what if it’s not about employee engagement?

Work SucksEmployee engagement is a HUGE issue. But… maybe the problem is we’re focused on the wrong thing. Maybe disengagement is a symptom and we keep trying to fix people rather than addressing the underlying causes. Maybe it’s not as hard as we think. Maybe it’s not even really about engagement.

What if it’s about the employee experience?

Computer programmers place a big emphasis on creating a great user experience. They call it UX and know if the user experience is poor, people will stop being users and go find better software. Marketing and sales folks spend time fretting over the customer experience (aka CX). They know that customers will stop being customers if the experience is too difficult. UX and CX are huge issues and are given considerable attention.

Companies are slowly (oh, so slowly) catching on to the idea that they are competing for candidates. Talented candidates have options and if the application process is too painful, they’ll immediately go somewhere else. So, we’re hearing more and more about the candidate experience.

But we don’t hear much being said about the employee experience (call it EX). EX is made up of all the things that help or get in the way of employees getting their work done: management, their supervisor, rules and policies, work processes, work environment, culture, co-workers, etc. Does their daily work experience make them feel frustrated, angry, defeated, or hopeless? Or do they feel empowered, responsible, supported, and valued?

This is not just a human issue, not just an engagement issue, this is a business issue. Business gets done for, through, and by people and it’s been said that the customer experience never exceeds the employee experience. It’s a simple formula: CX<EX. How a company thinks about and treats its employees has a direct impact on how employees think about and treat customers which has a direct impact on how customers thing about and treat the company which has a direct impact on business results. In short:

Employee Experience >>> Customer Experience >>> Customer Behavior >>> $ (or not)

If you were going to improve the employee experience, what would you do? Here are a few ideas:

1. Start where you are with what you have (and stop digging). It’s easy to think of engagement as being too complicated or someone else’s problem. It’s easy to think it’s only for the VP of HR to worry about or that you can’t do anything because you’re not Zappos or Google. But the truth is, we can all make a difference in whatever organization we’re in.

Think about it this way: Are there things that you personally could do right-now-today that you know are 100% guaranteed to cause a terrible employee experience or spread disengagement throughout the company? (Yes!) If you have the power to have a negative impact, you also have the ability to have a positive impact. And if you know the things that make it worse the obvious strategy is: Don’t do that.

There’s an old saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If you’re fighting against disengagement, creating an award winning workplace is a fantastic goal, but the first step is to simply stop doing things that create a terrible employee experience and cause disengagement. Don’t worry about making it better (yet), just quit making it worse.

2. Recruit and hire like it matters. If you want engaged employees – people who give a damn about results – start by hiring engaged people. Recruit, select, and hire people as though the future success of the company depends on it (hint: it does).

The software company Valve is a great example of an organization that truly understands the importance that hiring the right people has on business results. From their employee handbook: Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing. So when you’re working on hiring… everything else you could be doing is stupid and should be ignored!

3. Invest time, money, and resources into developing people. This is kind of a big deal. People who care about their results tend to enjoy new challenges and hate stagnating. They want to learn, grow, develop and won’t stand for watching life pass them by or resigning themselves to a career where every day is the same. You hired great people, help them continue to be great. Oh, and the world is changing quickly. If your people aren’t developing new knowledge and skills every year, your company is sinking into the past.

4. Pay attention to culture. We’ve been told, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” and that sounds really impressive, but what is culture? The best definition is comes fromTerry Deal and Allan Kennedy: culture is the way things get done around here. Beliefs, policies, values, rules, unspoken norms, etc. all manifest in how things get done. So when it’s said that culture eats strategy, it doesn’t mean strategy is unimportant, it means that how you do things (the culture) must be in line with and support what you want to do (the strategy).

Likewise engagement efforts can be completely supported – or devoured – by culture. Do you have the culture you want? Does how you do things support people being fully engaged and at their best or does it shut people down?

5. Get rid of stupid policies. Speaking of how we do things around here… Stupid policies prevent people from doing good work, degrade the employee experience, and get in the way of results. They are generally the result of two situations: 1) someone did something dumb once and a policy was created rather than dealing with the situation and treating it like the anomaly it was; or 2) a policy was created to address a once valid situation that is no longer important, relevant, or valid.

Do something radical. Find out which policies are causing frustration and preventing people from getting their work done, then change or destroy those policies.

[Check out the book Kill the Company by Lisa Bodell for more thoughts on eliminating stupid policies.]

6. Provide employees with good managers. It’s said that people leave managers, not companies. Managers make or break the employee experience by making people feel supported and valued, bringing out their best and challenging them to be even better. Or NOT. Leading is a tough job most managers simply haven’t been prepared to do.

People usually get promoted into management because they’re good at the technical parts of their job and then are suddenly expected to be able to lead people. And it’s just not that easy. Leading is a distinct and completely separate skillset and like all skills it has to be fostered and developed.

If engagement and the employee experience is important and if managers can destroy them, then it makes sense to intentionally develop great managers and provide the support they need to make good decisions and do great work. Actually, if you did nothing else, having managers who don’t destroy engagement daily will provide tons of bang for the buck (bonus if they can actually build engagement).

7. Value people. This is at the heart of everything we’re discussing. This doesn’t mean everyone gets a trophy and it doesn’t mean coddling poor performance. And it REALLY doesn’t mean hollow, insincere lip service to “our employees are our greatest asset.” But it might mean believing and acting as though people matter. It might mean a bit of gratitude, a touch of understanding, a tiny amount of empathy, and the sense that the company cares about the individual. All employees will have joyous, painful, exhilarating, scary, and very human moments both at work and home. How the company, team, and leaders react tells people all they need to know about how they are valued. Few things will cause a person to disengage quicker than realizing no one cares.

So what’s it all mean?

Ultimately, improving engagement and the employee experience isn’t about improving a survey score, it’s not magic, it’s not a program, and it’s much bigger than HR. It’s about doing things that support your employees and managers at being their best and eliminating the things that cause them to stop caring.

Sounds easy. Sounds simple. Yet very, very few companies have it figured out.

[Photo credit: michelhrv via Compfight]

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