Beyond the Engagement Survey

When business talks about employee engagement, it is usually a conversation about an annual engagement survey. Engagement is often another of those “people are our biggest asset” value points that get more lip service than real attention. I have often asked leaders to envision what their organization would look like if the vast majority of their employees were so engaged in their job and company’s vision that it was those same employees who managed out the non-performers.

Great engagement goes way beyond being nice to your employees. Typically, the cultures that are most engaged are also those that have set a high performance bar, provided all the tools needed to achieve the goals, shared accountability and rewards for success with staff and created a culture of engagement. As a side benefit, in the best of these cultures, employees partner with leadership to manage out those who do not perform.

Conventional wisdom in most labor relations and HR circles is that employee engagement is at any time more or less a bell curve. Highly engaged employees make up a minority at one end with active rebels at the other. Everyone else then more or less shows up to do his job and has either a positive or poor attitude about it. Success then gets defined as skewing the top of the curve by 3 or 4 percent to the positive side. Not only is that a timid goal, it is also usually not worth the investment needed to accomplish it.

For the moment, put aside the investment costs and the sacred cultural cows that would have to become hamburgers at the next company picnic. Just take a moment and imagine how your company would be different if 90 percent of your employees were so engaged in excellent performance and personally invested in the vision of the organization that they had little tolerance for their colleagues who were not. Think about how your life as a leader would be different.

So, how do leaders make this fantasy a reality? Depends on whom you ask.

I spoke about it on a conference call recently with Dave Logan, one of the authors of “Tribal Leadership” and a member of the B School faculty at the University of Southern California. Logan’s research says that it is most possible in smaller companies and work groups where a unique culture can be reinforced all the way to hiring practices. He also makes clear the connection between life view and organizational performance, building it right into his framework.

In his book “Blueprint to a Billion,” David G. Thomson describes the attributes of companies that grew from startup to break the billion-dollar barrier. He describes companies that made employment there a source of such pride that it bordered on arrogance.

One of the companies he showcased was Siebel Systems, a company I knew well. Siebel rocketed to the top of the software world on the back of the CRM trend and a Larry Ellison protégé, Tom Siebel, who was extremely canny. Its culture was so intense that it bordered on toxic. Each quarter, mangers at all levels had to force rank their employees, and the bottom 10 percent went out the door in what were very public separations. In the end, the company was purchased by arch-rival Oracle, in part because the culture created sustainability issues.

Lastly, read Jim Collins and you will get a picture of vision and values, coupled with a hedgehog-like focus on what the company can do really well as both the way to create and sustain engagement. Collins’ “good is the enemy of great” philosophy is a little intense for leaders who are simply unable, or unwilling, to risk good results in order to attempt what is necessary to get great results. In my experience, one of the safety nets those leaders cling to is the need to keep employee engagement in the safe territory of an annual survey and a few cosmetic changes.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, September 12, 2011.