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The Most Logical Yet Underrated Employee Engagement Strategy

Disengagement at work is a costly and frustrating problem. Treating employees as humans—not experiments—makes fixing it a little simpler.

The Most Logical Yet Underrated Employee Engagement Strategy

[A large group of people: hobbit via Shutterstock]

Engagement has quickly become a leading buzzword in today’s corporate environment. Seventy-eight percent of business leaders say it is both an urgent and important priority, according to Deloitte. There’s no secret why; after teetering on the edge of total meltdown, the global economy has recovered from years of stagnancy. Employers want growth and employees are the main drivers. Firms like Gallup have the statistics: All core business measures—profitability, productivity, customer satisfaction, quality, retention, and sales—are significantly higher at companies with a concentration of engaged employees.

In short, employee engagement has become the new currency in today’s economy.

Some leaders are ahead of the curve. Inspirations like Tony Hsieh from Zappos and Chip Conley from Joie de Vivre Hotels put an extreme focus on organizational culture and a premium on employee happiness. In return, people in these organizations deliver extraordinary value and produce fanatical customer loyalty.

There’s a problem though: The majority of us are disengaged—70% in fact. That's a half-a-trillion-dollar problem in the U.S. alone.

All this research and these intoxicating success stories have opened the eyes of today’s leaders to the importance of employee engagement. Now they are left to figure out how to make their organizations’ work environments more desirable. Should be easy, right? Well, not exactly.

You see, it’s not for lack of trying. From Ping-Pong tables, free food, and open concept office space to experimental management practices like Results-Only Work Environment and Holacracy, organizations have almost completely evolved from their Industrial Revolution ancestors. Yet, the harsh reality is, despite our efforts to track how we’re doing and make work more engaging, we have not found a way to materially move the needle. The same percent of the workforce was disengaged in 2000 as it is today, and that trend has been consistent throughout the last decade. Leading human capital analyst from Deloitte Consulting Josh Bersin says it’s time to rethink our strategies. We agree.

What If Engagement Was Simpler?

It seems that amid all the measurement to determine how we are doing, organizations have lost sight of the fact that there are real living and breathing people on the other side of their instruments and experiments. We are more complex and dynamic than any survey can understand, regardless of the number of questions and statistical significance. Every day we are required to adapt and apply new information to survive within our continuously changing marketplace. That makes engagement more of a moving target that fluctuates, sometimes daily. Despite this, all of the practices that organizations have built to get more from us organize around traditional business cycles: annually and quarterly.

What if instead of rolling out complicated and engineered employee programs to address organizational weaknesses, employers agilely tapped into something that is more fundamentally human—our real-time feedback?

Employees want to be heard. We want to be owners with a voice contributing to the strategy of the organizations we support. From top to bottom, each of us brings a unique set of experiences and organizational wisdom that is yearning to be tapped. Give us an opportunity to share what we know and debate the important issues. Involve us in planning, decision-making, innovation, and strategy.

So, if you really want to improve the engagement of your organizations, stop over-thinking your strategies. Instead, focus on creating an authentic real-time dialogue with and among your employees.

This presents its own set of challenges. We’ll need to upgrade our feedback practices; they are for the most part stuck in the punch-clock era—trapped in massive surveys, face-to-face conversations, emails, focus groups, and social enterprise software.

Leaders and organizations can turn real-time feedback into real-time employee engagement with these four strategies:

1. Focus On What Matters Most

Involve us not just in "Suggestion Box" exercises, but rather, the big thorny challenges that keep you up at night. From intern to senior executive, you’ll be amazed by the insight that exists inside your organization. The next breakthrough may come from where you least expect it. Organizational alignment ensues when you focus your people’s energy around the most important topics.

2. Use Open-ended Questions

Hit the pause button on your next 60-question survey. Built to measure and not discover, excessive surveying of your people can become dehumanizing and create further drag on your quest to improve the engagement of your employees. Get feedback and input in a more human way. Once you’ve identified how you measure up with a survey, instead of testing a preexisting set of solutions with yet another survey, try sending out simple and inviting open-ended questions. Pulse them out one at a time. Make the experience more conversational.

3. Offer Anonymity And Transparency

Employees should be free to express what they think. You’ll need to create a safe environment for us in order to unlock our true voice. That means full anonymity. At the same time, you don’t want to create asymmetry in your information flow. Keep the information exchange flowing; open up the responses to all who participate. You will find that good ideas tend to build upon each other.

4. Take Action

But first, as world-renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith advises, put away your ego and pride—say "thank you," acknowledge weaknesses, and ask for our suggestions on how to improve the organizations we spend the majority of our waking hours supporting.

Employees want to do a good job. We want to help and feel valued. Harness this energy and you’ve got our engagement.

Michael Papay is CEO and cofounder of Waggl, a real-time communication tool designed to source feedback and spark employee engagement one question at a time.

Alexandre Santille is the co-CEO of Affero Lab, the largest Corporate Education provider in Latin America.

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