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Employee Engagement: Simple but not easy

Have you ever been to a motivational lecture for self improvement, and said to yourself, “She makes it sound to easy.” Then you get home, and it’s oh, so hard.

The same thing happened to me over and over when I attended expensive workshops by famous people who told me how to change a culture or re-design an organization to improve efficiencies and collaboration. Funny how those 7S and 7C models wouldn’t produce the promised transformation or fall apart shortly after being installed.

As an aside, why is it always 7 steps, 7 elements? I decided to do a little research on that question and surprisingly it has been answered. Seven is a magical number. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs could never have been eight dwarfs–just doesn’t sound right. Read this hilarious article on the topic in Psychology Today. You may view the next seven-step formula a little differently.

Yes, I too have been guilty of coming up with seven step models in an attempt to sell my audience on the feasibility of increasing employee engagement though the venue of relationship building. To be fair it is difficult to sell a model that doesn’t have a clear and logical path. However, the nature of reality isn’t linear. One way its been described is as a set of complex responsive processes that can’t be designed or controlled. It can be influenced by leaders, but it requires adaptability and an open mind.

I am now working with leaders who are trying to move their teams away from their fixation with numbers and assets into a more balanced perspective that pays equal attention to the emotional needs of people–the need to be respected, valued, challenged, and included. This is partly the result of the Gallup Survey data. Everyone seems convinced that employee engagement is essential to a high performing organization in every area: safety, quality, customer service, innovation.

CEO’s are saying the right things about the importance of employees. However, we know that if those words don’t translate into reality on the floor, employees do not believe they are valued. It isn’t the relationship between the CEO and the employees that runs the organization. It is that primary relationship between supervisor and employee, employee to employee, manager to supervisor, and so forth.

So the solution is simple. Find out from employees what they need to feel valued, provide it, and you will increase engagement. A couple of hold ups to success that I’ve encountered is that the ways in which people feel valued varies greatly. Without a way to determine what’s most important you can end up falling behind on a long list of things to fix or provide. As a result you might identify with one manager who said, “Every time I don’t deliver or I am late, I lose credibility.”

Yes, and almost every organization faces that problem because we have become entrenched in the organizational assessment loop. Do a survey or focus groups. Come up with a list of concerns/items to fix. Address a few (which usually don’t fix the underlying problems), and start over. People feel empowered for a minute when you ask them what they need or value, but if you haven’t addressed or fixed their concern within the committed time you’ve lost credibility. On the other hand, quick fixes may cause unexpected problems down the line.

There is another way to manage the improvement process so that we don’t get caught in a rote practice where it is almost impossible to meet expectations. Instead of having management assume all responsibility for solutions and implementation, involve the parties affected. Of course that will involve providing them with the necessary skills and resources.

Go back in history to rediscover real examples of employee engagement. It was always accompanied by empowerment–a sense of autonomy and control over the work, resources, and results. Like the employee teams at the Procter & Gamble dog food plant whose production, costs and safety numbers were so astounding that they had to lie, reporting lesser results, so that their peers wouldn’t accuse them of fraud. Or the Southern California Edison Power Plant that empowered teams of unionized employees to run the plant with complete control over budgets resulting in saving millions of dollars in maintenance and running costs.

“People will innovate for financial gain or for competitive advantage, but this can be self-limiting. There needs to be an emotional component as well-a source of inspiration that motivates people.” P&G Chairman, President, and CEO, Bob McDonald

Companies famous for their employee engagement like P&G and Toyota will tell you that the systems and structures impact performance, but the top performers in their company are distinguished by the local leadership style and the partnering relationships that exist at each plant. In fact, I have been to dysfunctional facilities in other companies where isolated units are high performing because of the quality of relationships in that unit. Local leaders make a difference as do CEO’s and COO’s.

There is a way to successfully engage employees to create excellence. My team has helped many leaders get started, so I know it can be done. However, it does require delving into an area that many people would rather not enter in the workplace–the creation of relationships, and attention to people’s emotional needs. This comes naturally to some leaders and some have to develop their emotional intelligence skills to engage employees.

This article was first posted on Linkedin.

Rosa Antonia Carrillo

Rosa Antonia Carrillo, MSOD is a leadership and culture expert with an emphasis in environment safety and health. Her upcoming book, The Relationship Factor in Safety Leadership, is scheduled for publication by Routledge Publishing has been called required reading to understand the foundations of "safety culture" by Edgar Schein. Her ground breaking articles on relationship centered leadership, safety culture, mindful conversations, trust and open communication have gained the attention of of leaders world-wide. In recognition of her contributions, the Safety Institute of Australia invited her as the Wigglesworth Memorial Lecturer in 2015. She is president of Carrillo & Associates, Inc. a provider for employee engagement, leadership development, and coaching services for leaders of companies that want to achieve high performance in EHS while delivering business results. The C&A team delivers engaging leadership development workshops to executives, managers, supervisors and employees to help them transform into leaders who build collaborative, trusting, and motivating work environments. At the same time, given the unique challenges of operating a high- hazard facility, the training focuses on managing and enhancing employee performance as well as effective decision-making. Ms. Carrillo holds a Masters of Science in Organizational Development and is former adjunct faculty for the Presidential Key Executive MBA program at Pepperdine University.