Java with Joe: Slow down to go fast!

My mother was a very wise person, but she never could really understand what I actually did as an HR executive. We were talking about this one day, after I’d had a tough conversation helping a senior manager understand that his newly acquired MBA wouldn’t result in an immediate promotion, and I said, “Basically, Mom, I help people manage their expectations.” Her immediate response was, “Now that I understand! People get really upset when their expectations are not met, even when those expectations were probably unrealistic in the first place.”

I’ve certainly found that to be true when it comes to helping organizations develop higher levels of employee engagement. In fact, some of the hardest work I’ve done over the years is helping executives manage their expectations around change in this area. Most executives see themselves as problem solvers. They take pride in scoping a problem, identifying the root causes, and executing a solution. Then it’s on to the next problem. This mindset is reinforced by the fact that so many organizations remain  focused on short-term/quarterly results­—and reward leaders who deliver them.

But, while transforming an organization from dis-engaged to engaged will produce immense long-term value, it doesn’t typically include immediate positive results. The fact is that this kind of transformation requires significant culture change, and culture change is rarely, if ever, a quick fix. An organization’s culture is made up of a complex web of attitudes, emotions, behaviors, and institutional memories, and that complexity makes significant change hard to achieve and even harder to sustain.

In other words, it takes time to build an engaged enterprise, and the more disengaged the organization, the longer it takes. Unfortunately, that fact is hard to accept for “can do” executives whose expectations for rapid improvement in the engagement status quo are not immediately met. Not surprisingly, these folks tend to get frustrated when the organization invests time, effort, and resources in solving the organization’s “engagement problem,” only to have its engagement scores move just a few points or maybe even stay flat—not just for one or two quarters, but possibly even for a year or two. When that happens, as it often does, the response can be, “You (the HR leader) got the strategy wrong.” Or, “Maybe the data’s wrong. We should find a new survey vendor.” Or, “Maybe we need a new initiative of some sort that will make people happy.”

I encountered this at Cleveland Clinic when after the first year of our engagement initiative our engagement scores remained totally flat…and the CEO told me that this was the worst news he had heard in five years! The good news is that he agreed to stay the course, so we worked even harder to help leaders at every level focus on engagement, and continued to roll out programs that resonated with our employees. The following year we had a big spike in our engagement scores and momentum finally started to build for long-term improvement.

In my experience, managing expectations is critical to the success of any major culture change initiative. You need to help the organization’s leaders understand that it takes time to overcome the skepticism and even outright cynicism that many employees feel when the organization starts talking about engagement. You also need to help them understand that a successful engagement initiative will typically involve considerable experimentation: promising ideas for new engagement-related programs need to be “socialized” first with managers and employees, then tested using a kind of rapid prototyping approach in which you try the program, get employee feedback, tweak it and get more feedback until it works. That all takes time.

Much of that time involves planning. When you look at organizations that have won the coveted Baldrige Award for quality, what you find is that their leaders typically spend as much as 65%-70% of their time planning. In other words, they “slow down to go fast.”

They lay out a framework for change. They build a coalition and support for that change, which is socialized around the organization. They are clear about who will play what role in executing the change initiative, and they make sure those people have the necessary skills and experience to do so successfully. And when the strategy or particular programs need to be adjusted or recalibrated…and that’s almost always the case—the leaders make the necessary adjustments and stay the course.

The bottom line is that if you view building engagement as a matter of banging out a basically tactical solution to a straightforward problem, and if you expect to see positive results quickly, you’re probably going to be disappointed. And when those unrealistic expectations are not met, it will be hard not to just reach for another tactic…which will not give you those quick positive results either.  Even worse, the decision may be to drop the whole initiative and move on to another problem.

There’s another possibility too. Your initiative may actually generate a quick bump in your engagement scores, just because you’re doing something different. In that case, your leaders may decide that the problem is solved, and again decide that it’s ok to move on to another issue.

Either way, you’re only going to increase the level of skepticism, cynicism, and disengagement in your organization.

So, do the hard work of setting realistic expectations—for yourself and your colleagues. Take the time to make a plan, socialize the changes you decide to make, and ask for, listen to, and act on your employee’s input at every step in the process. Slow down to go fast…and you’ll come out way ahead!