Why high-performing cultures barf at most employee engagement initiatives

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Employee engagement is clearly the new kale. It’s become a contender in the game of buzzword bingo in the workplace and even boardrooms. But in all fairness, it’s a real issue.

Forbes magazine cites results from a Gallup poll:

“…70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive,” states the report. “Gallup estimates that these actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity.”

But most efforts to address employee engagement don’t really have teeth. That’s a whole post in and of itself but Liz Ryan has eloquently covered it so I don’t need to. And if as a leader, you are building or nurturing a high performing team its really little more than feel-good check box stuff. To make employee engagement drive performance, you have to paddle much much faster.

imageWe’re a high performing team with high throughput. We’ve grown at triple digits and just passed the 20 million subscriber mark over the last 3 years. Last week we launched a product that was an idea three quarters ago. We’re not spectacular at all of the needed things to perform well but we’re somewhere between spectacular and actively-trying across every one of them. So I’ll open-source four slam dunk things you can do as a leader.

First: You need to stand for something — a core ethos. Ours is the business of collaboration software. Our stance was that standalone social tools in large enterprise wouldn’t provide value unless they drove core outcomes and where needed, should be integrated into business applications. Many social purists and the competition ridiculed us for this. But our team rallied behind a singular ethos and does so consistently, to this day. Today we grow at 3X the markets expected growth rate. If you as a leader can communicate this effectively to your teams in both concrete and inspirational ways, you get ridonkulous focus and prioritization in return, and the least amount of resource wastage and product bloat. There are caveats to getting this right, though. Here are some ideas.

Second, contextualize engagement around big cross-functional missions. Real high performers innately have high standards and for the best of the best, that extends well past their sphere of responsibility. They just will not risk an overall rank of mediocrity, whether the root problem emanates from their work or another part of the org. And they won’t be petty by laying blame. Respect and feed into that level of higher commitment. Everyone should be obsessing about one cross functional high stakes project that can elevate the business, or what Josh Elman describes as the one metric that matters, or how to delight the customer, or 1% point margin improvement, what ever. No matter how good you are, every business has a desperate need for one or two of such initiatives at all times. Such participation constantly reaffirms joint stewardship of the mission.

Third, look for ways to keep up the intensity in how your business functions. It’s seems daunting to teams that coast but race-horses do their best when there are frequent bursts of adrenalin. Complement long flows that are measured as big milestones with short intense bursts of activity that put points on the board very quickly. We do a lot of such things but a great example is the energy I see in our weekly release schedule: Going live every week is not negotiable. Come hell or high water, our teams release every Thursday night. The intensity of this schedule creates incredible engagement during the bursts. At some point in the evening, one of our engineers sends a notification on SAP Jam that “X release is live!!!”. This never gets old for me. No matter what I’m doing and where I am in the world, I look for that ping. I can literally feel the energy coming from the dev ops members when the release is pushed out.

Fourth, your onboarding process is critical to engagement. We tend to think of engagement after the fact but it’s what you do before the work starts that matters most. It’s tricky for new employees to jump on board when you have a high performing train. You can’t have folks in new roles or new recruits running parallel instead of jumping on. Good ones know that the best (even, only) way to get on is to either quickly add more horsepower to increase speed, or make the team instantly work smarter at the same speed. No one can run parallel for too long before burning out and you need to help by making sure that your high performing team actively helps them onboard and prioritize immediate fires that need to be put out. In turn, your A team recruits/new managers know how to establish momentum very early on when they take a new role. Excessive planning or festering is lethal in high-performing environments.

These are four that will move the needle, significantly. I promise.

This video best represents your high performers:

For some, their performance comes from more practice, others from great instincts, or stamina, or grit, or from speed of reaction. Its not that your high performs aren’t engaged. They are what Michael Lopp astutely describes as bored people.

My fundamental issue with most of the dialogue around employee engagement is that it’s mostly about doing stuff around the work — topics like understanding strategy, better work-life balance, more executive communications and face time and the like. All absolutely good stuff but there needs to be more focus on the work.

High performers come to work every day to out-perform themselves. So when it comes to any employee engagement initiative hit hard at the heart of the work day. Not around it.

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