OPD Articles / Toward a better understanding and application of engagement


Toward a better understanding and application of engagement

by Dr Graham Little PhD AFNZIM MInstD MNZIC

The typical notion of engagement is an emotional bond between staff and the company. Factors used to build engagement include mission and vision statements, values workshops, improving supervision and focusing on the relationship with staff and company, social clubs, internal newsletters, and staff benefits and privileges.

Engagement is typically measured by cultural audits that focus on the importance staff place on the company in their life, and that when engaged people are committed to the company and its success. The assumption is that engagement leads to better job performance and this is unquestionably true if engagement as here defined is achieved. The question is whether or not this model of engagement is relevant today.

Today, there is high mobility of staff between companies. A person working for on company this month could be working for the opposition next month.

Today, if revenues falter staff will be shed without a backward glance. As needs to be the case it is people first only in companies strongly in profits: If profits slumpů?

Today, commercial loyalty is fully a function of current needs, should needs change then so does loyalty (in both directions staff->company and company->staff).

Asking staff to commit to the company in face of this commercial reality will always be awkward, feel false and have a very real and definite ceiling; hence staff performance under this model will have a maximum level of performance that can be achieved.

The critical question follows: In this modern commercial environment what can business leaders expect, what can staff be realistic expected to commit to and be consistently loyal to?

If we can find better solution to this question we can then use this understanding to achieve better levels of performance than under the existing model as outlined above: At very least, a better model will significantly raise the level of performance we can and should sensibly expect.

Better understanding of the link between staff attitudes and actions and the business

This existing model or notion of engagement arises from the way the link between strategy and staff behaviour is constructed (the mental model). If we are to review the idea of engagement, then we need review the existing understanding and build a new and improved model from which we then derive the idea of engagement.

1. A business is separate from people. An apparently simple idea that many find difficult to grasp, people come and go, but businesses go on often doing exactly the same thing.

2. Every role (job) in a business is driven by the expected outputs, and often those outputs are not very negotiable.

3. For every goal there are actions necessary to ensure the goal is achieved. The actions needed to ensure the best chance of achieving the goal are called ideals. It follows that there are ideals in every business role derived from the goals and KPIs demanded in the role.

4. The architecture of the business then consists of:

a. Defining in every role the goals/KPIs as derived from the strategy (goal cascade or alignment),

b. Defining the ideals as derived from the goals.

This architecture is independent of people and represents what needs done every role to achieve excellence in that role (that is the ideals must be acted out with due commitment and energy to achieve the results).

The difference in this model is that we have very precise psychological targets.

People and performance

We now need add people to the architecture; I call this populating the architecture. People populate the roles in the business; the roles are quite well defined in terms of outputs and ideals. However, this leaves much for creativity and initiative since the ideals are the current best judgment of how to realize success (defined as achieving the outputs or KPIs), if someone is able to create means to achieve results faster, more efficiently, more successfully then this needs to be integrated into the specification so that the learning is captured by the firm in the form of revised ideals and KPIs, etc, then shared through the firm to all able to use the learning.

We can now be very clear and precise in our understanding of exactly what we want people to do:

o People are asked to accept the ideals as the best way of achieving success in this role, then asked to identify how they will translate the generic ideals into things they will do each day or week to achieve excellence.

The performance of the person is then assessed in relation to them translating the ideals into action on the job so that the goals/KPIs are achieved to the highest level possible. Performance is measured in the person delivery of the ideals; success is measured in achieving the goals/KPIs. Goal achievement may depend on factors beyond the control of the person, and is thus not a measure of the person's performance. Delivery of ideals on the job is completely under control of the person, and so exactly measures their performance.

The staff - company contract

When a person is recruited into the business they are contracted to deliver the ideals and achieve the goals/KPIs in the role or roles they are contracted into. At recruitment the competencies of the person are most under scrutiny in assessing if their background, experience and skills equip them to perform in the role. Specifically if they are able to deliver the ideals such as to ensure the best possible chance of the best possible result (achieve goals/KPIs).

Within this contract it is simply not necessary for the person to commit to the company, what is required is for the person to commit to their own success in the role.

Specifically, the person is expected to 'see' clearly the ideals needed, how to translate those ideals into action on the job, and how to sharpen and improve the ideals and their own delivery of those ideals such that goals/KPIs are progressively improved.

Improved definition of engagement

People are asked to commit to their own success. They are not asked to commit to the company.

If someone is not clear on what is expected or how to achieve it then they will not perform well. It follows that one of the foundations of personal performance is clarity of that expected (goals/KPIs), and how to achieve it (ideals).

A key process for people in pursuing their own success in their work life is for them to 'see' or 'visualize' the ideals and in particular their own interpretation of those ideals as what they will do on the job. This process of visualization is well known and used by all top sports people in particular to peak personal performance and applies as much at work as in any other endeavor.

The process of seeking fulfillment in their work life I call commitment. The process of visualizing the interpretation of the ideals in their roles/job at work I call 'engagement'.

People guided to pursue engagement in order to realize fulfillment and success at work.