Mastering the Art of Engagement

When business is booming and the future looks bright, most learning executives have no trouble focusing on — and investing in — initiatives around seemingly softer issues such as engagement.

When business is booming and the future looks bright, most learning executives have no trouble focusing on — and investing in — initiatives around seemingly softer issues such as engagement. But during down periods, many of these efforts fall by the wayside, as CLOs are pressured to cut costs while delivering measurable business results.

However, it’s during tough times that cultivating a culture of engagement becomes critically important, said Sharon Gazda, president of Edizen Corp., an organizational consulting practice. While many CLOs are aware of this, they may have a hard time convincing the powers that be of it because the results can be hard to quantify. That’s about to change.

“When the economy gets better, the talent is going to walk if we haven’t connected with them. And there goes your competitive advantage,” Gazda said. “This is why engagement is not just some warm-and-fuzzy HR [term] that somebody came up with. It truly ties directly to the bottom line.”

The added bonus is that influencing a cultural shift doesn’t require a large investment of capital, she said.

“You don’t need to spend money to send people away for a weeklong training program. You don’t need PowerPoints. You don’t need webinars. What you need is a constant cultural motivation,” she said.

Gazda and her colleagues spent two years analyzing the results of employee surveys from some of the major research firms, including Gallup and Towers Perrin, to come up with a set of four key drivers that would help learning executives instill a culture of engagement in their organizations. The main finding was that effective communication is paramount.

“We know that when managers and leaders get stressed, sometimes they tend to retreat themselves. They’re overly busy; they may be taking on the work of other managers or whatever,” Gazda said. “So they communicate less. And then there are those managers who communicate more, but their communication is just more of the same: It may be more e-mails, or more ‘Did you do this?’ or ‘What’s going on with this project?’ But it’s not the kind of dialogue that is really going to help somebody to be engaged.

“[And then there are] a lot of leaders who — because so much is going on right now and so much is changing and some of it in a negative way — don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything,” she said.

So what and how should leaders be communicating?

“You need to have a dialogue that makes you better connected to your employees,” Gazda said. “That means the first thing is to start big. Have conversations with your employees about the bigger piece — the mission of the organization. How do they fit in?”

Managers then should find out from each employee what he or she is looking for in a work environment.

“You can’t get the best from someone unless you know what it is they’re really there for,” Gazda explained.

The third thing learning executives should encourage leaders to do is to develop relationships with employees.

“Research shows that you’re not going to see somebody who says, ‘Oh, I hate my manager, but I love my company.’ It doesn’t work that way,” Gazda said. “[Leaders should be] not only taking the time to time to build a relationship with the person, but also making sure to find out what other relationships they want in the workplace. How are they connected to other people in order to do their jobs successfully?”

The final tip for instilling a culture of engagement is to make sure managers are leveraging each employee’s strengths, Gazda said.

“Managers today spend so much time talking about development and what people should do better, but are they utilizing strengths?” she asked. “[Make] sure you’re really talking to people — not just at performance review time, but constantly — about what they bring to the table and how you value that.”