First Steps to Better Employee Engagement

Plenty of studies show that employees often feel disconnected at work. Improving that situation can depend on leaders better defining success, and building a culture around it.

Leaders do all sorts of things to try to get “engagement” out of their employees, from benefits plans to foosball tables. But they may not have given much thought to what “engagement” actually means, which is why they might be scratching their heads when employees still aren’t performing well, or leave outright.

In their new book, The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement (for Millennials, Boomers, and Everyone Else), Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, CAE, arrive at a definition that’s at once simple and complicated. “Employee engagement is the result of people being consistently successful,” they write. “Period.”

Much of the responsibility for helping employees be successful comes from the top, they write. But too often, CEOs fail to establish a clear sense of mission, both for the overall organization and individual employees.

“One of the weakest areas of leadership in every organization—and this is across industries, not just associations—is the ability to define success with precision,” Notter says. “When we ask, ‘Hey, what are your superpowers? Or, What’s getting in the way of success? Or, What are your key success drivers?’ I get blank stares, routinely. This is a capacity that needs to be developed. Each area needs to know what makes the difference between success and failure.”

As soon as associations get big enough they get pretty rigidly siloed.

In the book, Notter and Grant lay out some frameworks for strengthening the culture at an organization to better stoke engagement, from identifying those success drivers to making cultural shifts to improve the use of technology and office space. They reject a few bits of organizational-theory folklore along the way. For instance, “cross-functional teams” may not be all they’re cracked up to be, they write: “Too often they end up being more of a burden and a distraction since everyone on the team would rather be focused on their primary job.” (They recommend something more akin to beat rotation, moving employees into other departments entirely for months at a time.)

Silos? Also not necessarily a bad thing. Notter points to work he and Grant have done with the Field Museum of Chicago, where departments had very clear boundaries that “are intentional, clear and useful…. You don’t want the bird people messing with the fish collection.” But for most garden-variety associations, departmental splits can create disconnects and misunderstandings that lead to disengagement.

“Associations, ironically, when they’re small everyone wears every hat, but as soon as they get big enough they stop that and get pretty rigidly siloed,” he says.

And that can lead to missed opportunities at associations that are comfortable with a certain level of success. “If it’s a bigger group, senior managers tend to get laser focused on what works for them and end up leaving money on the table, because they’re not realizing the ways that they should be collaborating,” Notter says. “And they don’t see the impact it’s having on success. ‘I’m doing well, so why should this be an issue?’ But in fact you could be doing a lot better if you were more proactive about it.”

To start addressing those issues, Notter says association leaders ought to consider what defines success for each organization. Industries that work on cutting-edge technologies will want an association with an innovative mindset; industries where education is key will want to prioritize rigorous, actionable information. From there, leaders can begin thinking about building the kinds of teams—and org charts for them—that make the most sense. “You have to tie the culture back to the success drivers,” he says. “‘We didn’t pick this culture randomly. We chose this culture intentionally because it makes us successful in these ways.’ It’s explaining the why.”

Evaluating employees in a new cultural context might require some change as well. Familiar performance reviews questions, built around goals and productivity targets, might also include questions about how well an employee feels they fit culturally. “It’s not like, ‘Well, you get a 4.3, you should find a new job,’” he says. “But part of the conversation can be, ‘Does this place make sense for who you are?’”

Regardless of how you approach employee engagement, don’t get too complacent about familiar metrics of recruitment and retention. High retention in an environment where people aren’t feeling successful may not signal engagement so much as deadwood.

“There can be situations where a really high retention rate is a positive indicator,” Notter says. “But you have to match it with other metrics. I think it’s particularly true with associations. There are associations where’ll I talk to people and they’re like, ‘I’m a new guy. I’ve only been here 10 years.’ That makes me nervous. It’s not inherently bad, but I would want to see some other data.”

(bernardbodo/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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