Is Employee Engagement your Priority?
Do you want to ramp up Employee Engagement (EE) as a priority HR thrust area? First ask yourself, “Is my organization (and me) ready for it?” and then, “What are the HR processes that support EE programs?” Prompted by one very senior and respected HR professional in the corporate sector, who asked me a couple of weeks ago, if there is a level of readiness that is required to put Employee Engagement initiatives in place. I decided to write my thoughts down in this fifth blog post in the series on Employee Engagement. You see, the promoter-driven group of companies he works with has just seen very rapid expansion beyond domestic boundaries, largely driven through acquisitions of firms in foreign lands. The HR processes of each of the units have not yet seen complete integration, and the cultures are still very diverse. He personally is doubtful whether EE initiatives can be rolled out in such situations.
So my first question to all readers is:
- Whether or not an HR Professional or his organization is ready to design and implement Employee Engagement programs?
Other related questions I will attempt to address in this blog post are:
- Is there a foundation needed to be in place before EE programs can be rolled out?
- Are there some core HR processes required to support EE programs being implemented?
- What efforts are needed to refresh EE programs when they become repetitive and ritualized?
- Do we ever reach a point when we say we want to discontinue some or all of the EE initiatives?
- What are the yardsticks of success of EE efforts?
Many of these questions have no clear answers and most HR professionals are still trying to address them. But let’s look clearly at what we can say.
When do we say we are “ready”?
Are there organizations that are not ready for Employee Engagement programs? Is there a basic requirement of a launching pad for Employee Engagement? This question is best answered by understanding:
Organization culture at the time of designing and rolling out initiatives: Organizations are akin sometimes to battlegrounds, jungles or gardens, depending on the prevailing culture. In all such cases, Employee Engagement initiatives need to be very carefully crafted to manage any unintended consequences that might emerge. The efforts have to be towards management of differences, and healing old wounds which might crop up again.
Real and stated intentions of investing in EE: When motives are genuine and there is a real felt need, then all initiatives are absorbed by the context, and have the positive effects.
Organization structure: Sometimes organizations have one single unit of operation, sometimes, multiple units, diversified domains, global presence across countries, tall hierarchical cultures, flatter organizations, centralized HR, or decentralized HR function…so many elements to consider in organization structure before even the planning takes place. The logistics of rollout of EE initiatives can be complex, indeed, so it’s better to start simple and see initial success, and then to evolve the program as things go along.
HR values, leadership and capability: The values that HR carries, sows the seed for the living processes impacted by Employee Engagement initiatives. The kind of leadership displayed by the HR department, the capability, competence, professional depth of the team that will implement Employee Engagement initiatives needs to be mindful of the following twin elements:
Supporting HR Processes
Most ongoing Employee Engagement initiatives generally aim to strengthen and reinforce the organizations’:
Communication mechanisms, both upward and downward. Channels that create space for employees to have their voice heard and suggestions incorporated help create an inclusive atmosphere that motivates and energizes.
Performance Management that promote people-centered values. When employees are empowered to align their efforts in the direction of organizational goals in a participative manner, it encourages role clarity and provides a sense of enhanced level of organizational membership and affiliation.
Rewards and recognition procedures: The fundamentals of human motivation do not change. People respond to recognition and rewards in positive ways. Strengthening the link between rewards and performance by increasing degrees of objectivity and transparency always helps bring clarity and cohesion in accomplishing a task.
Vision, values and mission exercises: The organization’s leadership team needs to have an alignment with a common vision and mission, clearly articulated, shared, besides, efforts in building a vision community. Holding town halls, open houses, transparency of organizational decision-making, policy and strategic direction all help to build coherence and alignment. Culture-building exercises enable open spaces for communication and positive expression in workspaces. Organizational hierarchy creates oppressive processes of top-down communication about workflows and this needs to be corrected by corresponding down-up communications that give voice to employee ideas and innovation.
Refreshing old Employee Engagement practices
The last time the company circulated boxes of sweets for Diwali, the general reaction was “Oh no! Not another box!” Annual office picnics become one more ritual to repeat, pep talks lose their pep, and things like Annual Day and the boss’s secretary’s birthday fail to motivate. Sometimes even HR processes like performance appraisals get repetitive and ritualized form-filling exercises, with predictable results that breed cynicism. Every new initiative comes with an expiry date and it’s time to renew and refresh the Employee Engagement practices. The challenge is to keep the positive energy flowing in the face of increasing entropy. What do you do?
Taking stock and reviewing progress: This ought to be done on a quarterly basis with the entire HR team and news from each unit needs to be collated. Six-monthly, random samples of dipstick tests will enable keeping track of progress. Equal amount of attention needs to be paid to quantitative and qualitative data, for it is in the qualitative information that the spirit of the initiatives can be assessed, and the pulse of the organization lives.
What to change, and what not to change: It’s usually a simple tweaking that’s needed to stay on track. Remember if you change too much, like the Ship of Theseus, you risk losing the very identity of the program and lose sight along the way. Often, there are political pressures to change some things that achieve less Employee Engagement, but more political mileage for some senior manager or the other. Change for the sake of change needs to be avoided and only that which improves the flagging spirits of the old EE initiatives needs to be brought in.
What are some of the milestones along the way?
Positive signs to look for: It’s very heartening to see the smiling faces and other signs that employees manifest in workplaces when engaged. People volunteer for organizational tasks, take joy in mentoring newcomers, speak about the organization in positive words to the rest of the world, remember the vision statements and refer to the values often enough, support HR processes, avoid being frequently absent at company events, and so on. Catching the small signals that assure you that employees are engaged is the real proof of a turnaround for the better. New traditions are set and there are celebratory events whenever there is positive news for individual employees as well as the organization, and people generally look in the direction of the organization vision and purpose.
Negative signs to look for: Similarly, there are signs to look out for that reveal employees are not engaged with organizational purpose. Too much pre-occupation with non-work related issues, excuses for missing deadlines, obstacles become huge hurdles, reasons for not delivering on results are plenty, employees ‘avoid’ meeting their bosses to the extent possible, there is a sudden hush from the staff when a senior manager enters the lunchroom, complaining about small issues which are really inconsequential, high turnover for unstated reasons, employees don’t show up for corporate events, undermining of others efforts and buck passing for non-achievements. The list of negative employee engagement signs is endless.
When to discontinue EE programs?
Often EE programs become huge, unwieldy, logistical nightmares. Rollout of new initiatives keep the HR team on its toes for nights on end, and no amount of communicating seems enough, and the PowerPoint presentation is all that people remembered they did not get a copy of. Let us not forget that most HR efforts are administratively heavy and each level of complexity we bring, exponentially multiplies the effort taken to roll it out. Beginning simply with a minimalistic program gives it the most longevity. A few ideas well implemented prevent premature death of lots of ideas that go to the grave for want of manpower effort to roll out, track and monitor.
Resistance to change: There are more people opposing the initiative than supporting it. The number of ‘activists’ in the organization that create coalitions of anti-establishment waves within the company is on the rise. Often, people are very clear that they don’t want what they are getting, but don’t know what they would like in its place.
Cynicism: In one company I visit regularly, employees have lost faith in the Performance management system (PMS) and don’t see the point in dealing with it either as reviewers or as the reviewed. At the same time, the HR managers themselves have lost faith in their own system too; yet, they cannot imagine running their organization without a system. Simultaneously, they cannot think of any alternative to the PMS that would work better. A sure sign that cynicism has taken the HR team to a point where any action is not possible and entropy prevails.
Ritualization of EE practices: When all efforts at refreshing the situation come to naught and events are still mechanically rolled out and employees attend out of a sense of passive compliance.
When processes prevail: It’s the eventual take-over of the true spirit of EE initiatives when bureaucracy sets in with frozen information-flows and decision-making processes. The effort is more at recording the attendance and the minutes of the town halls and open houses, and less at the value of implementing innovative ideas that came up in the meeting. When the need to pass on these minutes to the ‘appropriate authorities’ is more than the wake-up call for these authorities; when the numerical results in the employee engagement survey become more important than the issues raised by it, you know that the time has come.
You know you have reached the end of the road and must call things off in the face of all this. When you know that the more you do, the worse it gets, it’s time to call a moratorium on Employee Engagement and let things rest for a while. Incubate some really new ideas to shift the paradigm and return when the timing is right.
The Final Caveat
Having said all this, I do believe that the strongest driver of Employee Engagement is the leadership at the top. It always flows top-down! The effects of HR intervention are limited. It can only enhance positives of top leadership or reduce the impact of negatives of top leadership. HR Processes by themselves do not achieve turnaround. Good things get better, bad things get less bad and that is what HR Processes do. So, all HR has to really do, is to watch leadership and keep that on track. Everything else falls into place. Those who know this can wave the magic wand of Employee Engagement and focus in the right direction.
More in my next blog on role of leadership in Employee Engagement. Keep reading!
Thanks to those who had the time to read this blog post till the end. Don’t leave without putting in a comment on my thoughts at the end!