Excellence is About People, Part 1: Engaging & Empowering your Team — PEN Mar 2019

Nothing great is ever achieved without people.  Think about it: organizations can only achieve with highly effective people running them; communities and nations can only achieve without highly engaged citizens and highly effective leaders setting a course for the future; projects, initiatives, task forces, scientific breakthroughs, inventions, and even sporting achievements are all the result of highly effective people and teams.

Yes, processes are also critically important – and there are other circumstantial and environmental factors that certainly impact performance of nearly everything – but I’m going to assert that nothing great is ever really achieved without people.  Humans.  Homo sapiens.  Men and women who direct resources, facilitate change, inspire new ideas or creations, manage and improve processes and systems. Excellence is about people.

And that is the theme for the Performance Excellence Network’s annual conference, PENworks 2019 (scheduled for May 2-3 in the Twin Cities): Empowering People; Achieving Excellence.

In light of that, I culled through several of my previous newsletter blogs to identify & lift up some insights, tips, and best practices that result in workforce engagement and satisfaction, team effectiveness and productivity, reduction in stress and increasing levels of (personal and professional) happiness – concepts that will be explored at our conference, but concepts that any organization, any team, any community, or any project should be considering every day… 

There are so many good practices, however, that I’m splitting the blog into two parts – this month will focus on what leaders can do to create an environment that ensures workforce engagement, and next month will focus on what we all can do as individuals to ensure our own professional engagement and happiness.

But before you hardcore leaders and workers tune me out, here’s why you should care: US organizations are still struggling with workforce engagement and it’s impacting our organizations:

  • Gallup, the preeminent authority on employee engagement, reports that only 30% of US workers are actively engaged (meaning 70% are not engaged or actively disengaged).
  • 77% of leaders think they’re doing a good job of engaging their people, while only 12% of employees think their leader is doing a good job with engagement – obviously, a disconnect.
  • 21% of employees think they are managed in a way that actually motivates them to do outstanding work, and
  • 65% of US workers would forgo their next raise if their boss were fired.

Yeah, we kind of have an engagement problem.  And yet I’ve already asserted that nothing excellent is achieved without engaged, empowered, effective people. 

So how can leaders truly value and engage their people?  How can they create an environment that allows their people to thrive?  Here are some ideas, in no particular order:

  • Let your employees see the big picture. When they know how their small piece fits into the bigger strategy, they’ll feel more motivated to succeed.  So involve them in planning (both in creating as well as executing the plan).  And communicate, communicate, communicate.  As Jim Collins says: “Focus 1% on vision and 99% on alignment.”  And as Rosabeth Moss Kanter (of Harvard Business School) says: “If you want everyone to be on the same page, put the page in front of them conveniently and often.”
  • Give employees something to believe in and strive for.  Make your mission, vision, and values more than just statements: make them integral to what every employee does every day in their own, unique, job roles and functions.  Help employees understand when and how they personally contribute to achieving the mission, and demonstrate that you trust your employees to be caretakers of your organization’s culture.  When employees find purpose in their work, their levels of engagement increase significantly.
  • Create an environment for success and a culture of high performance. Create an environment for the achievement of your mission, a culture that focuses on customer experience and engagement, and an organizational atmosphere that cultivates agility, accountability, organizational and personal learning, innovation, and intelligent risk taking.  Focus on action, while balancing the needs of all stakeholders. Create an environment of open communication.
  • Develop your people. A study by American Psychological Association indicated that 70% of employees feel valued at work when they have opportunities for growth and development. While promotion opportunities within companies may sometimes be limited, you can still invest in team members’ professional development through training, assignment to new and interesting projects, participation on task forces, and exposure to new and interesting different areas through cross-training. Employees frequently have skills that extend beyond the position for which the company hired them. Additionally, they typically grow their skills over time.  Leveraging these broad skill sets can lead to greater engagement and satisfaction.  And leaders should also develop and nurture future leaders, actively participating in the organization’s succession planning process.  As Tom Peters says: “The role of leaders is not to create followers, but to create more leaders.”
  • Create a safe, trusting, and cooperative environment.  Successful organizations have a culture of inclusion that capitalizes on diverse backgrounds and characteristics, knowledge, skills, creativity, and motivation of its workforce, partners, and collaborators.  They ensure workplace health, security, accessibility, and safety.  They systematically prepare the workforce for changing capability and capacity needs, balancing the needs of its workers and the organization to ensure continuity, prevent workforce reductions, and minimize the impact of any necessary reductions.  In short, they foster a culture of respect.
  • Create a flexible work environment.  Your employees spend more time at work than anywhere else.  High performing organizations offer flexible work practices that are tailored to varying workplace and workforce needs. This could mean flexible work hours, locations, benefits, and services that meet the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce.
  • Streamline work. Overly-complicated processes, confusing approval procedures, and slow decision-making and communication can really add up and can lead to worker burnout.  Leaders should be critical of your current systems: “it’s always been done that way” is not a good enough reason to keep people miserable.  Engage your people in eliminating waste, reducing complexity, and streamlining their work.  They are closest to the action; get them involved in making their work better, more enjoyable and more effective.
  • Manage organizational capacity. Workers are stretched – they are expected to do more, sometimes with fewer resources.  It’s time to reduce low value-added tasks, redesign inefficient processes (and let the team do that!), and/or to hire more people to share the load.
  • Tame technology. Overuse of email, texting, and other forms of communication have people drowning in an ocean of electronic messages and “techno-stress.” Policies to restrict after hours use are already being implemented by some companies.  But good old fashion conversations with employees about work/life balance (about taking time off and pacing themselves), about email etiquette (being mindful of using “cc” and “reply all”), about using meetings or phone conversations when circumstances warrant them, etc. will reduce employee stress and improve employee satisfaction.
  • Support camaraderie and collegiality, while reducing conflict. According to PEN partner Anna Maravelas of TheraRising (and facilitator of PEN’s Conflict Savvy workshop April 4 in Duluth), conflict in the workplace is costing our organizations dearly – it impacts productivity, employee safety and security, customer experience and strength of brand (some estimates show conflict in the workplace costs a half trillion —  yes, with a “T” – dollars in the US alone).  On the other hand, camaraderie in the workplace can lead to greater job satisfaction, enhanced commitment to the organization and doing a job well. Leaders should foster collegiality, help to eliminate toxic and dysfunctional team behaviors, and create opportunities for team members to connect in ways other than on work projects. Maravelas suggests that when you’re in a conflict situation, change the natural tendency to be reflexive (blaming others and then blaming yourself for allowing the situation to occur) to being more reflective (focusing more on the underlying problem rather than the person in the conflict).  This simple technique moves you from hostility and indignation to a state where you are calm, concerned, and even curious as to what’s behind the other person’s behavior.  Instead of avoiding or attacking the other person (or withdrawing or giving up on yourself), you open a dialogue and search for solutions.  Simple in concept, difficult to implement – but so powerful to manage conflict.
  • Foster a culture of gratitude: recognize your people. In every organization and on every team, all employees have an innate desire to feel appreciated and valued by others – their peers and their leadership.  In other words: most employees want to do good work, but most employees want to be noticed for doing good work.  Celebrate their accomplishments.  Reward and recognize their performance.  Sometimes, just say “thank you.”  It will reinforce the behaviors and outcomes you want more of, and it will build goodwill with your people – it shows that you noticed and that you care.  And it doesn’t have to be cash; in fact, oftentimes the most effective recognition has nothing to do with cash rewards.  The Lead Change Group offers several examples of creative recognition from leading companies such as Google.
  • Respect work/life balance and avoid long hours. Research shows that productivity declines after about 40 hours a week.  People who work long hours are not only less productive, but are more likely to get less sleep, exercise, and down time.  The net result is that they are chronically tired, less efficient, and more stressed, thus forcing them to work longer hours to get their work done.  It can also result in illness, absenteeism, general resentment, and sometimes safety risks.  In addition, many employees don’t spend their allotted vacation days because they don’t want to appear lazy to the organization.  This is not healthy.  Your workers need the time to unwind, so they can come back to work refreshed and refocused.  Leaders should set and manage expectations of work-life balance, should encourage time off, and should be sensitive to organizational capacity. Leaders should also reward good performance with vacation days, and encourage your high performers to take time off.  Leaders should also take time off!  This will go a long way in eliminating the stigma that taking time off is a bad thing. 
  • Empower your people.  Leaders should set vision; measure performance; and reinforce, reward, or redirect as needed; but then get out of the way.  Too many leaders micromanage, which undermines trust and sub-optimizes employee performance.  Truly empower your people and they will surprise you with their potential.
  • And above all, listen.  Leaders need to ask employees how they are doing (at work and personally), remove barriers, and pay attention to the factors that affect their satisfaction and engagement.  Every organization is different, and every employee within every organization is different.  How in the world can managers know what their people need and want without asking them?!  You can use sophisticated tools to gauge their engagement (Gallup’s Q-12, Hewitt, and others), or just have informal discussions – in team meetings and/or one-on-one.  You’ll be surprised at what you learn.  If you’re able to take action to improve things (or even explain why you might not be able to), your employees’ engagement will increase greatly.  Simply because they were asked…and because they were heard.

Those 14 tips are probably just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  Many more will be shared at the PENworks 2019 conference, which will be kicked off by Jenn Lim, CEO at Delivering Happiness and consultant at Zappos.  Jenn will explore what high performing organizations – including Zappos – do to create a culture that maximizes employee contributions.  Jenn’s experience with Zappos, combined with her development of scientific frameworks for workplace happiness, created the evidence that happier employees = happier customers = successful companies (and meaningful lives).  Jenn has traveled to over 30 countries to speak on this equation and most importantly, share the practical ways of HOW this equation works. Jenn has been featured in several TED Talks.  She will we can better inspire people, organizations, and communities so that we can change the world!

Jenn will be followed by nearly 30 other local, regional, and national speakers, each sharing ideas, methods, best practices that promote workforce engagement and effectiveness and that inspire organizational and community excellence.  So consider coming to PENworks 2019!  Or just pick one or two ideas above, and as leaders, work to create a culture and environment that helps your people thrive!  After all, nothing excellence is achieved without people!

Next month, we’ll explore what each of us can do as leaders and professionals (and just humans!) to be more effective on the job, to ensure our own professional engagement, and to increase our (professional and personal) happiness.

What other insights/tips do you have on workforce engagement or effectiveness?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

Photo credits theinclusionsolution.me, uk.engage.org