Like most people, the coronavirus pandemic has forced me into an alternate job routine. I used to spend my days in airports and hotels, delivering training face to face at corporations all over the country.
Now, my commute is roughly 35 feet to my home office where I deliver training virtually to corporations all over the country. One of the most common questions I am asked in these virtual sessions is, “How do I maintain employee engagement when I don’t actually see my people?”
One of the first questions I ask in return is this: “What kinds of questions are you getting from your people?” Often, my question is met with that tilted-head-furrowed-brow look. Allow me to explain.
Understanding Employee Engagement
Imagine if everyone who works for an organization is clear on, and committed to, the “why” of the organization? How engaged do you think they will be?
That’s the key question I listen for. How many times do I hear “Why” questions during the day? Generally, the more “why” questions (Why are we doing this, why does this matter, who do we have to _____) the less engaged the people are.
I am blessed to work for a small (yet powerful) organization where everyone is laser-focused on our collective “why” – “to change the world, one conversation at a time.” Now, before you jump in with “Sure, that might work for a small group, but what about an organization with thousands of people,” allow me to present one for you: Barry Wehmiller, a packaging solutions company led by Bob Chapman.
Across their 80 companies and 12,000 employees the world over are a couple of central themes, or “WHYs”, “We’re an organization fiercely committed to improving the lives of our team members across the globe” and “We measure our success by the way we touch the lives of others and that comes through in everything we do.”
With that mission at the root of what they do, my guess is that they do not have to spend a lot of time answering repetitive “why” questions.
That said, hearing repeated “why” questions are a great sign that your people might not be as engaged as you had hoped. Indulge me for a very broad parallel for a moment.
I have been lucky enough to spend quality time with several great-nieces and nephews recently. Through these interactions, I have a new appreciation for the 2-year old mind. In fact, I think 2-year olds are geniuses! Work with me on this. It all comes down to that one word – three letters, “why” – usually repeated many, MANY times much to the chagrin of their parents.
The true genius of this word, and the way they use it, is that they keep using it until they receive the answer that makes that emotional connection with them. The answer that truly helps them go beyond the simple, and often abstract, “what” and “how” to that personally compelling and resonating reason or answer… “why”.
How to Use “Why” to Improve Employee Engagement
I know what you are thinking, hearing “why” repeating can be really annoying. You’ve likely been exasperated on numerous occasions by having to tell a little person “why” multiple times on the same subject.
Yet, if we expand the lens out to see the adults we work with every day, doesn’t it seem like this pattern is repeated? Interesting. This is my first clue that something is amiss as it pertains to engagement. It is also one of your best tools for uncovering what is missing.
Repeatedly asking why reveals the relationship of causes until you get to the core, or root cause, thus making it easier (to say nothing of essential) to begin working on a potential solution. Which is the goal is it not?
More importantly, “why” allows you the clarity necessary to inspire and engage the people you want and need to come along with you in order to bring your vision to reality, whether in person or virtually.
Understanding the “why” of the organization AND making the connection between what we do and the overarching mission of the organization, is another key factor in maintaining and/or increasing employee engagement.
In fact, it happens to be a question in Gallup’s long-running Q12 survey (The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important).
Unfortunately, the majority of people can’t clearly articulate that. A recent study found that a mere 26 percent of people have a very clear understanding of how their individual work relates to their company goals.
3 Tips for Improving Employee Engagement
Here are three actions you can do today to connect, engage, and inspire your people:
1. Define the “why”
At Fierce, we turn the personal stump speech into a collective stump speech. It consists of four questions: Where are we going – Why are we going there – who is going with us – how are we going to get there. This last question is a great way to make the connection between their actual job and the mission of the organization.
If you can all align on the answers to those questions, chances are good the energy and engagement will follow.
2. Make the time to truly connect with your people
Another statement that finds its way onto countless engagement surveys is,” My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.” Yes, the world is moving at a frenetic pace. And yes, there seemingly is more to do than there are hours in the day.
Yet when I ask people to list the attributes of their favorite boss, here’s what I normally hear: They listened to me – They had my back – They cared about me – They had my best interest in mind – They trusted me, and the list goes on and on.
In short, what made a difference was in the way their leader connected with them. The relationship was built. Yes, it takes time, but ask yourself, “What wouldn’t I do for my favorite boss?” That’s engagement.
3. Listen closely to the questions you are being asked
This brings us back to the genius 2-year old story I mentioned earlier. How many times, intentional or not, have you asked a 2-year old to do something and, when asked the inevitable “why”, have responded with “Because I just asked you to” or some variation of that? What usually happens next?
You guessed it; they ask “why” again.
Expand back out to the much larger version of this 2-year old, working in your office (NOT suggesting at all that adults are 2-year old’s – but I think you can follow me with this) asking you, yet again “why” we are doing ____?
Rather than get frustrated and repeat the same answer again, why not take a step back and ask yourself if you’ve gone beyond the simplistic and obvious “what” and “how” to make that connection, that engagement, that conversation with this person to help them understand the “why” (remember root cause) that is driving “what” you are doing.
“Why” may be one simple word, used in a variety of ways, but it’s a powerful tool to help maintain and build engagement, even in the most unique circumstances.