It can be tempting to view employee engagement as a secondary priority, relative to all of the other goals you have at your organization. You have products to develop, sales targets to meet, and variances to account for. You are working through a tricky supply chain snag. Your company may have debt to pay down. You have a brand to defend – and in some cases – to mend. You have board members and shareholders to whom you are accountable. Relative to these concerns (and the deadlines associated with each one), employee engagement starts to look more like a distraction; one that you would prefer to make somebody else’s problem. It may even begin to feel like a meaningless phrase attached to an annual survey that pays only lip service to employee satisfaction and culture.
Most employee engagement practices rightly come under fire for being uncoupled from the rest of the corporate strategy. Often, strategies to boost engagement tend to fall into the “perks” category: free gym memberships, on-campus chefs at the company cafeteria, brightly colored walls. None of these are bad things – but the criticism is that these are often not aligned with strategies that increase business results. To the CFO, it can start to look like these practices are counterproductive to maximizing profitability and cash flow, without which employee engagement becomes moot.
However, most managers will acknowledge that employees are more effective when they are happy in their roles, understand how their work contributes to the big picture, and have a clear understanding of their responsibilities. And managers also acknowledge that employees who break from baseline expectations of performance and operate with a sense of purpose and urgency are the ones who stand out, make their teams better, and ultimately contribute meaningfully to achieve business results. How do you encourage this behavior? What is different about these people? Is it just that these are great individuals, or is there something more going on?
If it helps to put aside the terminology, let’s stop thinking about employee engagement in terms of satisfaction and happiness. Rather, recall the goals – strategic, operational, or otherwise – that you are trying to achieve. Let’s think of these goals as problems which you need other people to help you solve. Who are the people you trust to help you solve these problems, and how do you want them to think when they tackle them? How do you get this group of people to truly feel the same urgency that you do and own the solution you are asking them to create? How do you instill the sense that “we are all in this together” – particularly in tough times?
If engagement isn’t mere employee satisfaction, then what is it? If we think of engagement as a means to successful strategy execution rather than an end in itself, it becomes clear that investing in engagement is vital to sustaining great performance. Engagement helps culture coalesce into a purpose-driven initiative, rather than remain a superficial term. People come to work with the same drive they had when they started on their first day. Strategic goals come within reach because we start to pay attention to interstitial, tactical steps that grease the gears which drive organizational performance.
What would it look like if your team executes to its full potential – goes beyond being a group of smart, talented, capable individuals working in a room together to one that operates purposefully, achieves results, learns from its experiences, and capably handles increasing challenges? No matter which term you choose to apply to it, the solutions still start with people.