I often write about the things that leaders must start doing to increase employee engagement. But what about the things that you should stop doing? Let’s take a look at my top stops.*
1. Stop losing heart
Building employee engagement is a process – it takes time. Our mantra here is to focus on progress, not perfection. First, let me make it clear– we can't take the credit for this powerful mantra, which has many uses beyond building employee engagement. The exact origins of the phrase "strive for progress, not perfection" are difficult to pin down, but I first picked it up from Strategic Coach – a fabulous coaching programme for entrepreneurs.
When leaders embark on an employee engagement programme of some sort, they usually have an image – slightly blurry perhaps, but there all the same – of what an engaged workforce is like. It usually involves open discussion, healthy challenge and far more proactivity. Perfection!
And then the employee engagement process starts – and the picture looks far from perfect. People often resist the whole idea; maybe even ridicule it. Some will take up the gauntlet and use their initiative – but then don't do things the way the boss thinks they should be done. Many start with great enthusiasm before other business priorities quickly get in the way.
That's when bosses need to stop losing heart and avoid reverting to business as usual. To help do this: instead of giving up because perfection seems so far away, focus on progress instead.
Perfection is a myth, progress is reality!
2. Stop losing courage
When I am working with leaders who are starting out with high hopes of employee engagement, I always explain that at some point they'll lose their courage and want to clamp down.
This happens because, when engagement builds, people get excited about the business and their contribution to it. They start to do more and require less direction. And then they make mistakes. They take decisions that the boss didn't mean them to take. They do things that don't fit the boss's expectations. Sometimes they just plain get it wrong.
The boss loses courage and, once again, wants to revert to business as usual. Instead, keep going. Reward people for trying. Stay open-minded about how tasks are completed and be less exacting about the particular route that should be followed. Give feedback, and coach, to help people learn.
3. Stop thinking that it's other people who have to change
We've all heard about the mysterious 'they'. Senior leaders believe that change would happen if only 'they' (usually the middle managers) weren't such a block. Junior managers believe the 'they' applies both up and down. Middle managers think the 'they' who are causing problems are the senior managers. Front-line teams look up at a pyramid of 'theys' towering above them.
If you are going to successfully embed employee engagement, change ultimately needs to take place at all levels. But it must start with the leaders and managers. And everyone needs to be willing to do something. Many people making a few small changes will more easily impact the status quo than a small number trying to make one or two big changes.
But if everyone is waiting for the 'they' to start the change, then no one will ever do anything! Employee engagement will quickly become a distant dream.
4. Stop labelling it
In the mid-1990s, W Alan Randolph researched how organisations that 'empowered' their employees successfully did so. I find it a fascinating piece of research because much of it is counter-intuitive.
Now, to me, 'employee engagement' is the new 'empowerment', so today's leaders can learn a lot from this 18-year-old research. (Strange to think that many of today's leaders who are reading this blog were probably the employees that the leaders of the '90s were trying to empower!)
Randolph's paper showed that the organisations that focussed on talking about empowerment – and attempted to 'train' people in how to be empowered – quickly ran into problems. But those that focussed instead on sharing information – particularly information that would previously have been considered too sensitive to share – got results. They didn't label anyone as 'being empowered' nor did they have an 'empowerment initiative'.
Instead, they did something differently that enabled people to become empowered.
Labelling is nearly always the kiss of death for employee engagement because it turns it into a 'thing' rather than the set of behaviours that it actually is.
So, leaders should stop wasting time in meetings discussing what to call the next engagement initiative. Instead, they should invest their time in agreeing what actions to change so that they are engaging their employees.
* These are my top four things to stop doing. I desperately need at least one more so I'd love to hear yours. Many years ago I was advised that, other than lists of ten, all lists should have an uneven number of points! So, please, help me out of my misery – what do you recommend as Number Five?
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