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Instead of Engagement, Focus on Trust, Purpose and Heart

Engagement.It’s a word we throw around like it actually means something. Too often, we use it to describe how we like to imagine consumers interacting with our advertising messages. (Think about how you react to ads; that’s a clue to how little most people “engage with” ad messages.)

The other form of much-discussed engagement is employee engagement. Many MBA schools and HR specialists can expound for hours about how important it is to business success for employees to be “engaged” with their work and the goals of their employers. So why are companies notoriously poor at enabling and maintaining employee engagement?  

Why engagement matters

“The strongest driver of profitability is an engaged workforce (along with an effective strategy to sell customers goods and services they are willing to pay for),” said James O’Toole and his colleagues at MIT in a 1973 study for the Nixon Administration, Work in America. A 2017 report by the Gallup organization reiterated that finding… but also found that, in the fifty+ years since the publication of O’Toole’s work, companies have failed to connect human resources and brand values, impacting on customer brand perceptions and overall brand reputation. Worldwide, employee engagement is at 20 percent, dragging down productivity and GDP. Engagement in the USA is higher (hovering around 30 percent), but has been stagnant over the past seventeen years. 

It isn’t only internal measures that suffer from employee disengagement. When employees don’t give the brand a standing ovation—are disengaged largely due to mismanagement and inattention to the company’s publicly promoted core values—customers quickly spot the tarnish on the brand’s polished image, and think twice about supporting the company and its products.

Fifty years ago, O’Toole shared the key practices companies must use to promote employee engagement. Management needs to: 

  • Create conditions enabling employees to self-manage; 
  • Invite employee participation in decisions affecting their work, and the financial returns that work generates; 
  • Build internal communities where employees feel valued and respected, and able to count on one another; and 
  • Support employee engagement with a strong sense of mission and purpose.
     

Employees may disengage from all other efforts if they don't feel valued and respected, making recognition and reward critical.

Measuring the wrong things

Big corporations spend big money to measure engagement, using costly employee feedback surveys, analysis and measurement processes to try to show how well they do at engagement. These tend to ignore that people often give the answers they believe are wanted, not necessarily the answers you need to hear. And anyway, engagement is about feelings—how employees feel about the work they do, their managers, the company, their co-workers, their ability to advance and grow… and feelings cannot be averaged.

If employees aren’t feeling good about any or all of these factors, productivity will decline; customer service will start to develop problems; internal conflicts will increase; and ethical behaviors will erode. In short, employee feelings mean a lot to business success. That may be especially true in a creative business like advertising, where positive energy and strong cultural values are essential to keeping the creative team focused on helping clients and producing great work.

Two things can greatly influence how employees feel about their work and workplaces: trust and purpose.

Trust and Purpose

If employees trust their leaders to make smart, ethical decisions, their managers to back them up and mentor them, and their co-workers to collaborate and support one another, then employees will be more willing to expend their skills, talents and energy on the company’s business goals. Trust also arises from the company living up to aligned values; and to leaders and managers recognizing and rewarding employee contributions.

When the work employees do is also seen as valuable and worthwhile—having a valid and useful purpose—employees will be more vested in the company’s goals. Everyone desires work that is challenging, rewarding and worth doing—the kind of job that makes it easy to hop out of bed every morning and go earn a paycheck. Do your employees feel like that?

Many businesses err in assuming that processes, Powerpoint presentations, policies and team meetings will magically grow employee trust and boost a collective sense of purpose. In fact, the thing that is too often missing from engagement efforts is also the biggest factor in improving engagement. That is the human factor.

How we treat one another in everyday interactions is the proverbial elephant in the room that most engagement efforts ignore. It is easier to pretend that data and surveys will measure desired behaviors than it is to exert the extra effort required to talk directly with employees, and relate to them as human beings. Trust and purpose are not pills you can drop in the office water supply, nor can you brainwash employees into giving their trust and embracing your purpose with pep-rally-style gatherings or management memos. Without the human touch, employees will not feel appreciated, respected or valued. Trust and purpose are by their very natures inspirational and aspirational. When did a memo or a meeting truly inspire anyone?

Being Human

Empathy, positive behavior and good old social skills help to build trust and relationships—not surveys, data and measurement. Employees are not productivity tools, and engagement is not a strategy but a cultural practice, says engagement consultant Peter Wakefield. It’s as much about heart and simply behaving like a human being, as it is about getting the best out of your people. Employee engagement, in fact, begins with positive leadership. If you model the right behaviors in how you treat your managers and employees, reward those behaviors in others, and embed those behaviors in your core values, employees will adopt those behaviors throughout the organization.

Culture, say the fine folks at GapingVoid, incites people to “do the right thing, even when no one is looking.” To build a culture in which employee engagement is fostered and supported—in which cultural values are shared, rewarded and lived on a daily basis—companies must put humanity back into their people management practices.

  • Dispense with excessive rules. Rules instill fear of crossing boundaries.
  • Treat employees like you ask them to treat customers.
  • Talk to employees to form human connections; messy emotional conversations can bond employees to managers more than opining from behind a podium.
  • Make it personal—goals aren’t engaging until they matter to your people as much as to the business.
  • Build diverse organizations; commit to hiring across genders, generations, cultures/identities and disabilities. Integrate those people so diversity impacts on ideas, practices and overall company culture. Most important, listen to your diverse voices, and act on their ideas.
  • Instill meaning and purpose to the work. Why do you do what you do? Working with purpose yields happier, more connected employees.
  • Encourage inward customer service.
     

In the 1983 book The Leadership Challenge, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, one CEO offered his straightforward philosophy: “Grow the company profitably. Share the wealth with employees. Ensure that everyone is having fun.”

Employee engagement can grow your business, but only if you remember to keep the focus on human relations, not business school productivity measurements. Culture, purpose and engagement all spring from how we treat one another. Treat your people well and know why you do what you do. From this simple base, you can grow an agency that will excel at whatever you attempt, including engagement.

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