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The Art (and Science) of Engagement

Author and engagement guru Richard Axelrod talks about the collaborative effort that’s essential in creating an enduring engagement culture

By William Keenan Jr.

A mistake some organizations make is that they think they can mechanically set up all of this engagement stuff and then people will automatically become engaged. That doesn’t happen. What you can do is set up the conditions whereby people might choose to become engaged. But you can’t guarantee that everybody is going to join you, and that’s where it becomes both art and science.

Richard Axelrod’s understanding and appreciation for engagement grew largely out of his work in the area of change management. As head of the Axelrod Group, he learned through research and experience that in order to effect large-scale organizational change, employees had to be engaged – and that requires the support and commitment of employees at all levels.

“We were part of a group of people who sort of pioneered the use of large-group methods to engage people in change,” Axelrod says, “which was a fundamental shift in the way change was happening in organizations. Instead of a small group deciding ‘this is what we are going to do’ and rolling it out, we would bring together stakeholders from all parts of the organization to identify the issues and develop and implement the change process.”

The first edition of Axelrod’s book, Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations, laid out four key tools, all of which embrace employee engagement:

  • Widening the circle of involvement to create a critical mass of energetic participants who design and support the necessary changes.
  • Connecting people to each other using a variety of dialog tools and techniques, and eliminating barriers to the flow of information and new ideas.
  • Creating communities for action that go beyond geographic or departmental lines to create a group of interconnected people who have both the will and the willingness to work together to accomplish a goal that has meaning for them.
  • Promoting fairness throughout the process – giving people a voice in order to produce trust and confidence in both the change process and the people leading it.

The second edition of Terms of Engagement, which came out last year, recognizes that rather than being simply a change-management tool, building a culture of engagement in an organization is a significant change in itself. Engagement Strategies Magazine recently sat down with Axelrod to discuss how to put that change into effect.

ESM: Why is engaging employees so important to companies today?
Axelrod: It is important for a number of reasons. There are studies that show an engaged workforce is almost 50% more productive. That’s one. Another is that Northwestern University has found that engaged employees produce higher customer loyalty, which in turn goes to more profits. And you could look at a variety of other measures, from safety to absenteeism and right down the line. In a purely logical sense, if you want a more productive, more customer-oriented organization, you need engaged employees to make that happen. Then there’s the whole issue of talent retention. If you’re at a workplace where your voice counts, where you feel like you’re making a contribution, where you have some decision-making authority, then you’re more likely to stay. If you think what you’re doing is important and if you think the work of the organization is important, you’re more likely to stay committed to that organization.

If I’m a middle manager and you’re pushing me to do all of these things to build engagement with my staff – yet I feel that my boss doesn’t care anything about what my issues are – then it’s pretty hard to be authentic in your own engagement efforts.

ESM: If the benefits are so apparent, why aren’t more organizations seeking to engage their employees, and why aren’t more employees engaged?
Axelrod: The interesting thing that gets lost in some of the literature is that engagement is a choice – and it’s a two-way choice. The leadership in an organization has to choose to adopt this sort of strategy, and then the employee has to choose to join in. A mistake that some organizations make is that they think it’s kind of plug-and-play – like, we can mechanically set up all of this engagement stuff and then people will automatically become engaged. That doesn’t happen. What you can do is set up the conditions whereby people might choose to become engaged. But you can’t guarantee that everybody is going to join you, and that’s where it becomes both art and science. But the more committed and sincere the leadership is about the process, the more employees are likely to come on board.

One of the things that I did for the second edition of Terms of Engagement was to interview about 30 leaders who had been involved in successful engagement efforts, and what came across was this notion of authenticity. People who had been successful at creating engaged workforces talked about three things – honesty, transparency and trust.

They felt it was almost a personal obligation. Not only did they talk about being honest, but they expected honesty. Not only did they think it was important to be trustworthy, but they also trusted their workforce. And they were all very transparent in terms of communicating information and decision-making in their organizations. That’s what I would call the ethics or the leadership values that go along with engagement – people will see right through it if you’re just going through a mechanical process or doing it to get higher survey scores or whatever.

ESM: What are some signs that your employees are – or are becoming – disengaged and you need to do something about it?
Axelrod: Well, depending on the type of company, it might be something unobtrusive like safety – an increase in employee accidents or injuries. Or you can look at things like absenteeism; are your absenteeism rates climbing? Another thing you can look at is your attrition rate; is employee turnover becoming an issue? You can also look at customer complaints and customer satisfaction. And you should also look at employee satisfaction.

I was talking to an organization the other day that was doing all sorts of “lean” stuff to become more efficient and productive, but what its employees were saying is, ‘OK, these are great mechanical approaches to improving efficiency, but you don’t really care about us. We don’t feel as if we’re valued in the organization, even though you’re doing these things.’ There are a lot of engagement surveys available to companies, so you can get a measure of engagement, but it’s always going to always show up in your regular business measures, as well.

Another potential problem with relying on surveys is that people, when they get the numbers, think ‘Well, that’s what we need to fix,’ and then they fail to have the conversations with the people who filled out the survey in the first place – to engage them in solving, or at least addressing, the issues.

ESM: Where do you start in terms of engaging your work force?
Axelrod: There are a number of places to start; one is with what we call ‘everyday conversations.’ One of the most important success factors at Google, for instance, is having leaders who take the time to sit down and talk with employees. At the simplest level it involves sitting down, talking, listening and finding out what matters to people.

One of the things we did with Boeing Engineering was to create a process where we asked people what it is they cared about at work and why. And from there you start to figure out how to bring more of what people care about into the daily workplace. This involved conversations with supervisors and the people who worked with them, and at the end of the day Boeing’s employee satisfaction ratings rose by 40%. And they had very strong productivity numbers to go along with it. But the process is very simple. Ask people what they care about.

ESM: In your book, you suggest that how you conduct internal meetings can be important to your engagement efforts as well.
Axelrod: Right – and that’s particularly in white collar environments, because meetings are where people decide whether they’re going to get onboard or not. If you’re running dull, boring, time-wasting meetings, you’re disengaging people.

If you reframe your meetings as an engagement opportunity for people to decide if they’re going to get onboard or not, you’re going to conduct them differently. So ask yourself who needs to be there. Then get a handle on your decision process. And be very clear about issues like: Is this a decision that you’re just informing people about? Is this a decision that you’re consulting people as a leader about? Is this a decision that we’re all going to make together? Because when we talk to people, one of the most frustrating things they report is thinking they’re in a process where they have a voice, only to find out that they really don’t. In that moment you’re disengaging people.

ESM: Speaking of “having a voice,” is it important to try to include more of the voice of the rank-and-file employee in those meetings and in that decision-making process?
Axelrod: I will say yes, but you don’t want tokenism. So what you want to ask is: Who has the information? Who has authority? Who is going to be impacted? Who might be opposed? Those are the questions you should ask in determining who should be there. So in some meetings you might have fewer people, and in other meetings you might have more.

ESM: What else should organizations do to build engagement?
Axelrod: Another thing you can look at is what I call the ‘design of work,’ because it’s also possible to look at work design from an engagement standpoint. This involves looking at issues like how much autonomy do people have, how much feedback. And by ‘feedback’ do they know how well they’re doing without having to get that feedback from their supervisors? What kind of neutral feedback mechanisms are in place? The more autonomy and the more feedback people get, the more engaging the job is going to become.

Then you can bring in the notion of how challenging the job is – and you want to sort of hit that ‘sweet spot’ where it’s a little bit above your skill level but not so much that you can’t do it, and also not so far below your skill level that you get bored.

It’s also important to be able to find meaning in your work. There’s a story about Michael DeBakey, the heart surgeon, in which a janitor in the hospital was asked, ‘What do you do?’ And he answered, ‘Well, I save people’s lives.’ What DeBakey had done was talk to everyone who worked in the operating room at every level about the importance of keeping infections down, and this person had sort of connected with that message – how his piece of work, being a janitor, really was important in the grand scheme of things. That’s true engagement.

ESM: How do you build the kind of interconnectivity in an organization that’s necessary for the flow of information and ideas?
Axelrod: You can do it both in person and electronically. One of the things we did in one organization is we had what we called ‘learning fairs’ where we actually set it up like a fair, with booths and displays, so people would be able to share and talk about what they’re doing in the organization. Other organizations will basically build their own internal social media site – something like an internal FaceBook. – where people put questions and comments out, so they’re no longer confined to their work group or geography. Particularly in some big global corporations, if you’ve got an issue, you can put a question out and get an answer from someone somewhere else in the world. Those kinds of networking tools are really expanding the ability of employees to reach out and connect with people and get help. It really flattens things out.

ESM: What do companies need to do at the management level to better equip their managers to be able to effect the change to an engagement culture more readily?
Axelrod: Managers have to experience that process of engagement themselves. I mean, let’s just look at the ‘care conversation’ – you’re expecting supervisors to have conversations with workers about what they care about, but that supervisor might feel there are things that he or she cares about but doesn’t get to do. That’s why you have to think of engagement as a total system intervention.

All of the research I’ve seen says that the most important factor affecting employee engagement is the interaction with one’s supervisor. And that means the supervisor at every level. So if I’m a middle manager and you’re pushing me to do all of these things to build engagement with my staff – yet I feel that my boss doesn’t care anything about what my issues are – then it’s pretty hard to be authentic in your own engagement efforts.

You really have to ask the same questions at all levels. What you end up doing might be different, but you have to be asking what’s important to people; how do we get some of the hassle out of the work; do you have the autonomy you need in terms of decision-making. All of those things apply at every level. If you’re a senior VP at a company and you feel like you don’t have the autonomy to make the decisions you should be making, then your level of engagement is going to be the same as that of an hourly worker who feels like they can’t make any decisions. It has to be the same at all levels if it’s going to work.

ESM: Thanks for sitting down with us today.
Axelrod: Thanks for the invitation.

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June/July 2011

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