‘Employee engagement’ has become an HR ‘buzzword’ but it is more than this – it should be rooted in a central set of values and purpose that drives the organisation. Andy Bond, Chairman of Asda, agrees, “Employee engagement has a very hard commercial edge to it. The simple rule is, if you’ve got people engaged in your company, they’ll serve people well and be more productive. Communication is hugely important in achieving this. Asda is a company with 170,000 people, and everyone needs to understand where we’re going and their role in it... and you can only engage people by great communication. Engagement is up there as one of the biggest priorities for a successful business.”

Gary Kildare, Vice President, HR - Americas, Europe & Asia Pacific at IBM adds that “As we continue to push our way out of the business recession, organisations with highly ‘engaged’ employees will not only see increased productivity but also reduce their risk of losing good quality people.”

Criticaleye asked engagement specialist, John Smythe of Engage for Change, for his tips on engaging effectively with employees. “The purpose of engagement is to liberate people to contribute their best for the mutual benefit of themselves and their employers. Creating the right conditions for effective engagement presents a challenge to the dominating style of command and control leadership. Employees will only engage themselves if they are drawn more into day-to-day decisions and ‘big ticket’ change.” John suggested the following tips:

1. Make all leaders, managers and supervisors a ‘chief engagement officer’ At every level recruit and develop people against a validated set of engagement instincts and capabilities based on personal decision-making practices which will liberate people to engage themselves.

Rudi Kindts, Group HR Director, British American Tobacco says, “Employee engagement goes beyond increasing employee satisfaction. The ultimate objective is to increase the discretionary effort employees are willing to put into the pursuit of the achievements of business and personal goals. Therefore, engaging with employees is a day-to-day leadership act through which employees understand the direction set and what role they play and clarity around the deliverables and the resources available. At the same time they should expect inspirational leadership and access to development which enables them to deliver against expectations.”

2. The power of the peach Inside every peach is a stone - a metaphor for the steadfast ‘givens’ that are present in any team. Gather the group and negotiate the dimension of this stone. Through rational negotiation it will shrink, the team will have coalesced, they will share a story about the strategy and, crucially, they will have defined the boundary of engagement for their people to contribute.

3. Creating citizen readiness People won’t engage themselves until they believe the invitation and feel safe enough to change the pattern from parent-to-child to adult-to-adult. Communication about the strategy must be starkly candid, revealing the heights and depths in a competitive context. Rituals like leadership meetings must be new, fresh and full of surprise. Top-level role models must be chief engagement officers and become guides not gods.

4. Interventions that turn the hierarchy upside down A strategy, or change process, is usually a field day for command and controllers with the inevitable disengagement of those on the receiving end who see another crushing and frightening black cloud with rhetoric along the lines of ‘get on or get off the bus’.

Ian Bowles, CEO at Allocate Software plc, explains how he used engaged employees to shift strategy. “Employee engagement has been key to the success of Allocate Software over the past four years. When I joined, I knew I wanted to transform the business radically and that many of the staff had long tenures. Preaching to the masses would not have been effective as a first engagement, so I met with every employee for 30 minutes in my first few weeks with the company. I asked everyone the same five questions and then listened and made notes. A month later, I set out my aspirations for the company over a three-year period. Every quarter the team were given updates on the stages of the journey we had reached and reinforced why we were trying to achieve the agreed plans. Given the massive change (four acquisitions in 36 months, as an example) we had to carry the core team with me. Our results for that period show the engagement is working.”

5. Volcanic eruption or lava flow? Many of these processes fizzle out after the leadership meeting closes. The keys to long life are a transparent progress and governance process which constantly celebrates progress, acknowledges difficulty and, most of all, makes execution teams publicly accountable.

6. High-speed mass digital engagement It is becoming a reality with the potential connectivity that technology affords. First mover organisations are engaging their people using digital technology that enables them to get input and wisdom from thousands or selected groups in very short order.

7. Mass discourse and feedback with the front line Digital fluency will be a necessary qualification to be a CEO within three years. Be a first mover in adopting bundling technology that is allowing executive teams, CEOs and change teams to hold a discourse with their chosen audience that encourages massive levels of feedback which is electronically clustered and boiled down to a few distinct themes (and which the sponsor team can address more or less in real time). It will change the employee survey for good.

8. North Korea syndrome - don’t believe the survey Many organisations are almost impervious social systems (Planet Vodafone, Ayling Island – British Airway’s base at Heathrow). Even where there are good engagement scores, many people simply have no idea what effective engagement feels like unless they happen to work for a progressive organisation such as Unipart, First Direct, Google or Gore-Tex. Thus, they typically overrate their organisation’s efforts to engage them and management is deluded and flattered by beating the competition. Switch to regular issue based sample polls.

9. Walls that engage Every organisation has vast amounts of unexploited wall and physical space. Use them as a medium to bring the strategy/change journey to life. Allow employees to do their own visual stories.

10. Make your people community change experts A strong driver of employee engagement is company sponsored community involvement by employees. To increase your people’s confidence and self-esteem, invite them to offer their learning about corporate change to chosen community projects. The learning will be reciprocal.

June Boyle, HR Director, Organisation Effectiveness at Lloyds Banking Group says, “The day-to-day engagement of colleagues has been key to our recent success. Lloyds Banking Group invites all colleagues to provide feedback on a range of topics each quarter. The outputs from colleague surveys provide line managers with a regular temperature check of engagement and the insights inform local action planning activities. The level of participation continues to be extremely high and the results reflect the strong turnaround in the business over the last 18 months. While the survey data provides some great insights, we are already planning for the next phase of the programme, taking into account both the practice and measurement aspect of engagement. This will help to create new and exciting channels, new ways to gather and respond to feedback and ensure the Group continues to demonstrate a strong desire to ask, listen and act on matters that matter most to colleagues.”
John Smythe leaves us with this last observation: “Tell me and I will forget, listen to me and I will remember, engage me and I will make it mine.”

An article on this subject by John has recently been released on the Criticaleye website: The Power of the Peach: effective employee engagement.

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues in today's update.

I hope to see you soon,