How Companies Miss The Boat On Employee Engagement

Why is engaging employees such a challenge for most companies? Heaven knows it’s not for lack of ideas. Spend 30 seconds on the web and you will find lists of 12 or 25 or 49 ways to boost engagement, along with those sad figures about how 70% of workers continue to say they’re unengaged, reports Forbes.

So let’s sort out the advice. One category of engagement tips reflects pure self-interest, often identifiable by the little “ad” icon at the top of Google’s search results. Buy our product and your employees will be more engaged in their work. That’s how companies are selling office furnishings, wellness programs, and employee-survey tools these days. One ad touts scheduling software designed to minimize fatigue and burnout, presumably on the hypothesis that burned-out workers aren’t too engaged.

A second category of tips might be called the warm fuzzies, and it covers a broad range. On one end of the spectrum are big-but-squishy ideas. Share information. Clarify your company’s purpose. Ask employees for advice. These are all fine precepts, but they raise as many questions as they answer. Which information should we share? How? When should we ask employees for advice? If a company isn’t already doing these things, it isn’t likely to begin doing so just because some HR consultant says it’s a way to boost engagement.

On the other end of the spectrum are the little things. Do better at welcoming new hires. Create a fun office environment. Be sure to single out people who are doing a great job for rewards and recognition. Again, there’s very little in all this advice that’s harmful—but it’s not the way many companies operate. They aren’t likely to change their culture and ways of working purely to increase engagement levels.

The reason companies so often miss the boat on engagement is that it isn’t and can never be an add-on. Either the business operates in such a way as to engage employees or it doesn’t.

To see what we mean, consider the airline industry. Southwest Airlines is famous for its fun, sometimes zany, culture. People there throw parties. They play pranks. They don Halloween costumes. This year’s theme, we understand, will be “Game of Thrones.”

Cofounder Herb Kelleher once observed that other airlines could copy Southwest’s strategy, point-to-point operations, and so on, but they could never copy its culture. He got that right. Can you imagine executives at American or United deciding to engage employees by creating a fun, zany work environment?

Southwest provides another lesson, too. Employees there don’t just have fun. They focus relentlessly on the business. They learn the importance of keeping costs low, of going the extra mile for customers, of delivering great service day in and day out. Their mission is to be the best airline on the planet—to give people the “freedom to fly”—and to make money in the process.

That’s where the real engagement comes from. And why not? Southwest is the most consistently profitable company in the industry, and it’s precisely the ongoing challenge of maintaining that performance that drives engagement. Employees own about 13% of its stock. Last year they divvied up $586 million in profit sharing, which put nearly seven weeks of extra pay in everyone’s pocket. It was the company’s 43rd straight year of profit sharing.

Yeah, but Southwest is lucky (we hear you say). Their founders created a great culture from the gitgo. Not every company can be a Southwest.

You’re right: no one can go back and build a different kind of company from Day One. But that’s no reason to throw up your hands and go back to reading the employee-engagement tips.

What every company can do is help their employees think like businesspeople. Seriously. Treating employees like trusted partners. Sharing in the challenge of driving profitable growth. Sharing in the upside via bonus programs or equity. Companies that do this become the Southwest Airlines of their industries.

The process begins with determining—in conjunction with employees—what defines winning in the next six to twelve months. Then people put their heads together. They figure out how to drive ever-higher performance. They track and forecast key numbers. If performance gets better, the improvement funds (often lucrative) bonuses. Employees and employer share in the victory or learn from defeat and move onto the next round.

That’s what we call open-book management. And believe us: it’s engaging. When people are asked not just for “advice” but to take responsibility for delivering results—and when the whole team shares in the proceeds—they’re involved. They’re committed.

Whether or not they have parties and picnics, they do have fun—the fun that comes from knowing that they’re building a great company and earning a great living.

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