Thinking Differently on Engagement

With employee engagement named as a top concern for employers in a recent poll, experts suggest HR consider new ways of hiring and motivating employees.

Thursday, March 26, 2015
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HR leaders around the world appear to agree on one thing: Lack of employee engagement is a problem for their organizations, and they feel ill-equipped to remedy it.

Eighty-seven percent of the 3,300 HR and business leaders from 106 countries polled by Deloitte say lack of employee engagement is a top concern, up from 79 percent last year, according to the professional-services firm's third annual Global Human Capital Trends 2015: Leading in the New World of Work report.

The number of respondents who cited engagement as being "very important" doubled from 26 percent last year to 50 percent this year. However, 60 percent of the HR and business leaders said they don't have an adequate program in place for measuring and improving engagement.

"Workers are becoming more mobile, contingent and autonomous and, as a result, harder to manage and engage," says Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, part of Deloitte Consulting. "In this new world of work, organizations need to re-imagine the way they manage people and come up with new, out-of-the-box ideas to make themselves relevant."

But how can HR do this? The solution may lie in changing the way companies hire and motivate people, and training their managers to act more like coaches than enforcers, say experts. work in a world in which employees are harder to engage means putting employees first, says Toronto-based consultant and author Jacob Stoller, author of the forthcoming book The Lean CEO: Leading the Way to World-Class Excellence.

"Lean management inverts the pyramid such that ... the employees who are closest to the customer are really seen as the most important people in the organization," says Stoller, whose book is based on interviews with 27 CEOs from a diverse group of companies. "There's a sense of humility on the part of all these CEOs that they don't have all the answers-that they depend, on a day-to-day basis, on the people who are creating this value."

At Glassdoor, the CEO of the Sausalito, Calif.-based company-review site tries to encourage the free flow of ideas from employees to the top by meeting with them every other Monday to answer whatever questions they may  have-regardless of topic, says Vice President of People Mariah DeLeon.

"Employees can submit their questions anonymously, and he'll answer them-he tries to model the behavior we're looking for here," she says.

Organizations also need to rethink how they motivate their employees-focusing only on successful outcomes may backfire by encouraging caution and timidity in the workplace, says Ron Friedman, author of the recent book The Best Place to Work.

"If you want to have an organization in which people feel that taking risks and being creative is respected, you need to model that as a leader," he says.

Focusing solely on successful outcomes just encourages employees to keep doing the same things that've been done in the past, he says. Instead, try rewarding those who attempt to innovate or improve something, regardless of the end result.

"One company requires a 'Failure CV' as the price of admittance to its leadership-development program-in order to make it in, you need to describe an initiative of yours that failed and what you learned in the process," says Friedman. "If we're not failing, then we're not learning and not being as creative as we could be."

Another company, Grey Advertising, gives out a quarterly "Heroic Failures" award to employees who try new approaches to things that don't necessarily pan out. "They realized the growing size of the company was making employees a little more conservative, so they created this award," he says.

HR can stand in the way of innovation and risk-taking-and, ultimately, engagement-when it encourages the company to hire for cultural fit, he says.

"We want to ensure that a candidate will get along with everyone else before we hire them, and that's a mistake," says Friedman. "When people work with others who are very similar to them, they tend to become more complacent and less innovative."

A more unorthodox-but potentially winning-formula might be to look for candidates who possess a quality not usually prized in the workplace: laziness.

"Someone who is lazy is more likely to look for shortcuts, to cheat, to look for ways of lessening the amount of time and effort required to do something," says Dan Gregory, a Melbourne, Australia-based consultant and co-author of Selfish, Scared & Stupid. "And that's the kind of worker we think is necessary, especially in an age when we need a greater level of agility."

In Selfish, Scared & Stupid, Gregory and his co-author, Kieran Flanagan, argue that "diligent and self-sufficient employees" are part of the problem: They tend to follow protocol and avoid challenging the norms. Instead, they say, companies should prioritize people who look for faster and easier methods.

"The most successful people have ideas that collide with tradition," says Flanagan. "When you can collide departments and people with different ways of doing things, you can get really interesting new ideas. If you hire homogenous thinkers, you lose the opportunity to get those great insights."

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When it comes to recruiting, "look for people who can be challenging, who can engage in constructive conflict, who have a breadth of experience," says Gregory. "One of the things we've found with organizations is that leaders will typically hire multiple versions of themselves. CEOs who hire a female, Asian, white or black version of themselves-we may call that diversity, but it isn't diversity in terms of thinking paths.

"Your most ambitious people will look for some level of freedom in the way they work," he says. "Some employees need to be told, some need to be sold, but star performers are the ones who want to build a relationship that's more consultative."

HR can also get in the way of increased engagement by, ironically enough, over-relying on engagement surveys as a measure of employee satisfaction, says Susan Fowler, a consultant and executive coach based in San Diego.

"I worked with a company whose people had become so oversaturated with the need to increase engagement that they'd actually become more disengaged," says Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does. "People in HR need to understand the difference between motivation and engagement. Engagement happens over time if people have consistent feelings of optimum motivation."

And optimum motivation is likelier to occur at companies where managers are focused on helping their people thrive and flourish rather than policing them, she says.

"I've worked with companies concerned that good ideas were being stymied in the workplace, and found that one of the reasons was managers who saw their role as enforcing the status quo rather than helping employees reach their potential," says Fowler. 

At Glassdoor, the company actively encourages its employees to share how they're feeling with co-workers and managers, so long as it's done respectfully, says DeLeon. Even if they're having a bad day, she says, it's better for employees to express that-and to perhaps ask to work from home that day-rather than suppress their emotions out of fear of angering their manager, she says.

"I've worked in organizations that ruled by fear, and that shuts your brain down-you cease being creative and innovative when you're operating out of fear," says DeLeon. "It takes weeks-months-to replace a knowledge worker, so instead why not just care for them, show them they matter, that each person makes a difference?"

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