Lead on purpose, not buzzwords

“In today’s demanding corporate environment, businesses are struggling to boost employee engagement. It is a strategic imperative but no small task given the severity of the problem. According to Gallup Inc.’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report, only 13 percent of employees say they are engaged at work. Astoundingly, actively disengaged workers continue to outnumber engaged employees at a rate of nearly two to one.” (excerpt from Workforce magazine).

Wow. That’s scary! Struggling. Severity. Running at a rate nearly two to one. “QUICK! Pull the alarm! Everyone to the conference room. Rig for collision; we’re going down. We aren’t engaged.”

Boy can we ever fixate on buzzwords and engagement is the buzzword of the day, isn’t it? Often these fixations turn into full scale corporate battle cries and campaigns and I admit I’m a veteran of quite a few in my corporate days. Somebody at the top gets this virus that spreads like wildfire.Seems publicly held firms go into battle first, probably directed by their Boards. “Everyone else is buzzing about it. What are WE doing? Get a program going!” Employees’ eyes roll back in their heads. Great sighs fill the air. They know what’s coming. They also know that rarely are these campaigns revisited for effectiveness once delivered.

Let’s see; how many campaigns can you remember? Here’s a few of my faves:

CUSTOMER AWARENESS. I wasn’t a fan because it put all the focus on the customer and not on the employees – first. I’ve never been satisfied purchasing something from someone who is indifferent or hates where the work or their boss, have you?

EMPOWERMENT. Again, nope. I knew too many people who didn’t WANT to be empowered. Think about it and all the people you ever worked with. How confident and comfortable would you be with all of them empowered? Definitions of what that meant varied wildly. Still makes me shudder.

SELF-DIRECTED TEAMS. Poof. Even though you’ve been cultivated in a hierarchy, ‘never mind’ as Lilly Tomlin would say; you’re empowered now and can run your own projects. Some just saw this as an abdication of executive decision making responsibility. Such naiveté about people and their different natures, as if all are naturally proactive and able to work collaboratively. Not on the planet I’ve been living and working on. You?

It’s not that people can’t be customer aware, empowered or self directed BUT launching these initiatives must be disciplined, organized and well communicated and reinforced regularly. This often was lacking. More important – are the real root problems of the business being addressed by these du jour initiatives or will they be launched because the drums were sounding elsewhere?

Now we have ENGAGEMENT and I wonder, “Do we really know what this is? What pot are we stirring now? Is engagement really a pseudonym for ‘productivity’? Is the bottom line reason for concern really a concern about workforce performance and productivity? Problems are best solved when they are correctly stated and framed. Watch out.

I’m not a total heretic; I know the value of these things which, like ISO, 6 Sigma, Lean all have their place. I’m more inclined to want to focus attention, communicate about and be moved by the things we are trying to achieve – not buzzwords. I’m running a yellow flag up the pole here, suggesting that engagement is a very broad brush term that can lead us into temptation and costly programs.

Engagement is one but not the ONLY reason people leave, turn down your job offers,or under-perform. Before you launch yourself into ‘engagement’ campaigns, changing policies, benefits, procedures and programs, maybe you should try this first:

• Talk about what you are trying to have happen (or not have happen) and why it is important to the business. Do some focus groups.

• Be clear to have a commonly understood definition of ‘engagement’ when you are talking with others about needs and concerns. Is what is or isn’t happening really a reflection of whether people are engaged?

• If you are going to institute changes, do what scientists and engineers do -do a pilot program versus the full out campaign. Learn from the results and follow that. If you are doing the right things, you won’t have to sell it; people will be coming to you.

Sometimes a thinking cap can be more valuable than a helmet.

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