3 quick fixes for your engagement woes

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Just kidding, there are no quick fixes! But I do have three thoughts I want to share about both engagement and quick fixes. First, that engagement is not the end all and be all. It is not a magical panacea that will be The Thing that rockets us to success. Second, it may not be The Thing, but it is important, because if you want to succeed, you need to leverage your people wisely. The fact of the matter is that engagement is related to a host of bottom-line benefits. But third, trying to placate or “happify” your employees isn’t the answer – that’s the quick-fix mentality obscuring your view from capitalizing on “real” engagement. Let me explain.

  1. Engagement is not the outcome. Somehow in all of the excitement about the notion of engagement, many people have gotten the cart before the horse. Engagement is a by-product of sound business and leadership practices. High engagement is a reflection of certain organizational actions being done well, not the end itself. Over-emphasizing engagement can lead to us losing focus on what really does matter: creating and maintaining a successful and sustainable business. Engagement is one “temperature” we should check to make sure the business is healthy, because highly engaged employees are a “symptom” of a clear purpose, strong culture, and aligned workforce. But engagement is not the outcome. Say I’m the No. 1 apple pie manufacturer in the US. It probably isn’t just because I have the most engaged apple pickers in the industry; I’m also probably pretty savvy about pricing, branding, sourcing orchards, whatever it is that apple pie manufacturers need to be concerned with. Yes, it is absolutely true that business success demands that we handle the human component of our business well, but it is one ingredient, not the recipe for success itself.
  2. Engagement really does matter. Popular culture likes to run hot and cold on management topics, and it seems like engagement is nearing the end of its heyday. People are beginning to realize it isn’t The Thing and that it’s a complex issue. When this happens people tend to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have seen multiple articles and blog posts questioning how important engagement is, really. Don’t individual differences drive what will engage people? Maybe Joe is most engaged by his relationship with his boss, but Mary’s engagement is driven by her trust in senior leaders, while Bob’s engagement is most influenced by feeling pride in the company. And that’s just a few possible engagement drivers – how are we supposed to get our arms around all of that? As I’ve said before, I do think the individual bears some responsibility for their own engagement, but the organization needs to foster the conditions in which people can be engaged. Because engagement does matter. According to Gallup’s ongoing research, higher levels of engagement are related to decreased absenteeism, lower turnover, fewer safety incidents, fewer quality defects, not to mention increased customer engagement, productivity, and profitability.
  3. Engagement is not the same thing as happiness. Too often organizations get on the engagement bandwagon, but misconstrue what it’s all about. An assortment of cute or unique perks isn’t going to have a lasting impact on how employees feel about the organization and their work. Hiring a six-piece jazz band to serenade my apple pickers may give them a brief little burst of happiness, but it is not going to help them be more engaged. First, a person’s happiness is hugely determined by individual idiosyncrasies and style (I am by nature a grump and I hate jazz). But second, and more importantly, happiness is a state of contentment – I don’t want my employees contented! I want them excited to be in the orchard, driven to pick as many apples as possible and look for ways to increase their pick rate! When I think of someone who is “happy” I picture someone satisfied and at ease, a lamb chewing cud in a field on a sunny day. When I picture someone who is engaged in their work, I see someone who is by turns barely containing whoops of joy and gnashing their teeth in frustration – they are enthralled by what they are doing, but it is not necessarily pleasant or easy. But implementing a relatively simple intervention like a jazz band is so much easier.

The fact that we are hyper-focused on engagement and that we confuse it with happiness is a symptom of our fixation on quick fixes and over-simplification. Just scroll through your favorite internet sites and they abound with headlines like “Seven Easy Ways to…” and “The Five Most Important…” These headlines are so common because they catch our attention, because we want things simple and easy. We have to quit pining for an easy way out! We need to break free from the delusion that we can have easily enumerated quick fixes to any of the complex problems that face us in business today.

Engagement isn’t the answer because it’s part of the question – how do I build a sustainable organization? It is rooted in your purpose, your culture, and your goals and how those flow down in the form of leadership behavior, management practices, work flow, business process, etc. How do I create a culture that encourages engagement? This is the thorny issue that you need to face. If you want to build an engaged workforce, where people are excited and proud to come and work hard for you each day and actively want to help make the business better, step one is realizing it won’t be easy. It is a complex problem you have to do the hard work to solve.

(Come back for more insights and ideas for fostering engagement in your organization!)

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