Employee Engagement is a Corporations Conscience

My favourite organizational metric is Employee Engagement.

I seem to be the minority of people who like this metric. Most don’t seem to see the value in it. I however think it should be the key primary metric. Why?

Glad you asked…

I used to prefer Customer Satisfaction as a KPI but if I had to pick only one, I would now pick Employee Engagement over even Customer Satisfaction. Most of us understand the importance of happy customers. Without happy customers we don’t sell products or services. Without sales, our business shrinks and eventually disappears. Customer service is important. I could write a whole post on how important customer service is and how you need to build that bond but before we talk about that, lets stay internal to the organization.

A corporation is much like a large psychopathic giant who stumbles around without much of a brain. As it stumbles it often crushes things in it’s path. It has a singular thought process which focusses on profit. Increase income and reduce cost is its nervous system. Yet much like our own bodies, an organization is made up of smaller entities. In our bodies these are bacteria, in an organization those entities are you and me. Yet who is driving the giant? Not you and not me. Most of the “driving” of the giant comes from the executive but I would argue that there is also a degree of influence from every member of that organization. Of course the larger it is, the more diluted this influence can become. The reward system for executives is often very focussed on rewards for performance. Bonuses for profitability which translate to sales and goal completion. When this trickles down to management it often turns into: “do that task by this time frame with this much budget.” The communication is often one way which is a downward flow of task delegation. This in turn often creates bad management.

When I say “bad management,” I don’t mean managers that are being bad intentionally or are even bad people. What I mean is that the management that most of us have been trained (or lack of it) to deliver is bad. The excuse I offer is that all of us are focussing on tasks. We have a task list for the day, week, month and year. If you Google “task” you will see all the books and methods for organizing tasks. We have annual goals and performance measurements that we must meet. We have expectations to get stuff done and only so much time to do it.

Most of the time as managers we are either in a meeting (multitasking) or on our way to a meeting. We are focussed on tasks, not people. So it is very natural when we get approached in the hallway, we try and keep moving. We aren’t listening because we know we only have minutes to get to the next task. We are waiting for the person to stop talking so we can continue and complete our task. It’s no wonder there is often a gap between managers and reports. There is no wonder most employees are so demotivated that they are just clocking time and looking for the next opportunity.

This is sad. It is also very unproductive. It is a shame from a humanitarian viewpoint and a waste from a business perspective. Either way you look at it, it is bad.

In my mind, the secret to management is not only to be productive but to be scalable. Resources are finite yet the workload is often infinite. So, essentially every manager has a scalability problem.

How do you get the most done (task completion) with only so many resources? The answer is surprisingly wonderful and can change your life.

Some companies are very strict on job descriptions and formalize what people do. They pay new employees less while employees with lots of tenure get more. Employees with less skills do easier jobs and get paid less. Have someone to pound out widgets and pay them minimum wage. Sounds efficient right?

What do people want in their lives? What do you want in order to feel satisfied? When was the last time you felt satisfied at work? If you are like most, it was a very long time ago, if ever. What about those people who are self employed? Why are they so happy even after working a 12 hour day?

Everyone wants to be treated like a human being.

This means we have a need to be respected. Respected no matter what. We all screw up. We all make mistakes. In fact, I would argue that mistakes are good (sorry this is a whole different blog post subject). Yet how often do you see people making a mistake and then being guided with respect? Almost never. These people are lectured, ridiculed and made an example of. Depending on the mistake it might even result in termination of employment. To fail is human. To respect someone even when you are upset with them is mandatory for all professionals. As a decent person you are obligated to treat everyone with respect. As a manager and leader, it is mandatory. Does this mean you cater to them and never change their behaviour conduct discipline? Hell no. Don’t let anyone confuse kindness with weakness. As managers we will encounter individuals who feel entitled or who want to cheat. These people can be shown the door (with respect). My point is, don’t let your bad day prevent you from saying “please” and “thank you.”

Everyone needs a level of autonomy. While some people may say they are not creative, this simply isn’t true. Some people may be referring to as “thinking outside the box.” This is rubbish. Everyone is an artist in their own right. If some of us had absolutely no creative ability, then what would we do when our scripts or instructions failed us? Stand there until someone told us what to do? No. We all improvise. We all create. We all enjoy the beauty of creative endeavours at our own level. If you micromanage your reports, you are providing them a slow and painful mental death. Leaders Intent is the best tool a micro-manager can read about. Let go of the reins. Let your team come up with creative ways to solve those problems. Yes I know its not how you would do it. Yes I know you have already done it a dozen times and could do it in a fraction of the time. This is not the point. Remember, we are building scalability. Instead of saying, “I need this done by this time” try saying, “I have this problem, take some time and let me know how you think we can make it better.” Then see how much time they need to finish it. Once it is theirs, you will often find the time needed to fix it is shorter than what you were about the schedule.

Autonomous streams of work is the secret to scalability.

Many people have asked me how to motivate or increase engagement. My answer to this is to first stop demotivating staff. Most staff are already in the red meaning they are frustrated and not in a good space. They likely don’t like their boss, don’t like their work and watch the clock. What causes this? It happens fast and easily. It happens as soon as you begin to micro-manage and continues as you forget to praise and guide. Most managers have a level of detachment that they excuse themselves with through “being busy.” Sorry but that is not an excuse. The means have never justified the ends. In fact, the means are often more important than the ends.

At the end of the day and for that matter, at the end of our lives, what matters? It’s not how many widgets the company sold. Sure you have to put food on the table. This is a universal concern. We want to do right by our families. We want them to have the best we can provide. We need to put our kids through school, we need to get our spouse a new car and need a house to call home. I get it. However, you can have all those luxuries plus create a world worth living in at the same time. You don’t need to be a slave driving psycho boss to achieve a certain level of productivity. In fact, you will never compete over the long term with a boss who cares.

I once worked with a Director of R&D who was a real hard ass. He was always calm but was very tough to the point that it was condescending. While he was not a bully, he ruled through fear. He didn’t give any positive feedback but instead informed you when you were not good enough. I asked him one day when we were running together why he was this way. He told me, “if they fear you then you have more control.” I can’t disagree with this statement. He did have control. What he didn’t have was engaged employees who “wanted” to make the organization successful. Instead, he had a cubicle prison filled with lemmings who were performing just enough not to get into trouble. Trying to deliver on his vision yet minimizing interaction to mitigate risk. This environment has almost zero creativity and certainly doesn’t foster collaboration or group think. Just a bunch of depressed and scared people trying to satisfy their king.

We are social animals. We need to interact. We need to tell our stories and more importantly, we need to feel as though we were heard. One of the best ways to lose respect is to pretend to listen. We are tribal. We want to show each other what we learnt and be coached by others. We need to share our creations.

Respect, trust, personal interest, social interaction and emotional support is in our blood. Without it, we feel empty.

We often talk about the Work Life Balance as though it is two different worlds. Sorry but that ship has sailed. Technology has allowed me to simultaneously be participating in work duties while I spend time with my family. Work Life Balance insinuates by its very wording that “work” is not “life.” Again, sorry but every moment you are alive is life. Life does not begin at 5pm. In fact, most of your life is either working or sleeping.

I’ve worked at companies where they realize they have a problem. As a result they do a “Culture Reboot.” They select a group of people to come up with a new culture. Sometimes this is the executive and sometimes it is a selection of employees who act in a positive way. Who better to figure out the new corporate belief system than either the leaders or employees who are already engaged right? They must know the secrets to engagement. This never has the good results. Putting a list of new corporate beliefs on the wall does not change behaviours. Telling people how to behave does not work. Telling people what you think is important also does not work. These initiatives are failures out of the gate and huge wastes of money.

These false hope initiatives are the knee jerk reaction to the realization that people are not happy in the environment and as a result, are not as productive as they could be. It is the psychopath trying to make new friends.

There are some people who, for an array of reasons, have a social awkwardness. Introverts are one group that fall into this category but are less extreme than other who have medical conditions. There is a wide spectrum of social skills out there but most are capable to deliver what is needed. I had an argument with a math student in university which I will always remember. He stated that we don’t need words and that all human communications could be performed with mathematical language. He was very passionate about this and proceeded to show me how to say many things through his algorithms and expressions. I had to give him credit for this but was never convinced. As humans we are all about the subtleties of life. The smell that wisps by you as you pass a house cooking dinner. The warm breeze coming off the lake. The touch of a loved when you are sad. This is the world our volitional minds live in. This is what it means to be human.

The day in the office is not devoid of emotion. It isn’t a sanitized environment where human nature ceases to exist. In fact, it is a patri dish filled with human interaction and emotion. Work is life and to think otherwise is the worst denial we can have.

From a strict business viewpoint, an employee with high commitment will take ownership and have a high degree of commitment because they have pride in their work, their team and their goal. Whereas an employee who is just putting in time will often deliver only what is acceptable without any improvements. The later is not scalable or efficient.

Many manager will try to solve this problem by engaging in management by fear as my R&D co-worker did. It is confusing for managers who do this as it often does result in some short term results. Employees will stop rebellion if the fear of termination is high enough. Employees will pretend their not retreating if active participation is required. Ritual compliance will be a technique that employees follow when at risk of penalties. Fear will heighten the attention of employees like an animal being hunted. They will watch and pay attention waiting for the eminent attack. Their senses will be heightened and they will be preparing to react through flight or fight. The stress of this will eventually overwhelm them. While you may have their attention, you will fail to have their commitment. As soon as a job opportunity arises that has any promise, they will jump ship without any concern that would normally be apparent during a job change.

No fear is not the answer. The answer are the attributes that make us human. We must take control of the giant through genuine care, respect and trust. It is only through this seemingly easy method can we create organizations that do good and delivery goodness. It is only through this method that we turn frustrated and disgruntled clock watchers into fire breathing leaders who in turn create more leaders.

Engagement is an arbitrary word used by corporations to measure what is thought of as a social obligation. It is the giant’s report card. All of this of course is nonsense. When I walk through an organization I can see within minutes the level of engagement. I can see if people want to be there. I can see respect, trust and commitment. While measuring and reporting engagement may help some organizations and I would never discard it as an exercise, I fear many organizations do it because of a guilty feeling they need to. An exercise where you go through the motions because someone told you it was required. Unless it is used for reflection and continual improvement, it has minimal value. Remember, while listening is very good the act of pretending to listen is very, very bad management.

So how does a manager who wants to follow this path proceed? How do you live life to the fullest by making it a better place for your reports and their entire families? How do you create leaders who will rise up like a phoenix and help empower others? How do you create an army of fire breathers who provide more productivity for an organization than you ever dreamt possible?

Be a human being. Treat everyone with the respect they deserve. Even on your worst day. 

Admit there is no work life balance. There is only life and you can live yours in the light or the dark. It’s your choice. Do not go gentle into that good night. 🙂

As humans, we are capable of achieving the wonderful. In fact, we have a strong desire to do so. Managers who simply assign tasks will not see the wonders that we are capable of. It is only when we release the reins and have that social interaction. It is only when we care about the person in front of us that we allow their own personal worries to subside enough to think about what they are doing.

One only needs to look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to know the truth. A sense of belonging and identity is crucial. We want to believe in something bigger than ourselves. At some level we all realise our place in the universe. We don’t like to think about it, but we know we have a finite time on this earth and want to be something special. We want to be on the winning team. We want praise and a pat on the back that reinforces we did the right thing with our time. We want the tshirt.

As managers we hold a position of power. “With great power comes great responsibility.” 😉 We can make people’s lives living hell or a wonderful experience. I purposely say “peoples” rather than “employee” because whatever happens to the employee in a company goes back to his/her family. The bad day doesn’t get locked up at work after the doors are closed. No it flows through feelings to the spouse and children and sometimes much farther. The good and the bad is absorbed by many more people that you can imagine. The effort of a manager of people is magnified to an extent that few comprehend. An once of evil or goodness is transformed into a pound at the end of the day. Your influence is much larger than you ever imagined. You are responsible for the 5 year old son who is now crying after his father yelled at him in frustration. You are also responsible for that boy who now has a sparkle in his eye as his father plays with him on the playground. All of that, is on you.


My approach has been to stop looking at the formalization of roles and tasks. Instead, as much as possible, focus on the person.

Move from manager to mentor. Understand their weaknesses and strengths. Support them. Grow them. Then have the guts to step out of the way as they move past you.

I make training and learning mandatory. This means you must always be learning and teaching. I ask everyone to dedicate at least 2 hours a week to training. This can include lunch & learns, reading a book, teaching, mentoring, formal course, online video, podcast, whatever. The delivery stream is irrelevant. I invest in their development and this is then transferred to building efficiencies in both process and technology. Also, I don’t limit roles. If you are busting our widgets at minimum wage but want to grow into a higher role I give you the training to get there.

I make a huge effort to listen to everyone. I don’t mean the fake listening we all do while checking our mail. You must stop everything you are doing, make eye contact and truly listen. This will be a huge challenge for most of us but it is mandatory. You can not form a relationship with someone while checking your email. People can tell if you are not genuine. Perhaps not right away but eventually and when they do, you will lose them forever. Game over. Step one, is to truly care. If you can not do that, please stop being a manager of people.

As I have begun to make the transition from a task focussed manager to a person focussed manager my life has changed. While my reports are extremely happy the positive effects are not limited to them and their families. I have a constant positive feeling as well. I realize I am making a difference. I wake up excited about what the day will bring. I have the rush and dedication of the entrepreneur. My peers and upper management see the difference and they are rewarding me. While some of my people focus habits may cause some scepticism, the increase in productivity can not be ignored. The ever present fire breathing personalities of those who I work with constantly remind me I am on the right path.

If you want to follow this path but are unable due to upper management or your peers then I recommend you search out a company that allows this style of management. I am lucky enough to have a boss who not only allows this but encourages it. His calm confidence is contagious and has allowed me to do this. You may not be so lucky. I have been there and it is hard to make positive change when your boss yells and jumps up and down. It is hard to support your staff when your boss asks you to punish the smallest of mistakes. My advice in these cases is to move as soon as the opportunity is possible.

Do you have an environment where you can do this? Ready to make the plunge but wondering how to start?

It’s easy. Talk to your staff and let them know your intent. Tell them your thoughts and then ask for theirs. It will be slow going at first. Trust and respect is not developed over night. Take your time. Enjoy the change and don’t rush it as you will never be done. This isn’t a task, it is a way of living.







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