Three ways to kill employee engagement


It may seem strange to talk about ways to kill employee engagement when engagement is such an important issue for any business or organisation. The CBI has identified employee engagement as one of the top drivers of business success and most businesses see employee engagement as one of their top organisational development priorities. Yet we often see practices that kill employee engagement and so it is worth spelling out what these are.

Below are three of the most common ways that businesses kill off employee engagement.

1) Assume that what matters to the employees is only about what happens in the workplace.

People are so much more than what they do at work. Whilst for some people their work defines who they are for many people the most important things in their life happen elsewhere. People have families, friendships, hobbies, passions and dreams that take place outside working hours. People offer fully of themselves when what they are doing matters. If a job is just about the money then very few people will feel fully engaged on that basis. Remember that we sell our time but we volunteer our commitment and engagement is all about commitment.

The most engaging places to work connect with the whole person, not just the work part. A good question to ask yourself is “How much do I know about the people I work with, what really matters to them, what their passions and dreams are?“. We once worked with a woman who had won a bronze model at the world championships for her sport and yet nobody at work knew about it. Needless to say, levels of engagement were low.

2) Force people into job roles like square pegs into round holes

People are very diverse. We design jobs and recruit people to fill them as if people come in neat, predictable packages. But many people don’t neatly fit the standard role. They love one part of the job and hate another part. Smart companies are refining the way they recruit and develop people to make better use of the strengths that people have.

We worked with one company that was having problems recruiting people that fully matched the sales roles they were trying to fill. The role required great relationship building skills but also a fair degree of organisation and systematic planning. Those strengths don’t often turn up in the same individual. The sales manager had some great sales people who would fail to plan or some well organised people who just didn’t make enough calls – leaving the sales manager to chase people – something she didn’t enjoy. Few of the sales people loved the whole job.

We helped the sales manager re-organise the sales team into mini teams. Each mini team had three people, two with very high relationship building skills and a third with reasonable people skills but high in organising and planning skills. This allowed everyone to focus on what they were best at (and also what they really loved) and also meant that the sales manager could spend less time chasing people for what they hadn’t done.

3) Focus on the deficits – what people are doing wrong and what they need to improve

The questions we ask and where we focus our attention send messages. If we ask someone – “what did you do well today”, “what went right” or “what do people like about what you do,” that message might be something like “Things are going well” or “What you are doing is worthwhile.” On the other hand we might ask, “what went wrong,” “where did you fail” and “what do you need to improve.” The message then might be something like “things aren’t going well” or “you aren’t good enough.”

There is nothing more demotivating and disengaging than focusing on failure and deficit. Yet that is what so many organisations do, especially in the public sector which is measured half to death by the machinery of central government. We live in a marvellous society operating near the peak of what humankind has ever achieved and yet the narrative is almost always about what is wrong. Just listen to the news on any morning for a taste of what it’s like to focus almost entirely on what’s wrong.

This isn’t a call for complacency. Any organisation needs to have a sense of direction and fix things that don’t work. But that improvement doesn’t just have to come from fixing failure. Improvement and progress more often comes from a sense of hope and a desire to create new possibilities. Focussing on deficits deprives people of hope and actually undermines progress. Cutting edge organisations are understanding the value of more positive approaches such as asset based thinking and appreciative inquiry. These lead to much higher levels of engagement, more innovation and faster progress.

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