Engaged employees perform better, are more motivated, are less likely to quit and are more likely to be good ambassadors for the firm and its brand. They also tend to exhibit a higher state of well-being and have fewer sick days, according to research conducted by the Gallup Organization. In short, they are less likely to feel at home reading Dilbert.
Unfortunately, engaged employees are not that commonplace. Over the last decade or so, my favorite question to ask audiences when I do public speaking has always been this one:
“What percentage of your intellectual potential, your creativity and your passion do you think your organization gets from you?”
I ask people to raise their hands if they think it’s more than eighty percent, between eighty and fifty percent, between fifty and twenty percent or less than twenty percent. Usually the last two categories get the majority of hands by far.
According to the Blessing White 2013 report on employee engagement, based on a survey with more than seven thousand participants worldwide, only about one third of employees are fully engaged in their work. A 2012 Global Workforce Survey by Towers Watson with more than 32,000 participants in large and midsized firms found similarly discouraging findings, with only 35% employees highly engaged in their jobs.
This is a sad state of affairs. It’s no wonder comic strips like Dilbert have become so popular. In my previous blog post, “The Mystery of the Red Dots: An Example of Leadership Failure”, we also see a great example of a disengaged workforce.
What do we mean by Employee Engagement?
There are two key components of employee engagement — job satisfaction and job contribution. By job satisfaction we are referring to how much employees feel they are getting out of the job. Job contribution, on the other hand, specifies how much employees (feel they) are contributing at work. Thus my frequently-asked question above is about job contribution, not job satisfaction.
Based on surveying both job satisfaction and contribution, the Blessing White report identifies the following levels of employee engagement:
- The Engaged: High contribution and high Satisfaction
- Almost Engaged: Medium to high contribution and satisfaction
- Honeymooners & Hamsters: High satisfaction but low contribution
- Crash & Burners: High contribution but low satisfaction
- The Disengaged: Low contribution and satisfaction
This model of employee engagement makes it easier to understand how some people seem to coast and appear satisfied with their jobs, while others work very hard, but then suddenly quit in frustration.
It is worth noting that the percentage of Engaged Employees in the Blessing White study varies significantly by geographical region (GCC stands for “Gulf Cooperation Council”):
Factors that affect employee engagement
These numbers are difficult to decipher unless we can better understand what most affects job satisfaction and contribution. The Blessing White report identifies the following top job contribution drivers:
- Clearer goals and expectations
- More resources
- Regular performance feedback
- Development opportunities and training
- A coach or a mentor other than my manager
- Better communication with my manager
- A better relationship with my coworkers
These drivers vary somewhat in importance based on engagement level and geographical region. The top job satisfaction drivers found by Blessing White were as follows:
- More opportunity to do what I do best
- Career development opportunities and training
- More flexible job conditions
- More challenging work
- Improved cooperation
- Clearer goals and expectations
- Greater clarity about my own work preferences and career goals
- A better relationship with my manager
Among these, “more opportunities to do what I do best” and “career development and training” rank high across every geographical region.
Perhaps the most striking finding in the Blessing White report is the correlation between trust and employee engagement. Ninety percent of Engaged Employees report that they trust their manager. For the Disengaged, that number is closer to fifty percent.
The Towers Watson report identifies the following top drivers of sustainable employee engagement:
- Is effective at growing the business
- Shows sincere interest in employees’ well-being
- Behaves consistently with the organization’s core values
- Earns employees’ trust and confidence
Stress, balance and workload
- Manageable stress levels at work
- A healthy balance between work and personal life
- Enough employees in the group to do the job right
- Flexible work arrangements
Goals and objectives
- The organization’s business goals
- Steps they need to take to reach those goals
- How their job contributes to achieving goals
- Assign tasks suited to employees’ skills
- Act in ways consistent with their words
- Coach employees to improve performance
- Treat employees with respect
- Highly regarded by the general public
- Displays honesty and integrity in business activities
It is understandable that the level of employee engagement varies across geographical regions, industries and organizations. After all, management practices and business cultures also vary widely.
Cause or effect? Reframing employee engagement
The way we frame a problem significantly impacts the types of solutions we are likely to look for. If we view employee engagement purely as an HR problem, we are more likely to launch projects to address deficiencies related to the satisfaction and performance factors above.
There is little doubt that such efforts will work, at least temporarily. For example, if your employees feel there is a lack of clear goals, are frustrated over the lack of training, or lack trust in their managers, each of these issues can be addressed through specific remedies. Goals can be clarified, training budgets can be increased and managers can be coached or replaced.
I would suggest, however, that there is a different way to improve employee engagement. What if the drivers that affect engagement are merely symptoms of the overall mindset and management system in the company?
A few days ago I attended this month’s meeting of the Blue Stockings Salon here in Silicon Valley. I had an interesting conversation with an executive who mentioned that her company did indeed have a significant problem with employee engagement. This, I learned, was having a negative impact on productivity.
While this is not surprising, my immediate reaction was to see if we could turn the relationship on its head. Instead of assuming that people are less productive because they are not engaged, what if people are less engaged because they are not experiencing being productive? In other words, perhaps they are not in a position where they feel they are contributing and fulfilling goals.
Because of the research that has already been done on factors that impact employee engagement, we do know something about the management practices and leadership behaviors that most affect employee engagement. To sustain employee engagement, an organization must deliver value to its customers through innovation and execution, but it must also provide fulfillment and growth for employees.
Can Lean improve Employee Engagement?
Lean is an approach to leadership and management that leverages the intellectual contribution of all employees to help organizations learn faster and create more value. We can describe Lean in terms of a mindset (see: “What is the Lean Mindset?“) and a set of practices. The Lean Mindset views individuals as valuable learners and emphasizes leadership through teaching and continuous problem-solving.
Lean practices help organizations accelerate operations, remove waste, speed innovation, continuously improve performance, and help employees grow and develop. We often describe Lean as three systems in one:
- An Operating System providing real-time transparency and accelerated execution
- An Organizational Learning System for continuous innovation and improvement
- A People System where managers help employees grow
The People System aspect of Lean ensures that managers focus on facilitating learning and individual growth for employees. In a Lean Organization, managers function more like teachers than traditional bosses. Individual employees are on their own journey of continuous improvement, they are always learning.
The Organizational Learning System aspect of Lean involves all employees in continuously identifying and solving the problems that hinder the organization in fulfilling its goals and delivering value to customers. The emphasis on relentless improvement means that there are always new challenges to be overcome.
Lean as a Management System provides visibility and transparency in how work is conducted and where the bottlenecks are. From strategy deployment to daily execution, goals are made clear and employees are involved in setting them. The management system itself makes it clear what needs to be prioritized in order to reach the goals that have been set. This frees up managers from the job of assigning tasks and provides much more autonomy and flexibility for employees than in a traditional organization.
For all of these reasons and others I will omit due to space considerations, one would expect that organizations pursuing Lean would experience improved employee engagement.
Not so fast. In an informal LinkedIn poll on barriers to Continuous Improvement that closed just yesterday, the biggest barrier cited was.. Employee Engagement (45%)! This was followed by the need to foster collaboration among stakeholders (33%). Prioritizing what processes to improve came third with a distant eight percent. How do we explain this?
The Need for Lean Leadership
Because the workforce is often already somewhat disengaged when the Lean effort starts, it may be difficult to get them involved initially, just as it would be difficult to embark on any new initiative. This does not account for ongoing difficulties, however.
Over the years we have witnessed and heard of countless anecdotal reports of leaders who try to deploy Lean practices without themselves adopting a Lean mindset and corresponding leadership behaviors. They are still holding on to a traditional command-and-control mindset and are not comfortable with openly sharing information and granting more autonomy to employees.
I believe that this will not only limit the practical results of a Lean effort, it may also hurt employee engagement. Some managers and employees will disengage and feel like they are contributing even less, and others will work hard and have a bigger impact. However, they may burn out because because their job satisfaction is not improving.
Lean Management can and will improve employee engagement only if leaders are willing to address the barriers to engagement that stem from their own behaviors. This means that they have to adopt a Lean Mindset as well. There can be no Lean transformation without Lean Leadership.