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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Jenkins

The Truth About Employee Engagement

Last year I sat down around a similar time to this and reflected on what 2017 had delivered, what my personal peaks and troughs had been and what I wanted to do differently in 2018. After all, January is the time for self-reflection isn't it!

I did the usual thing that quite a few people do and came up with a list of things I was going to strive to do more of (drink more water, run every day etc.) and to be frank, I promptly failed at all of them. My heart wasn’t in them, despite the fact that I had it pinned as a post it note on the front of my computer. That note faded over the course of the 12 months just like my appetite to deliver on these resolutions did.

That being said, there were two things I wanted to change from a work perspective that I did throw myself into. Looking back on 2017 I felt it had been a tough year, some major highs but equally some big lows along with it. I felt, in that period of reflection I was in, that I needed to make more time for me, more learning time. And in addition to this I wanted to control my, at times, very loud inner voice. You know, the chimp that sits awkwardly on your shoulder commenting on everything you do, or don’t do! My chimp had been loud in 2017 and I wanted 2018 to be different. So I set about two things, making time to read every day and starting a journal.

Journalling didn’t last, it made my chimp worse in fact. It wasn’t something for me so I dropped it after about 3 months but reading stuck and it helped me a great deal. I had to fundamentally change my routine and it meant sacrificing time sleeping to make it work as I committed to getting up 30 minutes earlier every day to start the day with a little reading. Depending on my schedule (I travel a lot!), I would read anything from a couple of pages to a couple of chapters. I read 34 books in total in 12 months. Frankly I don’t quite know how I got through so many books but I was better for it. I was happier, the quality of my work went up, and what I was able to offer my clients went up too.

So this year, with the learnings of 2018 firmly in mind I did something similar but rather than write a list of things I aspired to change but have no real intent of following through on, I committed to doing just two things. I’m going to carry on reading, it’s a habit now so is fairly easy to achieve and in addition, I’m going to write more. I enjoy writing and I enjoy sharing things with people. It feels a logical extension of not just reading but sharing what I learn from reading also.

One book down this year and I’ve been reflecting on Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Truth About Employee Engagement”. Like all Lencioni books, it’s a fable and it leads you through a leaders discovery of what motivates employees and in this particular instance, what prevents motivation and engagement in employees.

Like most movie reviews, I should probably spell out that what I’m going to say next will contain “spoilers” but here’s the key takeaways I took from the book.

The fable tells the story of “Brian”, a founder/CEO of a mid-sized sports company who’s just sold his business as part of an acquisition. It charts Brian’s journey as he retires and quickly finds himself frustrated and lacking in purpose. In battling his new found position, Brian invests in a new company, a local restaurant, which he’s found to be lacking in spirit and morale. Over the course of the rest of the fable, Lencioni spells out his model for driving employee engagement and how to overcome what he calls “job misery” as Brian designs and tests out his thinking through this new venture and the subsequent ventures he gets into.

The cost of misery

Lencioni argues, and he’s right, that “productivity suffers greatly when employees are disengaged”. Lack of employee engagement impacts an organisation’s bottom line but equally has a negative social effect on an organisation as a whole. Lencioni describes the “ripple effect” that can spread through an organisation when job misery sits at large inside a company’s culture.

I talk regularly to clients I work with about the impact of ‘work’ and ‘home’ on productivity. How what we deal with at work we naturally carry home to those we love thus impacting relationships and having a knock-on impact to our life outside of work.  Equally too, what we deal with at home (financial worries, health scares, relationship issues) impacts our ability to bring our whole self to work and the quality of work that we do. As Lencioni describes, “a miserable employee goes home at the end of the day frustrated, cynical and weary” and this can spread both at work and at home.

In my world I refer to it as “drain-like” behaviour. Something that sucks the life out of things. Someone behaving like a ‘drain’ is no longer fun to be around and sucks the productivity and enjoyment of others through their drain-like behaviour. As Lencioni says; “even the most emotionally mature, self-aware people cannot help but let misery leak into the rest of their lives”.

Root Causes of job misery

What Lencioni spells out through Brian’s story, and further in his explanation of the model in the closing stages of the book is simple but highly impactful. He shares a simple three-point model that he believes informs an employee’s level of engagement. 

I should point out that Lencioni’s pure description is featured as the words in brackets, my interpretation of his meaning is what I have articulated in the words around this.

Anonymity… what this means…

People are unable to achieve fulfilment in their work if they don’t feel like they are known. This isn't as simple as knowing someone’s name, its actually being known and understood. Feeling understood is where someone takes the genuine care to get to know you; what you like, what you have going on in your life etc. it leads to you feeling supported and appreciated both as an employee and as a colleague. Lencioni describes the need that all humans have to be “understood and appreciated” and when that’s lacking for an employee, their engagement drops and quite significantly so.

Irrelevance…. what this means…

Similar to the above, if people feel that their work or role has no meaning or has no purpose they continually ask themselves “why bother?”. As Lencioni shares through the book, “everyone needs to know that their job matters to someone”, without that, there is no ability for someone to find lasting fulfilment in what they do day-in, day-out. The book outlines that everyone, regardless of their title or position, serves someone, the key is in helping employees discover who it is they serve. Its not always obvious, but it is always there.   

Immeasurement… what this means…

Completing the model, if an employee needs to feel valued and have a sense of purpose in what they do, they also need to be able to measure what they do to be able to demonstrate the difference they are making to that organisation and the people within it. Whilst Lencioni recognises that he’s invented a new word in “immeasurement”, it describes perfectly how a lack of appropriate measurement of an employee’s performance can drive up job misery and drive down engagement. Lencioni shares that “without a tangible means for measuring success or failure motivation eventually deteriorates”. Ultimately employees that lack the ability to showcase their achievement don’t feel that they have the ability to control their own fate.

The benefits of improved engagement

Whilst much of the above might feel like a “no shit Sherlock” revelation, the truth is that this is surprisingly common in organisation’s worldwide. I’m pretty sure each of us can point to a moment in time where we’ve questioned one if not all of these job-misery defining issues and can associate with how our engagement levels were less than they potentially could have been. How, because of job misery, we didn’t bring our “A” game to the table and reach our full potential.

This is where the benefits lie in leaders actively working to create greater employee engagement. Work to overcome these three misery creating issues and employee engagement will naturally form and multiply. In showing people that they are valued and prioritising getting to know them on a personal level. In creating a sense of purpose for someone in their role by helping them see who they serve. In putting measures in place to help them demonstrate where they are being successful, a leader can:

* Increase productivity – People who are happy in their roles bring greater levels of enthusiasm to their work which in turn drives increased levels of productivity and outputs. Less time is spent by employees procrastinating or whinging, and more time is spent doing the work people enjoy.

* Improve retention and lower costs – People who feel valued and which have a sense of purpose stay longer in their jobs and this in turn attracts people to want to be part of a company where people are happy and outwardly demonstrate this both in their conversation about their employer and in their day-to-day action at work.

* Cultivate a sustainable culture – Over time, a group of enthused and highly engaged employees shape the culture of an organisation. Employee engagement and investment in that engagement becomes part of the fabric of the organisation and that enables a point of differentiation to be established for a company in their marketplace. As Lencioni highlights, managers who work to reduce job-misery enable employees themselves to begin to take a greater interest in their colleagues, they “help them find meaning and relevance in their work, and find better ways to gauge their own success”.

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