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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.

Organization Change: Leader & Manager Conversations May Be Different

I just finished writing a paper on organization change – it was about the difference between change leadership & change management communications. In the process, I could see how different conversations are so important in making an organization change work well for everyone.

Referring to The Four Conversations (www.usingthefourconversations.com), I saw that leaders mostly emphasize one of these conversations the most: Initiative conversations. Those are the ones that propose a new course of action or a new idea, and say something about what we can do, and why it will be good for us to do it. It doesn’t matter if the change is large or small, complex or simple. And it doesn’t matter if the person speaking is an executive or a manager or has some other nice title in the hierarchy. When you have an Initiative conversation, you’re stepping in to leadership communication by suggesting a new possibility and saying something about its value.

The ingredients of an Initiative conversation are simple: What do we want to do or make happen? When do we want to do it, or have it done? Why is it important or worthwhile to do it? These conversations are often used to inspire and motivate people, which is what we think of leaders as doing. Their communications give us a reason to get into action, and to keep us going when things look really challenging.

But once the Initiative has been spoken, the other three conversations are the ones required to get an organization change going, and a good manager needs to master them. They are best used – over and over again – in this sequence:

  • CLOSURE – use “the four A’s”, and work together with the Team Members to: Acknowledge the current status of a project or situation, stating how we are doing on key measures right now. Appreciate the people involved, recognizing their effort and results. Apologize for broken agreements or failures, and Amend those agreements by updating statements of goals, timelines, or assignments and other interactions.  (Refer to the Initiative conversation here, i.e., the What-When-Why of the overall project or goal we are working to accomplish. This reminds people of the context for their work, and the purpose they are out to fulfill. If the Closure conversation has changed any of those ingredients, be sure to include their updates in referring to the Initiataive.)
  • UNDERSTANDING – Have a dialogue to review Who all is involved in this project or situation, and their roles and responsibilities; Where the resources for this project are coming from, and Where the results and benefits will be going; and How the work needs to be done, including production, service delivery, and communications. Like any reference to the Initiative, this reminds people of the bigger picture, but it also includes updates from any changes made by the Closure conversation. The Who-Where-How may have changed as a result of that conversation. This whole conversation is a dialogue, to re-position where people are with respect to their roles and responsibilities, and collaborate on identifying what needs to be done to gain (or regain) momentum on the project.
  • PERFORMANCE – Look at what is next to accomplish the goals of the project, starting from this new, updated place. What needs to happen now? When will it happen? Why does it matter? Who will do it? Where will any necessary resources come from? How should it be done (any special requirements?). The result of these conversations is people making agreements to do and deliver certain products, services, and/or communications at certain times, and to certain people.

At the next meeting (managers have regular Team meetings, right?) the management communication cycle begins again. Close out the status of all Performance agreements – how did it go? Then have an Understanding dialogue about how to get back on track or gain momentum. And then have the Performance conversations to create agreements for what’s next.

Leadership and management communications are not the same. But, of course, the same people can be having all of those conversations. If you are a manager, you can create an Initiative and get other people on board to implement your ideas. That’s you being a Manager-Leader. And then, you can follow through with the Closure-Understanding-Performance cycle. That’s you being a Manager-Manager.

Most managers do wear both hats – management and leadership. But many people we call Leaders wear only the one. They say, “Here’s my idea. Go make it into a reality, please”. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. But sometimes I want to introduce those people to the complexity of the Real World. Or maybe they’re just good at delegating.  🙂

P.S. Happy Hanukah, Christmas, and New Year to you all! We’ll talk again in 2018.

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.

Is Anyone Studying How to Listen?

A friend sent me an article (Challenger Story) about a failed communication had a dire outcome. She knew I had worked with NASA’s Space Station team, but probably not that I was working with the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I remember that day.

The article was about the contractor’s team of engineers and scientists responsible for space shuttle motors, and the teleconference they held with NASA the evening before the Challenger launch. They told NASA managers that the temperature the next day would be too cold to ensure that a key part would function properly, and recommended delaying the launch until the weather warmed up. NASA did not accept the recommendation, saying they would “pass this on in an advisory capacity”, went ahead with the launch, and the shuttle exploded just over 1 minute later.

“It was an amazingly complex decision,” the article reports, which led to the documents describing that decision being donated to Chapman University by the engineer – Allan McDonald – who had refused to sign the required “launch recommendation report”. His boss signed it instead, allowing NASA to go ahead with the launch on schedule. Mr. McDonald was demoted.

Those documents are now part of a “leadership studies program” at the university. The chairman of that program says the lessons of the Challenger are clear: individuals must speak the truth, no matter the consequences, and bosses must also encourage employees to do so.

Mr. McDonald was indeed brave to speak the truth despite consequences. The lessons of the Challenger tragedy, however, must go beyond encouraging employees to speak up and bosses to encourage them to do so. Communication has two sides: speaking and listening. Just because the boss says we can speak up does not mean she is actually listening. When the contractor says the O-rings could fail, their team recommends launch delay, and a team member refuses to sign the go-ahead, they are speaking loudly and clearly. But the NASA managers were listening to something else: perhaps the difficulties of altering the launch criteria one day before launch?

Let’s give attention to how we listen, including what we listen to and what we ignore. How can we learn to give quality attention to both the big picture and the vital details, or grasp the sometimes subtle differences between what is necessary, what is desirable, and what is convenient?  The sad day of the Challenger (and the sad months of the BP oil spill and the Flint water supply) deserve a greater legacy than giving Whistle-blowers the right to speak. We need better ways to have them be heard.

Question: Could a “leadership studies program” include an inquiry into the nature of effective listening?

Unreasonable Request Saves the Class

If you find yourself in a difficult position, make an unreasonable request – you might be surprised by the result.

On Friday, April 13 I received an unreasonable request from a colleague at Benedictine University. He asked if I would come to Benedictine and teach an Executive Ph.D. course on organization change the following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  He apologized for the lateness of the request, but explained that due to an accident, the person scheduled to lead the class could not come.

Initially I was surprised at the request given the short notice.  But, after checking my schedule, I realized I could do it and let him know.   And it turned out to be a fabulous time with some really great people.

I share this because I have found there are times such as these when people are faced with making an unreasonable request or giving an apology, and they don’t make the request.  My colleague could have decided there was no real point in asking someone to come since it was unlikely they could on such short notice anyway.  Instead, he could have apologized to the class, explained what happened and, given the short notice, it was not practical to find a substitute; they would have been disappointed, but they would have understood.

But he didn’t do that; he made an unreasonable request.  He asked for a large result in a very short period of time from someone he knows is busy.  He didn’t let his considerations about whether the request would be accepted or not stop him from making it.  And, as it turns out, he got want he wanted.

Understanding Does Not Mean Agreement, Acceptance, or Action

One of the myths the students and managers in my leading and managing change classes persist in believing is that people don’t “buy in” to a change is because there is something they don’t understand.  They are mistaken.

Implicit in this “myth of understanding” is the belief that understanding is the key to agreement, acceptance, and action.  No doubt, there are situations in which failing to understanding what another person is talking about, wants, or is proposing results in confusion and contributes to disagreements.  This frequently occurs when using unfamiliar terms or assuming the listener has a sufficient background in the subject at hand.  Under these circumstances, increased understanding can foster agreement and acceptance.

But increased understanding can also contribute to disagreement and non-acceptance.  When something is vague or ambiguous, it allows for multiple interpretations and understandings.  In this respect, it is more inclusive of potentially competing or inconsistent viewpoints.  Under these circumstances, greater clarity of understanding makes the inconsistencies apparent and fosters greater disagreement and non-acceptance.   For example, as managers spend more time explaining and discussing a change in an attempt to increase understanding, the impact and consequences of the change become more apparent and real to people.  Some people will react favorably, others will not.

Increased understanding, therefore, is not necessarily the key to agreement and acceptance, or to the action people think will stem from.  Understanding conversations are important, but they are only one of four productive conversations that are needed for change.

To Be More Effective, Keep A Due List

I was recently asked by a manager in one of my classes what she could do to increase her credibility.  I told “Keep a Due List and follow up on it.”

Most people have some form of a “To Do” list, which lets them know the things they have to do.  But credibility and a reputation for effectiveness comes from what you deliver to others and what they deliver to you.  When we know what we have due to others, and by when, we can better schedule the work we need to do in order to successfully deliver what is required.   That is one reason we stress the importance of including “by when” in all performance conversations.  Successful delivery to others increases their trust in us and enhances our credibility and reputation.

By the same token, when we keep a Due List of what other people owe us, and by when, it allows us to effectively follow up with them in a timely manner.  Following up lets people know we really did want what we asked for and that it was important enough that we remembered both what we asked for and by when.  As a result, our credibility increases.  Following up also builds accountability as people come to learn that we will be back to have a closure conversation with them.

Credibility and accountability are built and a key to building them is to keep, and use, a “Due List”.

Absence of Communication Undermines Reputation and Future Change

I recently talked to Jeremy, a staff member whose organization is changing from one type of work structure to another.  Prior to the change, each work unit in the organization made recommendations on how the allocation of work in their area, who should do the work, and the timelines that should apply.  According to Jeremy, the recommendations were well thought out and developed through extensive individual and group meetings within each of the work units.  Once completed, the recommendations were forward to the Rebecca, the senior manager responsible for reviewing all the recommendations and determining how best to incorporate them in the new structure.

Everything seemed to work fine until Rebecca began informing the work units of her decisions.  According to Jeremy, Rebecca’s decisions ignored many of his work unit’s recommendations with no explanation why.  When he went to his unit manager to find out on what basis Rebecca was making her decisions, his manager replied “I don’t know”.  People in Jeremy’s unit were perplexed, confused, and upset.  They felt betrayed and there was a substantial increase in gossiping and complaining about Rebecca.  Some people even quit their jobs.

Change leaders like Rebecca have to make tough decisions and are accountable for those decisions.  But Rebecca could have reduced the damage both to her reputation and the future receptivity of people to change if she had engaged in understanding conversations with people prior to her decisions and closure conversations after.

Not Telling Them Undermines Integrity

Managers undermine their integrity in following a “don’t tell them” strategy.

The topic in my leading change class today was integrity and its impact on a leader’s ability to effect change.  Integrity was defined as honoring your word and doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it and if you are not going to do what you said, to communicate fully to everyone affected as soon as you know you won’t be going what you said so that they can make the appropriate and necessary accommodations.  During the discussion, several students told of job situations in which projects they were working on were not going to get done when promised, but were told by their immediate managers not to tell the project clients.  The reasoning was that if the clients were told before the due date, they would question the manger’s competence.  However, once the deadline was missed, other factors could be blamed.

Although managers may think this “don’t tell them” strategy protects them from looking bad, it actually undermines their integrity and reputations.  Each of the students involved in these situations said they lost respect and regard for the managers involved.  This is unfortunate since all the managers needed to do to maintain their integrity was to have closure conversations with their clients.

Having one closure conversation, even if it may be a little uncomfortable, seems like a small price to pay for keeping one’s integrity and the respect of others.