look like. Ask for what people think will (and won’t) work well, how to measure and track success and progress, and which people or groups should take on specific sub-goals or tasks. This lets people see the “big picture” of the work plan while also clarifying their “role in the goal”.
  3. Status update sessions. These are reliably regular meetings – weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, depending on the timing of jobs to be done. They are to review the status of success and progress toward the goal, and the status of assignments for various responsibilities. It is also an opportunity to identify and discuss problems or delays, revise assignments, and declare some items complete – with a tip of the hat to those who have completed their task or project on-time and/or on-budget.

People do want to be engaged in their work. They just don’t always know exactly what their job or assignment is, or understand the bigger game they are working in. When you don’t know your “role in the goal”, or, sometimes, don’t even know the goal itself, there is nothing for you to engage in.

You want employee engagement? Spend a little time on engaging them in something that would be an accomplishment for them – and for you.

 

P.S. I’ll be away the next 2 weeks – working on something that is really engaging. Back to the blogging board when I return.

Preventing Change Fatigue: Burnout is Expensive – Communication is Not

When I first met the Supervisors at WaterCo, maintaining water lines in a Midwestern city, I was a “change consultant” hired to help them adapt to new regulations and to improve productivity. Those Supervisors were not happy to meet me: I was a consultant, and female, and they didn’t want anybody to “fix” them. That’s sometimes called “resistance to change”.

But I brought food to our meetings (very helpful!) and used my network approach to understand their work. We made circles and arrows on the whiteboard, identifying all the individuals and groups they interacted with at least once a week. They soon saw their work in a whole new way and forgave me for being a “girl consultant”. We all decided which changes would be most useful, and we implemented them together.

But the most important lesson I learned was why they were so “resistant” at that first meeting. They had been doing change projects – what they called “Churn & Burn” – for three years. One man explained it to me.

“We’ve been doing changes for so long that nobody really knows what their job is anymore,” Hank said. “We used to have routines. Now and then we’d make some improvements or get new equipment we had to learn about. But these days we get a new thing to change all the time, like our work processes, our assignments, or who we can and can’t talk to.”  He rolled his eyes, and I could tell he wasn’t interested in improving productivity – or anything else.

“Let’s look back over the last year,” I said to the whole group at that meeting. “I have 3 questions for you. (1) What was the last big change you guys made? (2) What were the results of that change?  And, (3) What did you do when it was complete?”

They looked at me as if I was talking Martian. Hank finally spoke up, saying, “The biggest change was when our crews were downsized from five men to four,” Hank said. “The result was we started using only one truck for over half our jobs, instead of two. I guess that saved money for the company. I know it saved some time for us, since we could get to our jobs faster. Also, different crew trucks had different equipment, so we went to the jobs that needed only what we were carrying – we didn’t have to take everything to every job site.”

“But it was never complete, never over,” he said. “Or at least they never said anything about that. They just told us to change the crew size, gave us three equipment lists to stock our trucks for different jobs, and went on to the next thing. We do the “Churn & Burn” dance these days – I guess that’s our new job description.”  They explained that the “churn” part of the dance was the endless instruction to modify a process, start or stop doing something, and use new forms for job reports or equipment requests. The “burn” part was that more people were leaving for other jobs – the Supervisors were losing experienced people and spending more time training new hires.

Bottom line: I met with the COO and got the statistics on the results of the change – dollars saved, job backlogs reduced, customer satisfaction improved. Then I asked him to come tell the Supervisors about the value of that last big change, and to thank them for all they did to implement it successfully. Surprise! The men appreciated it, and were able to work with me on ways to improve their productivity. They had ideas for what might work and how to do it!

So, it looks like a genuine “thank you”, supported by a little data, can turn change-resistant people who are doing the “Churn & Burn dance” into a team with a recognized accomplishment: they had made a difference for their company. A closure conversation – reviewing the status of a project with the people involved – goes a long way to curing “change fatigue” and restoring people to action. That COO learned the lesson too. Now he has monthly “change debrief” meetings now, with lots of statistics and lots of thank-you’s.

Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”

This Middle Manager is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A manager, Claire, told me that being a “middle manager” was the hardest job she has ever had. She explained it this way: “I’m supposed to balance the interests of the employees who report to me with the interests of my Big Cheese Boss. Which, in my case, means I am between a bunch of people who have job descriptions, projects, and responsibilities… and a woman who is focused on moving up the ladder to the C-Suite. She wants to celebrate the pinnacle of her career before she turns 50.”

Claire has weekly meetings with her staff to review the status of her department’s current and upcoming projects. “That part goes well,” she says. “But when we discuss where things stand, we like to make a list of people’s ideas for ways to improve their work and their results. The problem is they almost always ask for something that I cannot seem to pry out of my Boss: clear goals and success measures.”

She told me she knows using goals and measures would help her “group” become more like a “team”. Some other Middle Managers in her organization created scoreboards for their people to review and update every week. Claire envied them. “I don’t know why their Big Bosses helped them create clear goals and measures and mine won’t,” she said. “I wish my Boss would say what she wants from us, so I could make a scoreboard too. But she meets with me for 15 minutes every other week, and doesn’t want to work on anything with me. She says I need to decide for myself how to manage my people.”

Finally, Claire made up her mind to handle it herself. “I took two of those other Middle Managers out to lunch,” she said. “We talked about the work my department does, and what each of them wanted from us and from our projects. I took notes – right on the paper tablecloth cover – and then I spent the weekend reviewing all 6 of our current initiatives in light of that conversation. I came up with 2 goals and 4 measures of success.”

Still, Claire’s Big Boss didn’t want to review them with her, or even give her a nod of approval. Claire went ahead and presented them to her team anyway. She told the staff about talking with the other managers, then her group discussed the goals she had created for the department.

“They revised them a little,” she said, “and turned one sort of bulky goal into two separate goal statements. But they really liked the measures. My idea was that we could measure these 3 things”:

  1. Dollars saved;
  2. Other department personnel participating in our projects; and
  3. Survey results from external users on their level of satisfaction.

“They dove right in,” she said. “They all started playing with the measures and came up with this variation:

  1. Year-end savings;
  2. External participants in our projects; and
  3. Satisfaction of our users.

“It was funny. They wanted the first letters of the 3 goals to spell something, so now they had Y-E-S. Two people volunteered to make up the scoreboard for tracking the external participants and user satisfaction measures. I guess they really were hungry to see a way to track our accomplishments and get some bragging rights.”

Work without a scoreboard is just that – work. If we want accomplishment, we need to create a game. Good work, Claire. Hats off to the staff for playing full out. And thanks much to Landmark Worldwide for teaching me the difference between just doing things vs. creating an accomplishment.

Why Executives are Cautious about Implementing Change

Here’s a question I just saw on the internet: “What do you think causes a company to not want to change its current HR policies or platforms?”  It opened a discussion on why companies “resist” change. Is it price or convenience? One person said, “If it saves my company time, or money, or both, then we should do it. Period.”

Comments mentioned psychology (fear of the unknown), and physics (the power of inertia), and general criticism (greed, laziness, low self-esteem).

But those explanations presume that changing HR policies or platforms will not rock the boat of the larger organization in unforeseen ways. However simple a change may seem, it helps to remember that everything in an organization is connected to almost everything else, either directly or indirectly: no change is isolated. When planning a change, there is a simple checklist to consider.

  1. Affected Network. Identify all the groups and processes that will be touched in any way, by each of the outgoing-old processes and requirements and each of the incoming-new processes and requirements. (A comprehensive list, please).
  2. Feedback. What input and feedback has been obtained from each of these groups regarding the proposed changes, i.e., the outgoing and incoming processes and requirements? (You did talk – and listen – to each of those groups in Step 1, right?)
  3. Updated Change Plan. When will the Final Change Plan be published and released to each of the groups involved? (The “Final Change Plan”, of course, includes the adjustments made to the original change proposal based on the feedback you acquired in Step 1).
  4. Change Support. Who are the individuals and groups that will be accountable for providing support and assistance for everyone in the affected network? (This “change assistance team” will be on the ground and out front for a little while).
  5. Debrief. When is the scheduled post-change-debrief with each element in the affected network? (You want to know how it went – and collect some “lessons learned” – so you can make future changes go smoothly).

It seems like a lot, but paying attention to change as a network phenomenon adds a lot of intelligence to the change process. Resistance melts in the face of the opportunity to add to the dialogue about what is going to happen and why it will be beneficial. People contribute ideas, of course, but more importantly they provide information that was never anticipated by the change planners. That’s because the people who have to live with the change know more about what is happening in their unit or department than the change planners, who may not have known which boats will be rocked by their good ideas.

Organizations are networks of accountabilities and processes. Nobody sees them all without investing some attention. You can make it easy for people to participate effectively in the change – both in shaping it and adapting to it. You’ll find it is well worth the effort.

Big News! Communication Failures Cause Change Failures!

OK, that’s not really such big news, is it?  Gary, an HR executive in an accounting firm, just ran a Group Workplace Communication Survey to see why his last two organizational change projects didn’t work well. The survey results told Gary the #1 reason: 75% of his staff agreed that the most annoying and counter-productive issue they see in their workplace is this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

Gary had done two of his three planned steps for improving productivity in the company. The first two changes took more than twice as long to complete as he had planned. And in both cases, people were unhappy about the way those changes “messed with their jobs”. Two people left to work for another company. Productivity slowed down, and clients mentioned more service problems than usual. The three steps of Gary’s plan were:

  1. A new software system would help people share documents and communicate in real-time.
  2. The financial and the accounting staff would relocate to the same floor in their office building which would reduce delays and increase information-sharing.
  3. The client services team would work with the financial and accounting groups to redesign client reports and the financial performance evaluation system.

Before Gary started the implementation of that third change, he wanted to find out what had caused the problems. Out of a total of 53 staff people in the company, 49 people took the Group Workplace Communication Survey to learn more about the communication issues that people see at work – and 36 people said that they had not been consulted about some of the changes made in other departments or groups. Two comments from Gary’s staff members:

  • “Our work uses data from both our Clients and the Finance group. Just because we now have a “real-time” communication system doesn’t mean that Finance will bother to put their new templates into that system. We lost 10 days on that one, and the Client was upset about it.”
  • I didn’t have a say in the kind of office furniture I got when we moved to the third floor. Now I don’t have room for my reading chair and side table. I feel like I’m working in a cubicle.

Everybody knows that “communication” can be improved. But what does that even mean? What kind of communication – and improved how? Gary got some specific answers, but most important to him was learning about “Understanding Conversations” – the dialogues to engage people in finalizing the details of a plan.

“I bought the software sales pitch,” Gary said. “They told me people loved the document-sharing system and would pick it up quickly. I never thought about getting everyone together to meet with the software team and discuss it as a group. And moving Finance and Accounting to share the same floor – well, I got their input on that, but I talked to each group separately, and we didn’t get into details about office arrangements and stuff.”

Too many changes fail – taking too long or costing too much – because the people whose daily work life will be changed didn’t have a say in what was going to happen. And they didn’t get to ask the questions about “little things” that employees knew to ask but the change agent did not.

“I won’t do the report and evaluation redesign changes without having a robust dialogue first,” Gary said. “It takes too much out of everybody to try and fix things after the fact. People felt hurt, and some were mad. My plan looked great on paper, it was approved by the other executives, and I talked to people about it before those steps were implemented. Turns out that was not sufficient. I learned something about implementing change: First, take the time for a dialogue with everybody whose work will be touched by it.

 

Maybe It’s Not Them – Maybe It’s You.

“Morale seems to be dropping around here. It’s the millennials – they have no work ethic.” That was Molly’s explanation for her biggest workplace problem. She manages a department of 14 people, and wasn’t getting the kind of positive participation she expected from them.

“I tell them what we need, what to do, what results to produce, but they seem to be slowing down, not speeding up”, she complained. “They should be more productive to help get this company more competitive. A little enthusiasm would be nice too!”

After Molly mentioned getting the company more competitive, I asked if she talked to her people about her vision or that goal. “Not really,” she said. “They should know we’re not in this business for fun – we’re here to have the company be successful.”

This was not a problem of Molly making unclear requests, or failing to explain what to do. It was bigger than that: the people in Molly’s department did not connect their work assignments to the larger vision of business success. We talked about how to get people related to the “big picture” of their work. Here’s the 3-step solution we created together:

  1. Call a department meeting to talk about the company – the organization as a whole. What is the company’s mission? What is the vision for a successful business? Molly got some documents that talked about those things and made up a list of what she called “Five Big Ideas” for discussion: the market, customer profiles, competitors, sales, and local business rankings.
  2. Write the list on the board, read it aloud, and ask people to talk about where they see these things in their daily work and what they mean to them. Invite questions and comments from everyone, and take notes on the board – visible to all – whenever new ideas or definitions are introduced.
  3. Save the last half-hour of the meeting to ask the group three questions:  First, how would you change your work habits in light of this conversation?  Second, is there a particular “Big Idea” you think is most important?  Third, in what ways would you like to continue this conversation?

The meeting started off slowly, maybe because people were shy, or because the subject was unfamiliar. It picked up, though, and Molly was amazed at what the meeting ultimately produced. Their energy grew as they talked – they were learning more about the business they were in, and they were learning about each other in a new way as well. Then the group chose two of the “Five Big Ideas” as being particularly important to them: customer profiles and local business rankings. People wanted to see more data on those two areas, and to understand how they were measured. They talked about what their department could do to make improvements in those areas.

The group had several more meetings about these ideas, looking at ways to see how they were impacting “big picture” results that benefited the company. They also agreed to track and review those impacts every time the statistics were available, and to add a new topic to their weekly staff meeting: all new assignments would be associated with some aspect of improving “big picture” business success.

Molly gave up her complaint about millennials. “I really did think they were lazy,” she confessed. “I’ve been here eleven years, and I assumed that everybody in this department knows our business goals and connects them to their work. Now I see that part of my job is to engage people in talking about how we can be more successful – and checking to see how well we are doing at that.”

“It wasn’t a problem of them losing energy. It was me – I was not keeping their fires lit”, Molly said.  Management lesson learned.

Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, and the Missing Conversation

There is much talk right now about Yahoo’s demise as an independent company. The Economist said the failure was due, first of all, to “a chronic lack of focus”, never deciding if it was a media company or a technology company. NPR’s “Morning Edition” said Ms. Mayer, the CEO, treated Yahoo more like a think-tank than the sinking ship it really was.

Both diagnoses are probably right. Ms. Mayer got into the deep weeds when she insisted on reading the resume of every person Yahoo considered hiring, and needing to OK each one. Being Yahoo’s CEO in 2012 was a job that required creating a big-picture view of what Yahoo’s success would look like and leading people toward that future. But Ms. Mayer was more interested in listening to everybody and collecting their ideas than focusing on saving Yahoo. Then she got swept up in the part of the business – media content – that is “fun but will never turn a profit”, as NPR said.

Her listening tour when she began the job might have been good preparation for a Closure Conversation: “Here’s where we are now. Here’s what has worked and what hasn’t. You people are terrific! Now we are going to make some changes in what Yahoo is all about.”

A Closure Conversation is a necessary setup for an Initiative Conversation – and that is the conversation that was missing from Ms. Mayer’s repertoire. She could have opened a conversation to create a future: “Here’s where we are going, here’s our new mission, vision, and purpose (MVP), and here are our top-line goals for the next 3-2- 1 years.” She didn’t do that. She “listened”, read resumes, and collected ideas.

A clear Initiative Conversation creates a well-defined future that can be further developed with an Understanding Conversation: “What is missing missing now, for us to reach our goals? Where are our key resources? What are the most important actions, results and timelines for success? Who else should be working on this with us on these things?” And then, of course, people can have Performance Conversations, getting into action to make that future real with agreements for producing results.

I don’t mean to suggest that I would have wanted a shot at doing Ms. Mayer’s job – I would not. But I do know that without a clear objective pointing people toward a goal, there is no game. Collecting ideas and reading resumes does not create a game that will harnesses talent and energy to produce results. People need to know what success might look like, and to locate the target so they can align their efforts for a worthwhile accomplishment.

My take-away? I really do see, out of this example, how easy it is to pay attention to the beauty of the trees and forget about paying close attention to the forest. It is a good reminder as I set about my next project.

That Difficult Client Talk – Part II. What does “Discussion” Mean?

Dear Reggie,

First the good news, this time. Two of your staff members reported to me that they are excited about having clearer agreements for their work. I have reason to believe there are other people noticing a difference in the way you are giving assignments now. That’s great!

Now, for Step 2 on your path to being a better manager: After your staff meeting this morning, several people stayed behind to give me a suggestion. They want you and me to “have more discussion about having discussions”. I suspect there are things they want to say to you that they don’t know how to say, or perhaps they don’t know whether you will want to hear.

Discussion – dialogue – is at the heart of what we call an “understanding conversation”. That doesn’t mean you will have them understand something. It also means they will want to have you understand a few things too. So, a few more points:

  • Your staff members – technicians, programmers, and customer service people – often have a closer and more direct knowledge of what is happening in the details of their daily work than you do. When you tell them you want them to change the way they are doing a particular task, like the way they test a new system on a customer’s site, they expect to have a voice. They want to tell you about the situation they face with that customer when they are on their site. And they deserve to have you include their perspective in any new task definition.
  • Have a discussion about How & Why: How can we do this – and why does it matter? How will the changes affect our current tasks and responsibilities? How can we anticipate any new demands on our resources and skill sets?
  • Then have a discussion about Who & What: Who else is likely to be involved in reaching our objective – and what do they want? Who will talk with them about this – and what will they say? (Note: you may have to assist your people by making introductions to some higher-ups they need to contact).
  • Have a discussion about Where & When: Where will the resources come from – and when do we need them? Where will the benefits show up – and when will we see them? Where and when should we try this first, in order to develop our skills with the least risk?

The idea is that both sides have something to say. But even more important, both sides also have to listen, and to update their thinking and speaking as needed. That way, everyone’s opinion is respected for the knowledge, experience, and commitment they bring to the table; and everyone gets a good “understanding” of what is involved in accomplishing the objective.

Bottom line: it means you would be willing to learn something every time you meet with them – even when you’d really rather just tell them what to do.

Super-vision: It All Depends on Communication

Most of us are supervising something or other much of the time. To “supervise” means to “oversee” something, and most of us oversee about a million things every day, like our credit card balances, household and office chores, and email in-boxes.

Supervising is a way of paying attention to three things at once. We frequently give our attention to:

  1. Some kind of goal or concern, like making sure we can make a deadline, that our clothes fit properly, or whether the dog has fleas.
  2. Other people around us or associated with the matter, whether they are nearby – in our home or workplace – or if they are remote, reachable by phone or email. Are they competent? Do they look busy? Are they in a good mood, or still crabby from what happened yesterday?
  3. The environment we’re in – Are phones ringing and people talking? Do we have access to wi-fi? How long will it take to get someplace during rush hour? And what is it that smells so bad?

We’re on some level of alert most of our waking hours. But none of that mental activity is visible. All we can reliably see or hear is communication.

I watched this mother duck supervising her babies last weekend. She may have been thinking, planning, or worrying, but all I could see was the way she let those babies know they needed to stick close to her. She also let several much larger Canada geese know to keep their distance. And she clearly let me know that if I came any closer with my camera she would take those babies off to the other side of the pond.

Too often we live inside our heads, listening to our million thoughts and feelings instead of putting our attention on whatever communication might connect us to our goals, to other people, and to our environment. So here’s a couple of communication tips for reaching whatever goals you have at the moment:

  • Ask for what you want. Find someone who can help you resolve a problem or take a step forward, and ask for what you want.
  • Clean up things with people who matter to you. Say what’s happening with you, ask what’s happening with them, and be generous in your listening and your speaking.
  • Talk with someone about trying something new and different, or taking some project or activity in a new direction. Add some zest to your life by inviting someone to step outside your boundaries with you.

FYI, Mrs. Duck Supervisor sends you her best regards. And, I’m sure, she advises you to adopt her family management practices too.