Hacking the engagement issue: Building better people

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Written by Caroline Walmsley on 27 June 2016

As I said last time in my first blog for Training Journal, people talk to me about employee engagement.

A lot.

It remains a core challenge for all types of organisation today. Whether the relationship is causative or correlative - and it changes - good engagement scores track across almost every other desirable business KPI.

From shareholder returns to performance, productivity, operating margins and net income, all these marks of success walk hand-in-hand with good levels of engagement.

But for the most part, we're still not getting there. Across the developed economies at any one time, just under a third of employees are 'involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace', according to the terms of Gallup's definition. This means that all the crucial success indicators above are actively suffering for most of the working day.

Because it's so frequently brought to my attention, I've had a lot of time and opportunity to think about the engagement issue in the past year or so.

I know that where I work, we draw a lot of our strength from the mix of skills and personalities sitting under the one roof. No two employees are quite alike, and a host of different things make them tick. Putting different brains and abilities to work together on the same task creates an unpredictable and creative working dynamic which has given us years of proven results.

We recently conducted a round of research on engagement and finding out what motivates people to do their best - and we found that the differences between role types were enormous. Creatives are boosted by reward and recognition, while process-oriented workers consider training and coaching opportunities to be most important. People-facing workers emphasise supportive leadership.

So if I was concerned about it, reaching for an off the peg approach to engagement for all of them could never work. A short-term incentive programme which propels one worker to outperform every day might make the person sitting next to them cringe and think about leaving altogether.

You can use diagnostics and adaptive content to speak to each person on an individual level, to find out who they are and what gets them out of bed in the morning, and tailor your engagement strategy around that. We've done this before and it works.

But I've been trying to think if there's not a more holistic and far-reaching way of looking at this whole issue. It's a one-size-fits-all approach, but one that's extra-large enough to comfortably take in the whole organisation. Or every organisation.

Let's think about it this way: from businesses of every size to non-profits and third- or fourth-sector, every organisation has its basic function - something it makes in order to exchange and create different forms of value. If it's a sandwich shop, they produce sandwiches. If it's a homeless charity, they produce new solutions and situations where homeless people are less vulnerable than they were before.

Under this model, every organisation has its unique offering. Everyone produces something different.

But there's something else we're producing too. All of us.

The one thing every organisation produces in the course of its daily activities is the people who work there.

Leaders and learners alike, everybody is shaped by their contact with the processes of their work, and by the things they do every day. They start work one way, and they come out subtly changed. A different person has been made.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, every business is in the business of creating people.

Once you understand this shift in perspective, and recognise this ongoing, ubiquitous stream of organisational activity for what it is, the problem of engagement is transformed. The workplace becomes a factory for creating great people - people with important talents, profitable skills, and valuable enthusiasms.

It becomes a site for producing sustainable, resilient and unexpected forms of wealth that are shared simultaneously between the business, the people that work in it and - this is the really good bit - the rest of society. Every organisation should understand its deeper role in creating the people, places and products that shape the future of our world.

It's the only way the advanced economies are going to remain profitable - and valuable in a broader, more fundamental sense - in the future.

And once the true role and purpose of any organisation are reimagined and revealed in this way, the engagement issue tends to take care of itself.

 

About the author 

Caroline Walmsley, managing director of Brightwave.

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