All posts by Les Landes

An engaging recipe for planning

We’ve all heard the old adage that “crap” rolls downhill. Truth is, most things go that direction in some organizations – especially when it comes to developing corporate plans. You know the drill. Managers go away and huddle in their cozy planning cocoons. They ponder lofty notions like values, vision and mission. They create goals and objectives and strategies – maybe even some high-priority tactics. Then they pass it down like tablets from the mountaintop with the mandate to go forth and implement.

Cultivate an Appetite for Planning
Fortunately, managers increasingly are starting to “get it.” They’re realizing that when they “cook” the plans before employees have a chance to have a say in what should be on the “menu” and how the “meal” should be prepared, it’s likely to leave a bad “taste” in people’s mouths. Taking the culinary metaphor a bit further, put yourself in their position. If you only had one restaurant in town (your employer), and the only thing you could eat was what the chef (senior management) put in front of you, how satisfying would that be? More to the point, how “engaged” would you be in the whole dining experience, and what’s the likelihood you’d recommend the place to other customers?

Add Engagement to Taste
Of course, there’s also the bromide that warns of having too many cooks in the kitchen. So what’s the answer? How can you engage employees in organizational planning, and still maintain effective control of the process? Admittedly, the larger the organization, the bigger the challenge. The good news is you don’t have to involve everyone, and it doesn’t have to be a complicated undertaking. The methods depend somewhat on what kind of plan you’re creating, but here are some guidelines for getting employees engaged in virtually any type of planning:

1. Start by thinking of employees as participants to engage at the beginning of the process instead of workers to direct at the end.
2. Involve groups of representative employees that comprise all the “realities” of the overall organization.
3. Alternate small group discussions with large group review and evaluation.
4. Foster conversations and formative dialogue rather than “dueling monologues.”
5. Employ a broadly representative steering committee to consolidate central questions, concerns, obstacles and recommended action items that senior managers can use in the final planning work.

Finish with Aligned Execution
That’s just the first phase, though. Fact is, far more strategies suffer from poor execution than insular planning. After the plan is completed, it’s important to engage ALL employees in conversations about where the company is heading with the plan…how it’s going to reach its goals…what each person’s roles and responsibilities are…and how they can contribute. Bottom-line, if you want what’s being said and done outside the organization aligned with what’s being said and done inside, employees have to be engaged in planning from start to finish, not just carrying out orders at the end.

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Avoiding the persuasion trap.

Few communication goals are more alluring than trying to persuade (a.k.a seduce) people to embrace new ideas and behaviors. It’s one reason organizations continue communicating with employees as an audience to be directed with messages instead of a community to be engaged through conversation.

Not “Outside-In”
But it’s a trap. As with other forms of “seduction,” people usually see through it…and often resent it. That’s especially true if they get a whiff of being manipulated by the well-known “trust-me-this-is-going-to-be-good-for-you-even-if-it-doesn’t-look-like-it” sell-job. What’s more, even if they DON’T object to the message, that kind of “outside-in” approach to communication seldom creates a sustainable sense of responsibility and ownership among employees. Instead, it comes off like a pep rally that pumps people up just long enought to cheer for the next game.

Insights from two thought-provoking communication specialists illustrate the hazards of the persuasion trap – and how to avoid it.

Let Employees Persuade Themselves

In 7 Steps to Becoming Invaluable, an interactive development program, Dale Furtwengler identifies counterintuitive thinking as a key to effective leadership communication. One way to develop that capability is to avoid the “myth of persuasion.” He asserts that people rarely can be persuaded to believe or do anything they aren’t already inclined to believe and do. “The best we can do,” says Furtwengler, “is to shine the light on new information, allow others to process it, validate their conclusions with their own experiences and persuade themselves.”

Perhaps even more disconcerting for would-be persuaders, studies show that even if it appears people have been persuaded to change, they often haven’t – and their behavior will show it. As one old saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

“Normal” Communication Won’t Work

So does that mean we should stop trying to reach employees in an effort to foster change? Hardly. In his book, The Secret Language of Leadership, Stephen Denning offers an approach that, once again, is somewhat counterintuitive. He describes the “familiar trinity of steps” in communication as:

1) defining the problem,

2) analyzing the options and

3) recommending solutions.

It’s the “normal” way of communicating that’s been part of the Western intellectual tradition since the ancient Greeks. “But if you’re trying to get human beings to change what they are doing and act in some fundamentally new way with sustained energy and enthusiasm, it has two serious problems,” says Denning. “One, it doesn’t work. And two, it often makes the situation worse.”

Stories of Engagement
Denning provides another three-step model for engaging employees in change:

1) Get people’s attention – with captivating, authentic stories acknowledging current challenges and negative conditions

2) Stimulate desire for change – with positive stories of possibility and hope that move people to action

3) Reinforce the desire for change – with reasons told through neutral stories that explain what, when, how and why

Beware of changing the order, though. Interestingly, Denning’s experience shows if you move it around, it’s likely to backfire. So give it a go, and see how well you connect with people.

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Getting the most from your “discretionary effort system.”

One of the most popular definitions for employee engagement is discretionary effort. But when you ask the question – “Discretionary effort for what?” – the answers can go in a lot of different directions, and they’re often not very strategically targeted. Asking yourself a few key questions will help you leverage employee engagement for things that matter most to the organization and employees alike:

1. What do we want people to do?
Determine your priorities, and communicate frequently and consistently with employees on where you want them to focus their discretionary effort.

2. How do we want them to do it?
Give employees a mechanism for taking action and initiative based on what we call the 4-S principles. No, I didn’t miss one from the 5-S “lean” system. These are different – simple, streamlined, supportive and systemic.

3. How do we get them tuned in and turned on?
Explain to employees how their individual efforts to “go the extra mile” can boost company performance, and give them a stake in the outcomes with modest incentives and bonuses.

4. How do we keep it alive?
Make continuous improvement part of the daily routine by putting it in everyone’s job description, and discuss it in regular group meetings and one-on-one conversations.

5. How well are we doing it?
Monitor and measure the level of discretionary effort employees put into making improvements in your top priorities, and show them the impact it’s having on critical performance indicators.

6. How are we reinforcing it?
Recognize people’s contributions frequently and sincerely with simple yet meaningful expressions of acknowledgment and appreciation.

The actual design of your “discretionary effort system” will vary depending on a lot of factors such as type of business, size of the organization, number and locations of operations, communication tools. . .and plain old culture. But answering those questions is a great starting point for any organization to ensure that they get the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to employee engagement.

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Simple questions with big implications.

Answer the Questions
Here are three simple questions that have big implications for how you think about the connection between employee engagement and marketing communication. Rate each one on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being highest), and then compare your answers with the data we’ve collected from other respondents over the years as shown below (don’t peek until you’ve answered the questions):

1. How much impact do you think the quality of employee relationships within your organization affects your relationships with customers and other external stakeholders?

2. How much is the quality of employee relationships affected by the level of trust and the quality of communication in your organization?

3. If someone asked employees in your organization to rate the level of trust and quality of communication in your organization, what would they say?

Compare Your Responses
After administering this questionnaire to hundreds of people, we’ve found a fairly consistent pattern with the following average scores:

  • 8.5 on question #1
  • 9.2 on question #2
  • 4.5 on question #3

Here’s an interesting point worth noting about the data. Almost all of it has come from managers, and the responses to questions #1 and #2 are highly consistent across all levels of management. On question #3, however, the higher a person’s management level, the higher the scores tend to be. Front line supervisor scores are generally the lowest on that final question. It’s probably safe to assume that the gap between the first two questions and the third one would be even greater if the percent of non-management employees had been higher. It’s not a scientific study, of course, but the anecdotal evidence is pretty clear – and somewhat sobering.

Consider the Implications
So why do so many companies persist in living with such a glaring gap between where they are and where their own conclusions suggest they should be? After talking and working with numerous people in the various groups and organizations, here is what we have concluded:

1. Management doesn’t fully appreciate how much the quality of internal relationships accounts for business success.
2. They have misguided notions of what constitutes effective communication and what fosters trust among employees in the workplace.
3. Even if they do understand the requirements for communicating well and fostering employee trust, making the shift requires considerable effort and resources to do it right – usually more than they are prepared to undertake, especially when they believe the competition is really beating them at some other aspect the game of business.

It’s easy for management to ignore the significance of strong employee relationships as the core driver of marketing and business success. It’s even easier to miss the boat in trying to make a strong positive connection with employees when it comes to communication and building trust. If you want to get your management team tuned in to both of those issues, invite them to answer our three simple engagement questions. You might be surprised at just how attention-getting they can be.

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Focus first on “a place to come from” with employee engagement.

Everyone talks about wanting to improve employee engagement, but is that just because it’s like motherhood and apple pie? Or do organizations genuinely appreciate what’s at stake in getting employees more engaged?

Defining Employee Engagement

In 2006, The Conference Board published a report titled, “Employee Engagement, A Review of Current Research and Its Implications.” It was based on a review of 12 major studies conducted during the preceding four years. After sifting through the data, they ultimately arrived at a definition for employee engagement that illustrates its potential impact on organizational performance: “a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work.” Not a bad formula for winning.

Employee Commitment

If you’re still not convinced it’s that big of a deal, try these numbers on for size. In an HR Magazine article published in March 2007 titled, “Leveraging Employee Engagement for Competitive Advantage: HR’s Strategic Role,” author Nancy Lockwood reported on some remarkable research data. It showed that employees with the highest level of commitment perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave the organization. That’s serious bottom line impact no matter how you measure it.

Okay, so maybe you don’t need convincing. You get it. All you want to know is how to do it. How do you get that incredibly valuable bonus from employees called “discretionary effort?” You can find strategies and tactics galore if you’ve got the time to search and sort them out. But a simpler and perhaps surer way to get your arms around it is by focusing on the place you need to come from instead of where you want go.

A Shift in Focus

Instead of salivating over a 20% increase in productivity, concentrate on what matters most to the people who are going to deliver that performance for you. Instead of asking how you can motivate people, ask how you can do a better job of tuning in to what they’re already motivated by. Instead of focusing on the end game, make employee well being your number one priority. . . and let the results take care of themselves.

If all that sounds a bit cryptic and touchy-feely, it’s intended to be. That’s because the “place you need to come from” in fostering employee engagement is more a matter of the heart than it is of the head. It’s also a matter of sincere trust and belief in people. If you can stand squarely on that principle as the driving force for your enterprise, the right strategies and tactics will be apparent, and employee engagement will prove to be much more than just a nice thing to do. You’ll find it’s also the ultimate key to good business.

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