Powerful, Elusive Employee Engagement

The CEO of Rapid Corp., astonished at recently reading in a Gallup report that North American employee engagement levels sat at a miserable 33%, quickly inquired as to the engagement level of her own employees. Learning that her company did not measure it, she immediately ordered that a survey be conducted.
The resultant 43%, while a tad better than the national average, prompted a hasty call to action. A top leadership development consultancy was sourced, survey results analyzed, and a custom-tailored program created, including cultural/values clarification, programs and messaging, and leadership workshops, all launched with sincere fanfare and highly visible senior team involvement. The launch and workshop facilitators were expert, knowledgeable, and gifted speakers, and delivered the highly relevant content with empathy and humour.
The launch and workshops were judged resounding successes, (a post-launch and initial workshop survey yielded very favorable data), and even more important was the elevated energy level that could be tangibly felt throughout the company following these activities. The CEO cautioned her team to remain vigilant and involved, so as to sustain and nurture this new energy and commitment.
Unfortunately, by the time of the next engagement survey a year later, to score fell to 38%, and the CEO and senior leadership team were both disappointed and puzzled.
What Happened?
Sadly, what happened at Rapid Corp. is not an uncommon experience. Their world moves incredibly fast; definitely a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world company. So despite raised energy, hopes and the best intentions of all involved, it fell prey to the 10/20/70 rule. Research shows that we learn and retain 10% of what we see and hear, 20% of what we’re coached or shown how to do, but 70% of what we practice on a continuous basis. We learn and retain by repetitive doing.
After the activity of the program launch, the workshop delivery, and the immediate short-term follow-up, life at Rapid Corp. slowly drifted back to ‘normal’; to old habits and patterns soon resurfaced. People returned to the frenzied pace of their jobs, once again pulled into the vortex of their respective tasks, and all the well-targeted and intended information that had been delivered faded in both memory and priority. No villains here; just a relentless, crazy-busy, demanding work environment, and normal human learning entropy. Behavioural transformation could not take root.
But how could their score be even lower than before they took any action? Another pitfall in the effort to transform a culture: employee emotion, following the hope, excitement and elevated expectations generated by the initial programs, sank lower due to the disappointment of having been first introduced to a ‘better’ world, yet then slipping back into the old norms. The disappointment was accompanied by some degree of cynicism among some employees as well.
The Solution
Rapid Corp. did almost everything right. What they overlooked was the 70% learning rule. Whenever attempting to transform behaviour, we need a program or system that structures regular conversations between leaders at all levels, and their employees, and between the employees themselves. All learning content and theory, while extremely important, only has meaning when discussed and experienced within our specific context. We have to actually digest theory and content, and then discuss among ourselves what it means for us in our department, division, company. We then need to apply theory to our own situation in order to get excited, take ownership and sustain interest; to become engaged.

Here are a few steps Rapid Corp. might have taken to sustain the employee engagement they worked so hard to generate:
1. Create and launch the program exactly as Rapid Corp. did, but…
2. Structure program learning material into short modules that can be delivered by manager/leaders to their own teams and groups, in a conversational format
3. Require leaders to hold monthly meetings (one hour can suffice) where the program material is discussed, debated, critiqued by everyone in the group, asking “how can this theory help us right now?”. Gain consensus as to how the new information can improve the group’s own performance.
4. Ask each employee to make a personal commitment to practice one small behavioural/habit change, based on the conversation of the meeting.
5. Deploy digital technology to track and support the behavioural transformation, as employees make their efforts to change. There are apps and platforms available today that facilitate this process.

The key here is that small, persistent incremental changes gradually become new habits, and yield the broader, deeper behavioural transformation that will shift, strengthen and sustain employee engagement. And incremental change starts with conversations. “Are there better ways to do what we’re doing? How will they make my life at work better? What’s involved in changing to that way?”
Using our leaders for content delivery in small group conversations builds their knowledge, skills and confidence, and brings them closer to their employees and the issues most important to them. Conversations, being two-way, allow employees to engage in the issue, to feel included and involved. Using technology to monitor progress adds rich data on the health of your employee engagement in real time, while giving guidance as to what additional conversations (instructional, motivational, remedial) can be arranged to support those employees in need.
While the work of building employee engagement can be difficult, especially in the early stages, the formula is quite simple: good conversations build strong relationships, which strengthen employee engagement, which delivers outstanding performance and results.

Michael Darmody, Principal of Darmody & Company, is a seasoned leadership consultant, executive coach and public speaker who helps clients bridge their performance gaps by aligning Purpose, People and Process. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario. www.darmodyandcompany.com michael@darmodyandcompany.com

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