How Do You Engage, Involve, and Motivate Employees?

Any Lean or performance-improvement initiative cannot survive on tools alone. Leaders must cultivate learning environments and develop the shared values that serve as the foundation for  dynamic culture. This month, Janis Allen and Mike McCarthy published an interesting book called How to Engage, Involve, and Motivate Employees: Building a Culture of Lean Leadership and Two-Way Communication that shows just how important it is to motivate and excite employees to take ownership of their roles.

When I spoke with Mike recently, I asked him, "Why do current employee-engagement programs fall short?” Here is his complete answer:

When asked, “Do you have an employee engagement program?” many managers answer, “Sure! Look at these engagement survey scores.” Beware! Quite often, people tell us what we want to hear on engagement surveys. If you really want to know about engagement, gemba gembutsu (go to the shop floor and see for yourself). Ask questions. Ask operators what ideas they have for improving the work. Then: 1. listen, and 2. help them test their ideas. You are now engaging people in improving their own work.

“Engagement” is a noun. Nouns are names of objects. Engage is a verb. Verbs are action. So, instead of asking your company’s managers “Do you have engagement?” say “Let’s go walk the shop floor and engage with our operators by asking what improvements they are making.” It’s the difference between saying “I have a stapler,” (the name of the object sitting on the desk doing nothing) and saying “I’m stapling these papers” (stapling is a verb, action, and you are doing something).

Engaged = observable actions by employees working on improvements. So, when a visitor comes into your workplace and asks, “Are your employees engaged?” say, “Let’s go talk to them. Then you tell me.” Take that visitor to the work area and introduce him to an employee. Say, “Allie, would you show our visitor the changes the team made on the shop floor?” If your employees can do this, they are actively engaged. The purpose of engaging employees is to inspire them to make improvements they can be proud of.

Survey Scores Vs. Go Engage. My new automobile monitors oil level, tire pressure, and other indicators electronically. I get an email with a link once a month that shows me if the tire pressure etc. has been low during the past month. What’s wrong with this picture? After all, I “have” a tire pressure report. Here’s what’s wrong: If I’m about to go on a long trip, I need to know right now if the tire pressure is low. I need to go to the garage (gemba gembutsu) and measure the psi in my tires by pressing (action verb) my tire pressure gauge to each valve stem and see for myself. When your focus is on a measurement tool rather than the actions you want, you get off track. If you steadily gazed at the speedometer while driving, you’d run off the road!

“What do you want me to say, Boss?” Many employees don’t tell the truth on engagement surveys; they say what they think management expects them to say. And in case this so-called anonymous survey isn’t really anonymous, who wants to be the one who says, “I’m not engaged?” This is another reason survey data is not an accurate indicator of actual engagement.

At an airline departure gate, we heard the announcement, “Please complete our customer survey when you receive the email. We want you to rate us a five, not a four. Five is alive; four is out the door. Ha ha. Just to help you remember to rate us a five, we have this basket of snacks here on the counter for you. Help yourselves. It’s not a bribe or anything.”

We saw a half-dozen people help themselves to the snacks. We wonder how many completed the survey, and even if they all rated the airline “Five is alive,” if it was an accurate indicator of their customer experience, whether they would fly with that airline again, and what they tell their colleagues about that airline. Often, people say what they think someone wants to hear. Why not? The person giving the score has nothing to lose. So beware of surveys. People have all kinds of wrong motives for the ratings they give.

Leaders can show people how they can take actions to make improvements they can be proud of. You can help them to do it. The most important results for your organization are the real actions taken to make improvements. But a positive side-effect of those engagement actions is that answers on engagement surveys will also improve. The survey improvement will be based on employees’ actions, their good results, and the satisfying feeling of being on a team. With action-focused engagement, your survey results will be based on actions and their real experience, not just words! And your company will be growing and prospering. 

Does your company have an employee-engagement program? Does it commit many of the mistakes Mike McCarthy mentioned here?