Java with Joe: Building engagement? I wish I had the time.

During my tenure as Chief Human Rmugsesources Officer at Cleveland Clinic, I held regular “Java with Joe” sessions with small groups of leaders at every level of the organization. These informal meetings often turned into Q&A sessions on the subject of employee engagement. These days, when I speak to other organizations about their employee engagement and leadership issues, the Q&A session is again one of my favorite activities. So I thought I’d bring back Java with Joe to answer questions about engagement that I’m often asked. If you’d like to join the conversation with a comment or a question of your own, something that’s keeping you up at night, please jump in. OK…so here’s today’s question:

 How can we do a better job of sustaining the long term change that’s required to turn around poor employee engagement?

This question often comes with some explanation of why it’s so hard for the organization or its leaders to look past the short-term. In a large, public company, the issue may be pressure from analysts and stockholders to deliver outstanding quarterly results. In a not-for-profit, it may be pressure from the Board or a lending institution to sustain the organization’s bond rating. Sometimes it just has to do with a leader’s having too much to do and too little time to do it in. As one highly regarded manager in a mid-size firm told me: “I’m already working flat out just dealing with day-to-day stuff and the crisis of the week. I honestly don’t see how I can find the time to execute a consistent, long-term engagement plan—even though I know it’s important.”

I appreciate that it’s not easy for leaders at any level to sustain a long term engagement strategy in the face of all the day to day pressures they face. On the other hand, I also believe deeply that you can’t build an organization that performs at the highest level unless you build an engaged workforce, and you can’t build an engaged workforce without working at it consistently over the long term. So the question is, how do you find the will and the time to do that work?

First of all, you need to make engagement a strategic priority. I often ask the leaders I meet with: “Does your organization have a strategic plan? Does it have an annual business plan to deliver on the strategy?”  I’d say that at least 70% of the time I get a yes to both questions. But things change dramatically when I ask: “Does your strategic and/or business plan have a ‘people’ component? Is that component just as robust as the others?  Is it reviewed as frequently and closely?” I get a yes answer to those questions around 30% of the time.

I’m sorry, but that won’t get the job done.

If you want to sustain an effective engagement strategy, you need to include it in your organization’s larger strategic plan. You need to put engagement on the agenda at your regular leadership meetings. You need to put key engagement metrics on your “executive dashboard” to help answer the question “Are our leaders doing the things necessary to grow engagement?”

With respect to engagement metrics, one tactic I’ve found valuable is to use Survey Monkey to periodically “pulse” on three management accountability questions: Has your group worked with your manager to develop an engagement plan?  Does your group meet regularly to manage/review the plan? Are you making progress against the plan?

OK, but so far this is only relevant if you’re part of the leadership team for the whole enterprise or a major division or business unit. But what if you’re not a leader at that level? In that case, you still have to do what it takes to keep the spotlight on engagement in your own unit, however large or small it may be. Put engagement on the agenda at meetings. Talk to people about the issues that drive engagement. Ask what you can do differently to help them feel more connected to the organization and its mission.  Keep doing the work, one step at a time, one day at a time. That’s how you build engagement.

I know: you’re really busy. But this is important, more important than at least some of the stuff you do every day. (For example, I’m pretty sure it’s more important than answering at least some of those e-mails in your in-box. )

What it boils down to is do you really believe that highly engaged organizations outperform those with less engaged employees? Do you view your role as leader as building the kind of culture and work environment that fosters high levels of engagement? Or deep down do you really believe that engagement is just “some HR thing” that takes time away from your real work?

Since you’re taking the time to read this blog, I’m pretty sure I know how you’ve answered those questions. And because of that, I’m equally sure that you can find the time and the will to build a highly engaged workforce. Go for it!

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