What’s the missing ingredient for employee engagement?

The missing ingredient for employee engagement is ownership.

By ownership I don’t mean stock options or profit sharing. I mean the intrinsic feeling of doing something that is yours, that has your name on it.

The Gallup organization reports that 2015 was the fifth year in a row where employee engagement was one third of the total workforce. Stating the obvious, this means two thirds of all employees are disengaged, going through the motions, putting their brain into neutral as they walk in the door.

Meanwhile we go home to work on our latest start up idea, killer app, writing a blog or organising social activities (sporting teams, community groups, going out with friends) where we are engaged, enthusiastic and have ownership of the outcome. We probably achieve more in a couple of hours at night than we do all day at work.

The shift started in the 80’s and 90’s when the idea of a “job for life” was shattered with the first wave of lay-offs. This was a rude awakening for people who had dedicated their lives to their organization. The once sacrosanct bond of two-way loyalty was broken and being laid off brought a feeling of shame. Fast forward to today, people collect redundancies as a badge of honor. When we start planning to leave an organization the first option we consider is how to get a redundancy package. It is now a sign of being smart, not a yoke of shame.

However, employers continue to demand loyalty, even while they are laying more staff off. One CEO, having just laid off 10% of the workforce sent out a video of himself getting a tattoo (fake) of the organization’s name and asking the question, “Are you committed?”. The erosion of loyalty is not just with the people we let go, it is also with the ones who remain behind, observing from the sidelines. They are thinking, “will I be next?”

Loyalty is dead, long live the new loyalty.

Through our own making we have given up on creating intrinsic loyalty and instead are trying to buy loyalty through extrinsic rewards. In applying for new roles our mantra has become “show me the money”. The end result is we are paying people to leave our organization and paying people to join our organisation. With the first action we are actively destroying loyalty and we haven’t yet learned that with the second action you can’t buy it back.

But wait there’s more!

We have entered the second phase of this downward spiral. This is where we actively disengage the remaining employees.

This is done by removing employee ownership of the tasks they perform. We can explain this using a simple formula;

Ownership = Empowerment + Accountability

We must have both empowerment and accountability to feel ownership.

If we only have empowerment and not accountability, there are no consequences to ourselves. We can make any decision we like and not care about the result. As you would imagine this is a rare case. Typically found with megalomaniac CEOs, who run their organization however they see fit, lavish entitlements on themselves and then blame everyone else as, hopefully, they are hauled off to jail. Accountability does catch up with them but only when it is too late.

The one that we experience the most is when we have accountability, but no empowerment. That is, we are held accountability for the results, but have no authority to make any decisions to impact the results. Or we are given explicit work instructions, i.e. told what to do, which doesn’t work, but are held accountable for the failed result.

An example is when we urgently need to visit a customer to rescue the account, but the travel approval is denied from two levels above or a distant senior executive completely flips the sales strategy. When the customer selects a competitor we have to front a loss review committee to explain what we did wrong.  

Does that sound familiar? I am sure you can think of many other examples.

This is what Steve felt in the story quoted in “Where to Start”;

Steve: “You get ten things right that day, and nobody says a word, but you get one thing wrong and you get your ass chewed out.” 

The TQM exercise of Red and White beads demonstrates this frustration.

Lack of daily empowerment, but still being held accountable, leads to the feeling of “why bother?”, especially when there is no loyalty coming from either party. We can’t make decisions even if we wanted to, and by the way, we want to!

When we have empowerment with accountability we now own the outcome. We are making decisions to deliver a better outcome and are being measured on how well we did. The type of measurement is important, see “Do we have the right measurements?”. It needs to be a closed feedback loop to deliver accountability. With the time lag between decision and measured outcome as short as practicable. The success or failure of the outcome is ours, it has our name on it, we are engaged!

A US Air Force Crew Chief quoted in Horizontal Flow, summed this up perfectly when asked why he liked their new aircraft maintenance program which created ownership;

Crew Chief: “When was the last time you washed a rental car?”

We become disengaged because the processes, systems and as discussed in, “What’s the Fundamental Flaw in Organizations?” the “division of decisions” kicks in and the end result is we are not being asked to use our brains. But we shouldn’t blame our immediate managers or the ones above them. They are stuck in the same predicament. They can either make the situation better or worse but they can’t fix it. Making it better is what Mark C Crowley writes in his book “Lead from the Heart” but his four leadership tips; Invest deeply, Connect Personally, Hire for Heart and Love Well, don’t change the systemic issues causing disengagement.

If we can’t use our brain at work it is only natural we start using it outside of work, working on our new start up, killer app, blog writing or social activity.

And here comes the kicker.

Just like we gave up on employee loyalty, a trend is starting to emerge where we are giving up on employee engagement. PWC recently announced that they have formalised the approval of their employees working on projects outside of work;

"Staff have always had interests outside of work, property investment, stock portfolios, restoring cars, that was seen as ok but technology ventures were typically seen as a threat," PwC digital change leader John Riccio said.

"These days, more people have entrepreneurial ventures, especially in the digital space. We'd be cutting ourselves out of a fairly large talent pool if we wanted to own people's heart and soul," he said. Source: PWC Staff can keep their start up and their day job

It’s not about owning people’s heart and soul, but it is about people wanting to put their heart and soul into their work. PWC claim that not only does this help with attracting new people but the skills developed outside of work have been used to enhance PWC’s daily work. We could ask why wasn’t the skill development enabled within PWC, but that is another FAQ yet to be written.

There is an interesting response from the PWC consultant quoted in the article, who is working on a killer app in his own time;

PWC consultant: “I am not looking to the organization to give me purpose.”

Compare this to how Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, describes a personal version of the HedgeHog Concept found in the Great organizations;

“First you are doing work for which you have a genetic or God-given talent… (“I feel that I was born to be doing this.”) Second, you are well paid for what you do. (“I get paid to do this? Am I dreaming?”) Third, you are doing work you are passionate about and absolutely love to do… (“I look forward to getting up and throwing myself into my daily work, and I really believe in what I’m doing.”).

 So before we head down the path of throwing employee engagement on the scrap heap alongside loyalty maybe there is a better option.

Remember our friend Steve, who got his “ass chewed out” for getting one thing wrong? After his organization implemented Horizontal Flow and Vertical Leverage he was asked how had this changed his life. His answer was, “My wife is talking to me more.” When asked to explain, this is what he said;

Steve: “Now I’ve got a chance to contribute my skills with my team members, see those ideas translated into improved results. When we ask questions, we get answers. In this environment, I feel better about myself when I leave this place. I feel I’ve been heard and I’ve contributed. When I go home, I feel better about myself and I’m nicer to my wife. When I’m nicer to her, she talks to me.

Steve is now engaged, he is empowered to put forward new ideas, which get implemented and he can see the results for which he is accountable.

When we are engaged at work, using our brains, feeling better about ourselves that killer app idea or start up business model will more likely be implemented at work. That is because we are empowered and have accountability to make things better. We have ownership.

If we are still not feeling engaged, maybe we should go back and re-read Jim Collins advice and follow our passion.