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The Real Reason You’re Struggling with Engagement

engaged team of employees collaborating around a table with post-it notes

Not too long ago, employee engagement was viewed as a human resources function. Now, more organizations are starting to recognize engagement as a strategic superpower, but few are succeeding in their efforts to tap into the vast potential of their employees.

A 2017 study by The Engagement Institute found that disengaged employees cost companies up to $550 billion a year. Many of these costs come from higher absenteeism and turnover. According to Gallup’s employee engagement survey, business units with a high level of engagement see 41% less absenteeism and a 17% rise in productivity. Engaged employees are also much more likely to stay, with turnover decreasing up to 59% in highly engaged units.

These improvements sound promising, but how do you get there? While Gallup recently reported record-high engagement levels for U.S. employees, the figure was only 35%. Nearly two-thirds of employees still spend their workdays with their heads down, putting in the bare minimum, ready to bail at the first opportunity.

If you’re reading this article, then you’ve probably learned the hard way just how tough it is to engage your work force. While engagement isn’t easy, it is absolutely achievable—if you make the right changes.

But the odds are stacked against you.

Fighting a Losing Battle

It’s no wonder that efforts to engage employees generally fail. We’ve inherited systems and paradigms that, frankly, kill engagement.

Unfortunately, most of us have spent our careers working in a broken management system, one based on authority. Climbing the corporate ladder means moving up the org chart and collecting additional direct reports. And that’s what we do—we direct these individuals to do what we say. Leadership training focuses on managing team members, giving marching orders. This command-and-control style of leadership erodes trust and breaks the social contract with employees, resulting in disengagement.

Many organizations have tried to become flatter as a way of empowering employees. They’re cutting out layers of management and supervision to involve employees in decision-making processes. Spoiler alert—if employment engagement is low, I can guarantee that the command-and-control management style remains. We make these changes and think we’re fixing the situation, but with authority-driven leadership still in place, it’s akin to the old joke that beatings will continue until morale improves.

Along those lines, the employee engagement industry has turned into a joke. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report reveals that most employee engagement efforts emphasize measuring engagement instead of actually improving engagement. Organizations tend to confuse employee engagement with employee satisfaction. Installing espresso machines and ping-pong tables might boost happiness levels, but these efforts ignore the basic goal of employee engagement: a committed, highly productive work force, which leads to better business outcomes.

It’s time to accept that the current system isn’t working.

Focus on the Team

If you want to improve employee engagement, then you need to trust employees to make decisions and to do the work for which you’ve hired them. The fact is that command-and-control management does not engage people. Issuing orders and sharing breadcrumbs of information sends the message that employee contributions are neither welcome nor valued. Such a culture encourages people to do their jobs—and little else; it does not inspire engagement and collaboration.

I won’t lie. It’s not easy to create a culture of engagement, and when a system is designed to keep decisions and power within the hands of a select few, what you have is a classic example of “old power.” Survival in today’s hypercompetitive environment calls for “new power,” which is transparent and collaborative. If you’re committed to engaging employees, then you’ll need to train leaders in collaborative leadership.

In collaborative leadership, you don’t collect feedback from team members and crank out decisions. This is still directive—even if you invite participation, you’re still calling the shots.

Ultimate Guide to Cross-Functional Collaboration

Collaborative leadership requires leaders to shift their role from manager to coach and facilitator. Instead of handing out orders, leaders need to turn decision-making over to their teams. The leader’s job is to create a safe space where team members feel valued and respected. Under the leader’s guidance, the team works through the process of making a decision or recommending a solution. Shifting the decisions to the team in this way creates engagement and buy-in.

This is where the magic happens.

Improved Outcomes

When leaders shift from all-powerful directors to collaborative team leaders who bring out the best in their teams, employee engagement improves, and organizations unlock the potential of their human resources.

When electronics retailer Best Buy wanted to develop a new digital capability, the company launched a project that spanned multiple functions—e-commerce, operations, information technology, marketing. The project leader requested, and received, permission to provide collaborative project leadership training to her immediate team, followed by a facilitated planning session that lasted three days. Participants learned collaborative tools in the context of the project at hand, and together, they developed a plan. The co-creation process showed team members how their individual actions contributed to the final outcome, as well as the interdependent nature of their work.

Through continued collaboration and open communication, the team launched the new platform five months later—without the last-minute snags and drama that usually accompany such events. The project team received the internal Team Choice Award, and many participants ranked the project among their proudest achievements for the year.

This example reflects the findings of countless studies, including those mentioned above—namely, that employees need clear expectations, required resources, constructive communication, and opportunities to make meaningful contributions.

In other words, engaging employees is hard, but it can be done. Engagement starts by training managers how to lead and inviting employees to use collaborative tools.

Stop the Madness

Are you ready to stop the financial hemorrhaging of rampant absenteeism and revolving-door turnover? More importantly, are you committed to supercharging your productivity by rallying employees around your organization’s mission?

If the answer is “yes,” then you’ll need to start at the top. Communicate your higher purpose, show employees where they fit into the big picture, and enlist their help in fulfilling that mission. A key part of this effort involves training managers to move away from directive leadership and to become coaches and facilitators, who guide teams through solving issues together. By communicating openly and creating the opportunity for employees to contribute, you’ll gradually earn their trust—and, in many cases, their enthusiastic support.

Here, the challenge lies in the fact that most training programs are rooted in the command-and-control approach. You can’t simply provide courses in coaching and facilitation and tell your managers to engage their teams. To be effective, you need to find programs built on a foundation of collaboration, which requires a shift in mindset, one in which the role of leader isn’t necessarily determined by the org chart. True engagement calls for a team-based approach that values the contribution of all team members.

This sort of change won’t happen overnight. But with consistent application and practice, it will happen, and you’ll find that the benefits of having an engaged work force will exceed your wildest expectations.

Mistina Picciano

As Managing Editor of OD Innovator, Mistina Picciano combines her passions for communication and peak performance. She researches and writes about leading practices to help individuals and organizations realize their greatest potential.

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