Employee engagement is rooted in leadership beliefs about people. In turn, these beliefs guide choices about how to lead change initiatives. The results of these choices are directly assessed in rates of successful, sustainable change. We all know the statistics don’t tell a favorable story. An extended consequence of choices about change strategy leads to employee engagement. Leaders of all types lament low employee engagement while rarely considering it is an indirect outcome of the beliefs they hold about people. The relationship is quite circular.
This article invites leaders to become aware that what you see in employees is what you get from them. The solution to low employee engagement and lack of ownership lies in assumptions and corresponding change strategies.
The benefit of this awareness is a path toward improved engagement that is captured in the simple phrase, “People support what they help create.” The leadership task is to allow employees to help define and implement change. The ensuing support will not only apply to the discrete change initiative but will also extend to their relationship with the broader organization.
Basic Assumptions about People
In a simplified view, there are two basic and divergent assumptions leaders hold about people. These assumptions then inform choices about managing within organizations. These choices have consequences that play themselves out in the form of employee engagement or disengagement. The implication is that leaders’ assumptions about people in large measure create behavior and engagement. This is good news. It means a solution to a disengaged workforce is very addressable.
The Direction and Control View. This view, dramatized for effect, is that most workers are passive and dependent — and that they must be told what to do, have their work broken down into little pieces, and be tightly controlled. It is based on a few core assumptions:
- The average person has an inherent dislike of work and responsibility.
- People must be controlled and directed toward the achievement of organizational objectives.
- Leadership has earned the right to make decisions for others.
The Integration View. Standing in contrast to the former, this view holds that most people will take responsibility, care about their jobs and performance, wish to grow, and, if given a chance, do excellent work. It is also based on a set of assumptions:
- The behavior of individuals is strongly influenced by the system in which they operate.
- The organization will suffer unless the interests of workers are integrated with the needs of the organization.
- People will exercise self-direction to achieve organizational objectives to the extent they are committed to those objectives. Authority is a poor method of achieving this commitment.
When presented with the two views, few leaders will see themselves in the Direction and Control View. However, we know the view exists because general employee engagement is low. The message is that leaders and managers can subconsciously hold this view and its assumptions, make choices consistent with that subconscious framework, and damage employee engagement, all while being generally good people.
Involve Me and I’ll Show You I Care
Among many important lessons of social science, two are particularly noteworthy:
- If people aren’t given the opportunity to participate in the development of a solution, implementation will be tepid, misunderstood, and likely on a path to failure.
- A key factor predicting organizational success is the ability to release the vast know-how, goodwill, and energy that exists among employees.
These truths are grounded in the influence of social experience: all employees have needs related to status and self-esteem; all have a wish for some degree of autonomy and control over the direction of their work; all want to feel related to something bigger than themselves; all employees want to be treated fairly.
If leaders choose change strategies that satisfy these needs and engage workers, they will look favorably upon change initiatives and support their implementation. People will support what they help create. This applies to not only the close-in change initiative but also the broader organization.
Change the Way You Change
Most change initiatives are decided by a small group of decision makers and passed along to ‘change management’ to fit the change into the organization. Change managers are well intentioned and informed by useful models, but many operate at a significant handicap. The handicap is the traditional view of change and the lost opportunity to involve people in the process. Change management is a reactive activity that attempts to overcome resistance created by the traditional change process itself.
The process of change matters. At ON THE MARK, we help leaders bring real collaborative change to life. Our core focus is operating model modernization. The real magic, however, is found in the transformation from the current state to future state operating model. This shift is based on a core belief that organizations must deeply involve people in the organization to transform the organization. Outside experts, piecemeal approaches, and the separation of design choices from change activity don’t work for complex change. People will support what they help create if you bring them into the process using real and meaningful methods.
The Engagement Payoff
Leaders hold the keys and carry the significant responsibility to create an engaged workforce. The first task is making an honest examination of your assumptions about the workforce. As needed, you then change how you approach change. If you involve your people in creating a shared future, then they will care about the organization they’ve helped create and act like its owners. This engagement is something all leaders in complex operating environments must strive to create. Complexity has long surpassed the abilities of top-down direction. Everybody must be involved to their maximum ability to contribute.
The next time you’re looking at a change requirement, remind yourself that, “People support what they help create.” This will set you on the first step of a path to both collaborative change and real employee engagement.
Dan Schmitz: Dan has 16 years of holding various managerial-level positions at Clorox. Prior to OTM, he founded a small consulting firm providing solutions in transformation. Dan also holds an MBA from Kent State University and a master’s degree in Organization Development and Change Leadership from Pepperdine University. He is a Certified Organization Design Practitioner (CODP).