Creating Employee Engagement: Context

August 24, 2010

As I noted in my prior post, for me, building engagement is the result of an equation that is the sum of content and context:

Direction (content) + Execution (context) = Engagement

Direction. This is the purpose and mission of your organization. The is the what you are doing and why. It is the content, and includes things like vision and mission statements that inspire and provide a framework for everything that your organization does and does not do, getting down to specific goals and strategic objectives that must be achieved.

Execution. This is the implementation and guidance that addresses how the organization will operate, taking the understanding from the direction and making it real for everyone. It is about getting everyone on the same page about content.

Let’s assume that you’ve worked hard on establishing your corporate direction, now it is time to implement it. This is where the rubber should hit the road, but all too often, it doesn’t. Professor Robert Kaplan of the Harvard Business School and David Norton at the Balanced Scorecard Collaborative have determined that 90% of all corporate strategies are not executed successfully. Ouch!

What goes wrong? In a nutshell, everyone isn’t on – or can’t get on – the same page about the content.

In the first place, no one is going to craft a direction that articulates the need to “maintain the status quo.” A vision for the organization is going to involve some future state, with some strategic goals and objectives as targets to meet to help the organization reach that future state. The direction will involve change. And this is where Problem #1 can surface.

What happens if everyone at the C-level (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO…) begins initiating a series of changes related to their respective areas of focus? A large pile of activity will reign down and overwhelm the troops.

It can get worse, which leads to Problem #2. What if all of this new activity – targeting new opportunities of the future state – is being performed without taking any existing activities off of the table? Rob Savage, COO to Taco Bell once stated, “You can’t execute new strategy if you don’t remove some of the past.”

It’s all about creating the environment for engagement.

Prioritize activities and take the time to consider what must fall by the wayside in order to make room for the new. This means going the extra mile and critically evaluating the downstream impacts of the direction, including having candid dialogs with your staff about the nature and need for change, and how it will impact them.

By doing so, you will involve people in the change and make them a part of it. This is a critical component to creating engagement. By taking the time to explain things and listen to feedback, you are demonstrating that you value people. You’re also building credibility by talking about the key drivers of the business along with your willingness to acknowledge that “something has to give.”

You must also be candid about why change is required, and what outcomes (good or bad) can result. Engagement requires buy-in, and people must fully understand the truth of the situation and the goals. Catchy slogans won’t build engagement.

Another great way to build engagement is to give people control over their work. Self-direction, otherwise known as autonomy, is a great motivator. So is the desire to improve, to master something, so set the conditions that allow people to grow and improve their skills. (From a software development standpoint, agile development fulfills many of the autonomy and mastery components nicely.)

In the final analysis, people have to engage for themselves. You can’t “motivate a horse to drink” and you can’t engage someone by pulling a lever. They have to believe in your business and want to contribute to that purpose. You can, however, engage their thinking.

Continual dialogs allow people to develop conclusions about how they can participate and shape the future and grow with it. It is about creating the opportunity for them to feel connected so that they can engage in making a difference in collectively achieving that higher purpose. It is about having conversations to help people understand how they can continue to learn and grow, and aligning career aspirations with opportunities. You can't do everything, but as a manager, you can help make things happen.

Dan Pink discusses the subject of motivation and engagement along with autonomy, mastery, and purpose in his book Drive as well as his TED talk (embedded below). Dan is an engaging speaker and an excellent author, and I urge you to at least watch the video below.