The Ultimate Answer to Employee Engagement is Self-Direction

Paul Hebert Employee Development, Employee Engagement, employee experience, Employee Relations, Engagement and Satisfaction, Good HR, HR

I’m not going to do my usual screed on why employee engagement is a Sisyphean effort, and almost every intervention is at best a short-term fix to a long-term problem. I believe 90% of the interventions we talk about are like handing out sandwiches to starving people and thinking you’ve fixed their food-acquisition problem. Employee engagement has never been a tactical issue. In fact, the longer I play in the engagement sandbox, the more I’m convinced employee engagement isn’t a company problem at all.

I’m on record as saying employee engagement is a two-way street and employees have a role to play in being engaged.

But now I’m actually leaning toward saying employee engagement is 100% on the employee and that there is very little the company can do to influence engagement over the long haul.

Companies can assuage the symptoms with interventions here and there, by leveraging a variety of tactics like recognition and pulse surveys. But again – those are simply small doses of attention that keep employees thinking that their company and their manager cares about them. Don’t get me wrong. Companies should do those things. Recognizing and talking with your employees is a good thing to do. It is a human thing to do. Do it.

But don’t think it will do anything for long-term engagement.

Engagement Means I Know What to Do

Research shows that having control over your work and being held accountable is a HUGE driver of engagement.

Easy to say. Harder to do.

While we have managers who don’t like it when their employees go rogue and start thinking for themselves it is one of the best things you can do to improve engagement in your organization. Is there a reason engagement and satisfaction increase as you survey up the corporate ladder? Managers are more engaged than employees, VPs more so than managers, etc. I believe it is because at each successive level the employee gets more control, autonomy, and accountability.

To fix engagement you need more autonomous employees, but so few employees are taught how to have autonomy.

Make Your Own Work

When I was first promoted to a manager role my new peer managers said… “Get ready. You now have to create your own workload.”

And that is what 90% of employees don’t know how to do. And therefore, why 90% of employees aren’t engaged.

Self-direction is hard. It requires a deeper understanding of the corporate mission. It requires a deeper understanding of the overall market your company competes in. It requires a deeper understanding of how and why your company makes money. I’ll bet most of those things are afterthoughts when it comes to your employees. Sure, you have MS Excel training and a session on how to fill out your 401K forms.

But how many hours of training do you give your employees on markets, competitors, business models, etc.? Those are the things that allow your employees to think on their own. Those are the skills and knowledge base required to be self-directed. To create their own workload.

Who knew. Engagement is really about doing more work.

People are disengaged because they don’t know what to do to add value outside the narrow view of your poorly written job descriptions. They want to do it. It’s not about being lazy, it’s about not knowing how.

Trust me.

Train people to be self-directed and engagement will skyrocket. And you don’t need prizes, or off-site meetings and clever dress up days at Halloween.

You need employees who know how to generate their own workload.