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Employee Engagement in a Changing Organization

Artist Credit: Victoria Cowan

First the good news – Boards, CEOs and executive teams are taking employee engagement more seriously than ever. This can only be a good thing, particularly for people like me who grew up in a world where “human resources” were viewed as variable costs – to be added or deleted as required (I recall a senior manager at a large international company describe his employees as lemons – he said that his job was to squeeze and squeeze the lemons until there was no more juice, and then to throw them away!).

The current management fixation on measuring employee engagement is, by and large, a very good thing as it helps leaders understand how their employees really feel about their jobs – and the organization. More importantly, a good employee engagement survey will direct leaders to address the areas that they need to focus on in order to help employees feel more enthusiastic and committed in their roles. This trend is underpinned by a growing body of research indicating that engaged employees outperform their peers by as much as 20%, a very significant advantage in our hyper-competitive world.

Having said this, I have observed a pattern recently in my coaching work. CEOs and other senior executives are becoming increasingly anxious about the results of their periodic engagement surveys; some will even admit that they are doing things to game the results in order to make them look good to their Boards. Think about this from the perspective of parent. Imagine that your child is going to fill in a survey tomorrow morning that will ask her how she feels about you as a parent. Are you attentive to her needs? Do you listen well? Is she happy being your child? And imagine that you really care about the results – maybe because you really want to be named “parent of the year” and win a large cash prize. Now imagine that it is getting late and your daughter is deep into an online conversation with her friends. You know that her bedtime has passed, and you understand that night-time routines are important. However, you also know that she will be furious if you tell her to put away her iPad and that her anger might result in you receiving a much lower score on the survey tomorrow. What do you do?

I most often see this conflict play out in organizations that are undertaking significant change initiatives. As human beings we all resist change, and while we work through our resistance we can project a lot of anger and frustration onto whoever is forcing us to change. This is not to say the changes aren’t warranted – they are often critical to the future of the organization – it is just that we would rather not change. Now some of this resistance can be mitigated by effectively engaging people in the discussion of why the change is so critical, but this will only mitigate people’s feelings to a point.

The art of leadership is to know how to make the case for change and then to know when – and how hard - to push the organization. Sometimes you can make the case so effectively that you don’t need to push, but this is uncommon. Because of the discomfort of pushing through resistance, more often than not an organization experiences a dip in engagement during periods of significant change. As much as this pattern seems self-evident, many senior executives and Boards appear to be unwilling to consider any reason for a dip in engagement scores, and I have watched from the sidelines as executives who are leading critical initiatives are punished because of the inevitable plunge in scores. This is unfortunate, undeserved and counterproductive.

I am not advocating a wholesale movement away from employee engagement scores; to the contrary, I think that they have been a tremendous benefit to organizations. What I am suggesting is that Boards and senior executives need to take a much more nuanced view of what these scores represent, and to become comfortable with their expected ebb and flow.

Artist Credit: Victoria Cowan

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