As companies scramble to retain top talent and boost productivity in 2022, many will seek to double down on employee engagement.
They may be wasting their money.
Despite billions of dollars spent trying to increase employee engagement, a recent Gallup study shows that engagement has risen, on average, less than 0.5% a year for nearly two decades. In addition, we found that between 2020 and 2021, employee engagement actually plummeted 18%. Shouldn’t organizations have more to show for their efforts?
Recent research from the O.C. Tanner Institute indicates that engagement can be a flawed and misleading gauge of effectiveness, as it’s not a measure of the quality and impact of the work product itself. And with remote and hybrid work changing the employer-employee equation, and mass resignations shifting the power balance, it’s clear that even the best traditional measures of workplace activity may no longer be relevant. That’s why we believe that companies would do well to hone in on a different metric in 2022 and beyond. Let’s measure “great work” instead.
To understand the distinction, consider the case of “Pete.”
Pete is the first one at his desk every morning. He nurtures his connections with colleagues and is demonstrably energized by the job. But charged with managing a large project that touches on areas beyond his expertise, Pete stumbles. Uncomfortable venturing beyond his inner circle, Pete leans too heavily on his closest colleagues, whose skills, perspectives, and blind spots largely overlap with his own. Because he’s unaccustomed to broadening his circle of advisors, Pete’s off-the-charts engagement can only get him, and his company, so far.
Defining “great work”
If “good work” gets the job done, “great work” is exceptional, innovative, and groundbreaking. “Great work” looks different in different industries, companies, and functions. It must be defined to align with a company’s overall goals.
While it can be difficult to assess whether great work is happening (outside of key milestone moments), we’ve identified five behaviors that clearly signal when it’s underway. By looking for these behaviors, leaders can gauge whether great work is occurring in their organizations. More importantly, leaders can meaningfully increase their great-work quotient by helping employees develop the behaviors that may not come naturally to them.
Here are the five key behaviors that employees who produce great work demonstrate:
- They ask the right questions, like “How might this task/process/problem be made easier/faster/safer/better?”
- They go and see, which may mean standing on an assembly line or watching users interact with a product.
- They talk to an outer circle, gathering information and insight from a broad array of experts.
- They improve the mix, continually fine-tuning and improving upon their work.
- They deliver the difference, remaining laser-focused on positive outcomes.
Five employee archetypes
To better understand what it takes to inspire and train individuals to produce great work, we categorized employees into five broad archetypes: Socializers, Builders, Achievers, Taskers, and Coasters. Each group has unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Each has a different probability of demonstrating engagement and producing great work. Just as crucially, each has distinct requirements for increasing their great work quotient.
Socializers are outgoing, driven, and motivated by fun and rewards. They are only 12% likely to produce great work but 55% likely to demonstrate engagement.
Builders are warm, friendly, emotionally intelligent, and diplomatic. They’re 45% likely to produce great work and 85% likely to demonstrate engagement, and they tend to be motivated by goals, fun, and rewards.
Achievers are driven and high-energy but can be tense and moody. Of all the groups, they have the highest likelihood of doing great work (66%) and demonstrating engagement (96%). They are motivated by fun, rewards, and avoiding punishment.
Taskers are generally quieter, more composed, and more resistant to feedback. They respond well to rewards, but not to fun or punishment. They have a 10% probability of producing great work and a 46% probability of engagement.
Coasters tend to be pessimistic and prone to stress. They appreciate rewards, seek to avoid punishment, and have just a 3% chance of producing great work (and only a 17% chance of demonstrating engagement).
The idea behind these categories is not for leaders to pigeonhole their employees but to better understand their strengths and shortcomings, so they can provide the right support. The most effective modern leaders closely observe their people, adjusting their management approach to help each individual develop and thrive. Leaders who know their people well will recognize which worker personas apply to which team members.
Creating tailored strategies
Leaders can create tailored strategies that encourage crucial great work behaviors.
Achievers, for example, work hard. But sometimes they’d prefer to tackle the next challenge rather than continue their involvement in a “finished” project that might benefit from further refining. By helping Achievers “improve the mix” and “deliver the difference,” our research shows, leaders can double and even triple the likelihood that these employees will produce great work. One company helped their Achievers “deliver the difference” by instituting formal evaluations three months and nine months after each project. These became institutionalized opportunities to fine-tune completed projects, ensuring they accomplished what was intended.
It doesn’t come naturally to Taskers to “ask the right question” or “go and see.” Here, it can be inspiring to hear stories of colleagues whose orientation shifted after they received unexpected answers or made surprising observations. One example: Rob, a claims manager for an insurance company, sought the perspective of a job applicant he was interviewing for a call center position. Asked to describe the best practices she’d learned at her previous job, the applicant described how her calls seemed to go more smoothly when she first assured customers that she was there for them and could help them. That insight led Rob’s company to change how it answered calls from customers who were reporting accidents, meaningfully raising customer satisfaction.
Coasters score low on all of the key behaviors. But our research shows that by strengthening workplace culture, including the addition of more employee recognition, a Coaster’s probability of great work can increase sixfold or more.
Socializers are nearly three times as likely to produce great work when they’re part of an inclusive workplace culture—where all employees feel they are valued and belong. My own department, for example, includes a number of high-performing Socializers. The warm, welcoming culture that brings out the best in them also resonates with the rest of our team, and during the initial stages of the pandemic, it became clear that we needed to reinforce that culture in a remote work setup. We made time to eat lunch together virtually, dropped off small tokens of appreciation at one another’s doorsteps, and developed innovative ways to celebrate our successes.
Builders have an appreciation for the big picture, but they aren’t as likely to talk to an outer circle. Pete, from the example above, is a Builder: a natural creator of relationships and connections whose colleagues generally come to follow his thinking quickly. Often this is an asset. But in the context of a challenge demanding outside perspectives, it was a consequential shortcoming.
By understanding Pete’s persona, his manager could have partnered with him to preempt the issue before it became a fatal flaw. Perhaps the manager could have kicked off the project by inviting outside experts in for a wide-ranging, creativity-sparking brainstorming session.
A better metric
Employee engagement is not a meaningless measure. But like the standard HR metric that it replaced—employee satisfaction—it’s insufficient. If we want to significantly boost business results in 2022, we’d be wise to set our sights on measuring, encouraging, inspiring, and increasing great work.
Gary Beckstrand is a vice president at O.C. Tanner, a workplace culture company. He is also a coauthor of Appreciate: Celebrating People, Inspiring Greatness.