We are making engagement way to complicated

Engagement. Engagement. Engagement. It’s what all the progressive workplaces are talking about.  They know that when their people, their customers and their stakeholders are engaged that the results follow.  Attracting and retaining people is easier, customer relationships and sales thrive. There are less workplace claims and accidents, great ideas happen which increase productivity, innovation is actively driven and profits flow.

Engaged employees create successful workplaces.

Disengaged employees have essentially ‘checked out’.  They are turning up but tuning out.  There is no passion nor commitment to helping the organisation be at its best.  These people are the untapped opportunities in the business.  The worst cases are the actively disengaged employees. They are not happy and this is displayed through dysfunctional behaviours that often proactively undermine the success of those around them and the business.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce report is compelling.  It surveys 263 research studies across 192 organizations in 49 industries and 34 countries. Researchers studied 49,928 work units, including nearly 1.4 million employees. It tells us that engaged employees are rare.  Worldwide only 13% of the employees are engaged. Now that’s not good.  Australia is one of the highest at 24% with New Zealand following at 23%.  The USA has one of the highest where 30% of employed residents are engaged.

They draw strong conclusions that the higher the engagement of employees the better the results.  If we focus on creating committed employees, then profit and success will follow.

Yet we are not really sure what is the best lever to do this. We are now learning is that we are often over complicating how to drive change or in this case –  engagement.  If we really want it to be clear for our employees, customers and stakeholders we need to make it simple.  We need to reduce the complicated and ongoing strategies and multiple focuses.

There is a misnomer that if I drive the top 3-5 initiatives then we will cover the main areas and get the change we need.  This is not right.

My good friend, best-selling author and expert in ‘implementing projects that matter’, Peter Cook, says that if we want to drive new habits we need to make things simple.  Focus on one thing at a time.  We over complicate change by introducing too many things at once.  Peter says we need to make things simple for ourselves and the organisations we work within.

A team at Booz & Company, led by Jon Katenbach, found that not enough leaders recognise that less is more.  Jon and his team write in the firms Strategy + Business magazine that leaders “find it hard to resist the temptation to pile one directive on top of another; even when those efforts are aligned to the same ultimate goals, they often undermine one another.”  They also found that leaders underestimate the impact of focusing on behaviours as the key lever to driving a company’s success.  We need to learn to pick our battles.

Or leaders create such ambitious strategies or goals that it would be often easier to pack up shop and start again. These may be some of those ‘change’ programs that you have been a part of in the past.

In the late 80’s Alcoa, the company that for over 100 years manufactured aluminium was on the decline and shareholders were wanting a solution.  A new CEO, Paul O’Neill, was appointed.  Investors were nervous.  Product lines were faltering, people were leaving and accidents were occurring every day.

In his first address to Wall Street he started his speech with; “I want to talk to you about worker safety”.  Wall Street, and those who hired him, became awkward and restless.  What the?  You talk about safety, out of everything you need to focus on?  Not finance, marketing, share price, customers or people?  For O’Neill, worker safety trumped profit.

O’Neill said; “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

Every time he talked his first words were about safety. Every meeting’s first agenda item was safety. Every time he commenced a meeting including board meetings, shareholder meetings or Wall Street addresses, he started with; ‘If in the unlikely case that we need to evacuate… etc.”  For every board meeting report safety was the first item.  Of course they covered everything else like profit, turnover, customers, etc. but safety was the first. O’Neill wasn’t the talking example.  He was the walking example.  He was relentless about his pursuit of safety.  Both physical and psychological.

“Our goal is that no worker will be hurt at work.  Our goal is zero incidents”.  People thought that was outrageous and unattainable. “I don’t want to budget safety. I want to fix it”.

Why safety?  He says that safety is an element of a broader set of philosophical ideas about human beings.

As a result, Alcoa turned into the safest company in the world, profit was five times larger when he retired from when he started, and market cap had risen by $27 billion.

So how did O’Neill turn around the largest, slowest and potentially dangerous business into the most profitable and successful in its history?

He started with one thing and then watched it ripple throughout the business.

By focusing on the one thing that will affect the whole organisation is key to high engagement and therefore change.

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