Want higher employee engagement? Stop talking about employee engagement.

The argument about the importance of employee engagement is over. While there is certainly a continuum of opinions on how important it is (everything from ‘it’s nice to have’ to ‘its essential’ exists) there is less clarity on how to increase employee engagement.

The unspoken assumption around much of the conversation around engagement is that, fundamentally, the manner in which work gets done does not need to change for engagement to increase. Consider the two most popular approached to increasing engagement: creating ways for people to have more fun at work (happy hour parties, games at work, et.) and articulating new kinds of behaviors that evidence engaged employees (“we have fun,” “we operate with integrity,” etc.).

 

Putting the cart before the horse

Focusing on the behaviors an organization wants and giving employees opportunities to have fun at work put the cart before the horse when it comes to culture change. New behaviors and genuinely engaged employees come after an organization has addressed the most critical element to generating new levels of performance from it’s people: giving people the opportunity to create and choose what they work on and how they work. Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, calls this autonomy. Our clients have seen the power of this as well.

People own what they take part in creating

What distinguishes successful culture change initiatives is not clever messaging, reminding people of wanted behaviors, or even Pizza Fridays. Culture change initiatives are successful because they allow people to create their work, including (but not limited to) the specific, measurable results their project will deliver and the unique (and sometimes very specific) operating principles and practices by which they and their teammates will work.

When people have thought critically about where they want their group to go and what they can authentically commit to all the noble behaviors we as leaders want to see in people, including entrepreneurialism, coordinated action, creativity, and respect blossom. Employee engagement skyrockets as well.

In my own experience helping organizations cause breakthroughs in performance, I’ve learned that people own, are inspired and engaged by what they help create.

Stop talking about culture change

You may think to yourself, “aren’t leaders supposed to identify growth targets and set the culture?” A leader’s job is to elicit the best contribution from their people. Allowing them to create as much of their work as possible is the best way to do that.

Stop talking about how engaged you want your people to be. Start asking what people want to accomplish. New behaviors and new levels of engagement will come later.

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