Appreciating Engagement

Executive Summary

The current practice of employee engagement uses opinion surveys and focus groups to determine positive actions to increase engagement. This approach misses the whole point of engagement and runs the risk of reinforcing the weaknesses of the organization. To choose to be engaged is to choose to be an owner and creator of the organization. The way to create engagement is to ask different questions. From “what’s wrong?”, “why are the scores low?” and “what are the remedial actions?” to questions on “what’s right?”, “what are the success factors?” and “what can I do to create an organization I am proud of?”

The World of Opinion Surveys

Nearly every leading company prides itself on using employee opinion surveys to gauge the pulse of the employees. Companies such as Gallop espouse the use of these surveys and link these metrics to business performance of the company. It makes intuitive sense that if people are contributing more, then the performance of the company will be better. Organizations also use repeated surveys to track the change in these people metrics over time as proof that improvement actions have been successful. To identify the right improvement actions, organizations often use focus groups as a method to understand the story behind the numbers and get ideas on improvement actions. This is a traditional approach based on the philosophy of problem solving – identify the root cause to solve the problem.

The Perils of the Traditional Approach

Unlike a mechanical system, it is not as easy to identify the root cause in the human system. There are many factors that interact with one another and it is impossible to isolate factors. This is compounded by the fact that people have different versions of reality. The reason for poor leadership might be attributed to poor training, wrong selection, personality of the leader, promotion of technically superior staff with no people management skills and the list goes on. The danger of identifying the root cause of the problem in a human system is that it strengthens the problem. After an hour of talking about the problem, the group leaves the room convinced of its durability. As experienced by a psychologist at the Police Psychological Service Division, “this is the exact problem we wanted to avoid. We used the Appreciative Inquiry process following our Organizational Health Survey because we want our departments to leverage on our strengths to bring the organization forward, instead of being narrowly focused on the weaknesses.”

Another danger of this approach is the tendency to blame certain groups of people for the low scores. These people become the ‘problem’. When the survey question “intention to stay in the company” is low, it might be attributed to poor managers, ineffective HR department or culture of the company. So consider this, what happens when you feel attacked or blamed? You will naturally defend. People get defensive in the process of finding out the root cause of the problem. Oftentimes, owners of the opinion survey try to convince people to be objective and at the same time, become cynical because no one wants to take ‘ownership’ of the results and actions. Positive energy for change is replaced by ambivalence and the good intentions of engaging people spiral downwards to blame and defense.

Another danger of this traditional approach is that employees remain bystanders while management remains laden with the responsibility to make the changes. It is inherent in the communications of these surveys. A typical reason for opinion survey is that “management wants to create a better workplace and seeks your co-operation in giving your views.” Employees turn up at the focus group and give ideas for improvement actions. A separate group, often times the human resources department, implements these actions. Employees are then asked again one year later to judge the success of these actions. Engagement in this case means filling up surveys and giving improvement ideas.

What Really is Engagement?

Employee engagement is the buzz term these days. Engagement is to act as an owner of the organization. To be engaged is to care for the whole organization and act in service of it. You become responsible for the experience you have in your workplace. Management and employees partner with one another to create the organization that they desire.

At this junction, you might either respond with, “we have no power, the management decides”. Alternatively you might respond with, “my employees are just not __________ enough.” The missing word might be “proactive”, “mature”, “there” or you can just fill up the blank. What you think and focus on creates the reality. So think again before you respond.

True employee engagement can take place using the tool of opinion surveys, if you do the follow up differently.

Welcome to the New Approach

There are two aspects to this new approach. One is the way you engage your staff. Two is the use of an appreciative perspective.

Engage your staff as a partner. In engaging staff as a partner, their role is more than filling in the survey form or giving improvement ideas. Their role is to take action to create the workplace that they desire. Change the question from “what improvement actions are needed?” to “what are you willing to be committed in creating the workplace you desire?” Company wide actions still need to be taken. But something shifts when employees are placed in charge of their own experience. They shift from a bystander to a creator.

The appreciative perspective. This is from the appreciative inquiry (AI) perspective developed by Dr David Copperrider in Case Western University. This searches for what’s right, what good in a situation, based on these strengths, to create more of what’s needed. The key is in asking positive questions.

For example, when the opinion survey shows low scores in leadership. Instead of asking why the leadership scores are low, ask a positive question. For example, “Recall a time when you experienced inspiring leadership that motivated you to go the extra mile. What were the circumstances that lead to this? What were the success factors? How can we create more success factors in our organization?” The goal is still the same – improve leadership, but the starting point is different (see figure 1). This does not mean that negative things are swept under the carpet, the negative is reframed as what we want more of. Instead of focusing on low leadership, focus on the kind of leadership you want instead.

Figure 1: Starting from what’s right to what more…

“The use of AI has raised our awareness to think and begin our discussions on the positive note. In this way, we spiral upwards, instead of downwards,” said a HR manager in a large US-based MNC. He continued, “By asking what did the manager or the team do right, it opened the discussions to what more they could do to be a high performing team. This discussion was certainly more productive than blaming the manager for being a lousy leader!”
Your Experience is Telling

After all is said, there is no better teacher than our own experience. Being a psychologist in my last life, I am fond of experiments. So here is a social experiment: for today, ask yourself these questions: “what went right?”, “what are the success factors in this project?”, “how can I use these to create more success?” These will be your actions for tomorrow. Be a witness to your emotions and results. Then decide whether you want to change your questions; it could change your life.

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