Tag : employee engagement

10 truths about skeptical employees

I was cleaning my office (!) and found a speech from 18 years ago given by Rod Oldham, of then Bell South, to students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.  In an age of disruption, some “truths” stay constant.

  1. We’re smarter than senior managers think we are.
  2. We think senior managers are smarter than they are.
  3. We hate it when you make us feel stupid.
  4. We have short attention spans.
  5. We have long memories.
  6. We’re desperate for direction.
  7. We want to be able to think on our own.
  8. We want the company to succeed.
  9. We don’t want to leave.
  10. We want to believe.

Staying away from drama

Last month I  was in a board meeting that went off the rails.

The two-hour session devolved into conversations about personalities, systems limitations,  approval hold-ups by the legal department,  problems uncovered by market research, frustrations with the sales strategy, and a concluding “why do we keep talking about the same problems over and over?”

People left frustrated, exhausted and angry.  Not much of significance had been accomplished. Such a waste of time.

And no wonder. When conversations get pulled into the emotion of drama and problems our primitive brain takes over and shuts off our higher order intelligence, says Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence.   In other words, drama begets drama instead of any useful ideas on how to accomplish what’s at stake.

Interestingly I was in a recent academic meeting  focused on innovation and creativity that also fell into the rat hole of drama, problems, details, and more drama. Guess how creative and innovative that two hours turned out to be?

Quiet Leadership author David Rock suggests two practices that I find helpful.  Agree in meetings on where to focus the conversation: vision, planning, detail, problem and drama.  Wherever possible, keep all conversations focused on vision and planning. In this positive, low-anxiety mental state we’re better able to think fully and creatively

When you have to discuss detail, focus on one detail in a 10 minute chunk. After 10 minutes, we lose our ability to concentrate on that topic, says  John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock.”

I see another opportunity in staying focused on the bigger picture: it is in this positive frame of mind that we’re more able to disagree in productive, creative ways.   Because  our minds are calmer and we’re focused on shared goals in this mindset, we’re able to  intellectually consider and discuss  alternatives.  There’s a higher order of thinking that’s possible during this mental state, say the neuroscientists.

Once we get into drama and pointing fingers at people and problems, dissent becomes dangerous and unhelpful.

Not to mention that there’s no emotional energy left for compassion or creativity.

I’ve taken a new professional vow: keep the meetings I’m in focused on solutions, and out of drama and problems.  Want to join me?

Making things

If we made more things would we be happier?

In my research this summer professional people talked of how miserable they are at work,  working harder than ever but not seeming to get anywhere.  With no markers to show progress or few ways to show “completed” projects they feel demoralized, tired and uninspired at the very time we need more creative ways forward.

Is this why more people are painting, making videos, self-publishing, designing jewelry, refinishing old furniture, restoring cars, rebuilding playgrounds, staging community theater, using Pinterest, gardening, taking on home improvement projects themselves?  The feeling of starting something and then having something to show for our work can be so fulfilling.

I found myself recently ogling sewing machines, longing for my teenage days when I would save up money to buy a great Vogue pattern, beautiful fabric and special funky buttons, and then sew, sew, sew, creating something uniquely mine.  When I put on that new dress it was a sense of accomplishment, creativity.

I felt the same way when  I started writing articles for the local newspaper when I was a teenager.  I loved the making of an article — the research, the interviews, the writing, the editing — and then seeing the final finished product in my hands.

Psychology research has found that using our hands to make things decreases stress and relieves anxiety. It has also found that “purposeful creative or practical endeavors” leads to joyful, creative thought.

“When you make something you feel productive, but the engagement and exploration involved in the doing can move your mind and elevate your mood,” explains Dr. Carrie Barron in a Psychology Today article, “Creativity, Happiness and Your Own Two Hands.”

I suppose more of us could make things in our free time, something I’m going to try to do.

As for work, I feel that we have to work harder at giving people a sense of accomplishment.  Does anyone really have an inkling of  “joyful” accomplishment during annual performance reviews, the time when we’re supposed to be able to review accomplishment and plan what’s next? Nope.

Nor do most have any way of feeling like they’re making progress.  Knowledge workers especially face unending  tasks towards elusive fuzzy goals.  We have  big visuals to show how much has been raised to reach the United Way goal, but no way to see how our team or organization is progressing.

Setting the right goals and ways to measure progress is difficult.  This is why so few exist. It takes smart, committed leaders to set those and keep people focused on them.   The focus part is most important. Too often our organizational plans  are  long, long lists of unending priorities.  Employees feel like rats on a treadmill, going faster and faster and not making progress.

  • What if we could make more work a series of doable projects where people could create a finished project in less than three months or less?
  • What if we restored a “making things” mentality to work, rather than a “meeting about things”?
  • What if more people were makers vs. implementers?
  • What if more people had a sense of joyful accomplishment at work?

Let’s try.  I think it might be easier than sewing.



WE: How great leaders create an engaged workforce

Always fascinated by insights and research on how leaders inspire and engage people, I recently talked with Kevin Kruse, author of the best-selling book WE: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement.

Based on millions of employee surveys with organizations around the world, Kevin and his co-author Rudy Karsen found that the three most important drivers of engagement are:

  1. Growth: Team members need to feel they are growing in their careers and learning new things.
  2. Recognition: Team members need to feel that their ideas and accomplishments are appreciated.
  3. Trust: Team members need to trust senior leadership and feel confident about the future.

Here are highlights of our conversation: 

What attracted you to writing about engagement? Why does the world need this book, at this time?

Well as a business leader I always cared a lot about trying to create an empowering culture for employees, and I had won a Best Place to Work in PA award and things like that. But one night, during our annual holiday party, the wife of someone who worked for me came up and said she wanted to thank me for making her marriage better. I really had no idea what she was talking about. She went on to explain that her husband used to be so grumpy when he came home from work, but since he started working for me he went back to being the man she married.

That was pretty powerful. It was long before I understood how our emotions at work spill over to our personal lives and cross over to those around us. But that was when I got the idea that I really wanted to dig into “engagement” and figure out ways we could make it more accessible to everyday managers. As it turns out, job satisfaction is at a record low according to the Conference Board so I think the timing is really good for a book on the subject.

What are the qualities of employees who are especially engaged with their work? What makes them that way?

People who are engaged at work are highly satisfied with their jobs, but they also exhibit more pride and advocacy about the company they work for, and stay with the company longer. All this leads to higher levels of service and productivity, which of course drives higher levels of sales and profit.

In terms of what drives engagement, it’s of course situational. But based on Kenexa surveys of over 10 million workers in 150 countries and on my own experience as an entrepreneur, it usually comes down to three things. Employees want an environment that fosters growth, recognition and trust. Those are the three keys.

If you were on a board interviewing potential CEOs, what qualities would you look for — and why?

Funny you should ask! I am on the Board of a community bank and we just hired a new CEO. Whenever I’m hiring a leader for one of my businesses I always look for high energy–someone who talks and acts like they’re on a deadline, who is driven by growth. And they need to be able to succinctly state the challenge and action steps ahead. I’ve never had a business plan that was longer than one page. We don’t need to make things more complex than they are. All businesses have three constituents: investors, employees and customers. What must we do, right now, to improve metrics in each area. That’s it.

What questions should people ask during job interviews to assess whether the corporate culture is positive, collaborative and flourishing?

Well, it’s always best to talk to people on the inside. Like Kevin Bacon, everyone should be only a few degrees of separation from someone on the inside and having a healthy LinkedIn network is one way to do that. But in the interview itself you should ask what happened to the person who held the position before it was open. You should ask about which decisions are made as a team, which are made by a single individual. Make sure to get a tour of the office you’ll be working in so you can sense the vibe. Is it quiet like a library or mausoleum — or are people working together and making a buzz? Do people have a lot of fun personal effects in their cube — or just bare walls? Tall cube walls — or open space? There is no one right answer, but just make sure it fits your own work personality.

There’s so much written about employee engagement today. What are the three most important things for leaders to understand about this topic? Conversely, what do people obsess about when it comes to engagement that doesn’t matter all that much?

Engagement is all the rage both because it’s important to growth and profits, and it’s also really low in most organizations. Business leaders first need to realize that they need to care about it. Second they need to act like they care. I mean, they need to measure it, reward to it, make sure it’s not a fad. When Doug Conant took over Campbell Soup to turn it around he focused on two metrics: shareholder return against comparable companies, and the number of engaged versus disengaged employees.

The biggest misconception is that employee engagement takes a lot of time and money. It doesn’t. It means using your existing time differently. Managers meet with their direct reports all the time, but they need to make sure to spend some of that time talking about the career goals of team members. Managers have a hundred interactions with their team each day…but how many of them are to say “thanks” or “good job” in a sincere way. CEOs routinely hold “town hall” meetings or send company wide announcements, but how often are they repeating their big hairy audacious goal like a broken record. These are things that count.

What could the United States be if more citizens were engaged?

Let me answer this two ways. Our emotions at work impact all areas of our life. So if more of us were engaged at work, we all would be healthier, have stronger marriages, our kids would do better in schools and incidentally we’d gain about $350 billion in productivity according to Gallup. When it comes to engagement with our country, while I don’t know what our nation would “be”, I can tell you that the reason why we are so disengaged with government and our leaders in Washington is because we don’t feel like we’re growing or advancing and we absolutely don’t trust our leaders to take us to a better place.

Free the rebels!

Today’s prompt: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen. What’s your next step?

I had a giant “aha” professional moment in 2010 about the value and untapped potential of rebels, we optimistic people who feel compelled to speak up and make organizations better.  (Here’s that story.) Yet reams of organizational research shows that companies fear and/or ignore this most valuable talent. And, alas, rebels rarely receive help in learning how to get their ideas heard in a way that will be respected and embraced.

2010 was rebel research and idea incubation. Next year I’m intent on  freeing rebels so that both they and their companies can reap the benefits of passionate, truthful people who want to make a difference.  Supporting and empowering rebels gives meaning to change management and employee engagement goals.

If you’re interested in rebels and organizational change, check out Stanford B-School professor Deborah Meyerson’s book “Tempered Radicals.” It’s is a classic.

If you have any thoughts about this emerging Rebel Alliance, or would like to participate in some way, please drop me a line at lkelly@foghound.com.


This post is part of a 31-day blogging challenge called reverb10, responding to writing prompts that are designed to elicit reflections on 2010, and hopes for 2011. You can find out more about it here.

Employee attitude matters more than advertising


Companies spend so much on acquiring new customers, hiring the best talent possible, taking chances on innovative marketing concepts. But engaging employees often seems to a stepchild, loved, but in a less passionate way.

Given the influence of employees on customer loyalty, maybe the priorities need to be altered. At yesterday’s Conference Board conference Engelina Jaspers, HP’s vice president of corporate marketing, shared three stats that can help focus management’s attention on employee engagement:

  1. 68 % of customers leave a company because of poor employee attitude
  2. 41% of customers are loyal because of good employee attitude
  3. 70% of brand perception determined by experiences with people from the company

Brian Ray of McDonald’s is quantifying the value of committed employees in revenue and profitability for McDonald’s owners/operators. (85% of McDonald’s are franchises), and has just completed an project to create an employee value proposition.

(So interesting that every company seems to have a customer value proposition and mission, but not so for employees.)

To develop this “EVP” McDonald’s spent just $65,000 and asked two simple questions, which got an amazing 79% response rate from frontline workers in 33 countries:

  • What do you love about working for McDonald’s?
  • What do you love the least about working for McDonald’s?

What do your employees love the most and least about your company?  These two simple questions asked at least annually can provide the insights you need to understand how to make your employees your best marketing advocates.

Is your culture ready for social media?

Installing Web 2.0/social media tools is easy. Realizing the benefits from them might not be, depending on a company’s culture.

Steve Radick has a good post over at Social Media Strategery (say that three times fast) where he poses 10 questions to assess whether an organizational culture can support what social media enables.  Good questions all.

  1. Are employees discouraged from contacting people outside of their chain of command?
  2. Are employees discouraged from challenging authority?
  3. Is risk-taking rewarded or punished?
  4. Are employees rewarded for collaborating with other colleagues or for authoring/producing original work?
  5. Do your employees have regular access to the Intranet?
  6. Does your leadership value the feedback of employees?
  7. Are employees prohibited from speaking externally without prior permission?
  8. Is the contribution and sharing of intellectual capital part of the employees’ regular routine?
  9. What’s more valued, entrepreneurship or following orders?
  10. Do employees derive more value from networking with colleagues or from using the Intranet?

The risk of rigid corporate cultures: talent suck

What’s especially interesting to me is that if a company doesn’t value contributions, risk, networking and entrepreneurship, what will happen to the company in the next three years? Can organizations stay relevant if they are this rigid? Unlikely — especially in any industry where talent is at a premium. (And that is most. This recent Business Week article, “The Global Talent Crisis,” is especially insightful about the issue.)

A communications professional recently asked me for advice on where to start with social media considering that her CEO doesn’t value communications, never mind “this new stuff.”  (The CEO’s words.)  My advice to her was to get a new job at a different company. If senior management doesn’t want to empower employees and collaborate with customers, there was little she could do. And yet, the longer she goes without social media experience, the more difficult it will be for her to  advance professionally.

Creative, innovative talent will not tolerate the old command-and-control corporate culture. It’s too suffocating an experience, too difficult to learn new skills, and bad for career development.