How to involve, not just engage, employees

by | Aug 17, 2015 | Blog | 0 comments

ice cream sundae“Why do you use the word ‘involvement’ instead of the more popular term ‘engagement’?” the prospective client asked me.

“Involvement is all about action,” I responded. “When you’re involved, you’re doing something. Action helps drive lasting behavior change.”

“By contrast, when you’re engaged, you’re sharing with others. However, you’re not necessarily being active. You could just be observing from the sidelines.”

That exchange kicked off an animated conversation about employee involvement and how it’s a powerful catalyst for leaders to encourage individual behavior change and then organizational change.

Like most things though, employee involvement works best when leaders initiate it with intent, thoughtful planning and consistent follow through, as my experience over the years has shown.

In terms of intent, leaders need to determine what their involvement “win” will be for them and for employees.

For instance, do you want to get actionable feedback from employees? To get employee to contribute to a new project or venture? To expose employees to new ideas and help them grow and develop on the job? All of the above or something else? All of these can support your change agenda while nudging employees to work differently.

Depending on what you as a leader want to achieve, you generally can accomplish your involvement goals one of three ways.

The basic, “eat an ice cream cone,” consists of asking employees to do a well-defined, often fairly small, one-time task. While this may seem like a plain-vanilla request, it can be a rewarding experience for employees and leaders alike. Plus, the positive experience will encourage employees to repeat their actions.

From employees’ perspective, this action requires minimal time, little obligation and no follow through. Yet, the request shows that leaders care what employees think. And it provides a nice break from their routine and can be interesting for them, especially if they’re doing a meaningful task.

For example, some real work that employees can contribute to includes reviewing and commenting on a work in progress. Or vetting an idea either on their own or in a small group. Or participating in a listening session to share their opinion on some key issues that leaders are deliberating.

To make this a win/win for employees and you as a leader, make sure the work is real, you commit to listening to employees’ input and you give them enough time.

The second level, “build an ice-cream sundae” version consists of a bigger commitment in terms of employees’ time, energy and resources. For instance, you’re asking people to participate in a kaizen, join a rapid response task force or take part in a tour a customer’s facility and report back.

Again, for this to be a successful experience all around, employees need to know the efforts they’re making will count. Plus, they need to be able to balance their obligations for the involvement activity with their regular job.

As an added bonus, the experience also should stretch employees in positive ways, such as giving them an opportunity to meet and work with peers and leaders in other functions and departments and learn new things.

The third level “make home-made ice cream from scratch” entails getting employees involved in creating something of value for the organization. (Or in this age of spin-offs, even helping the organization re-invent itself as smaller, multiple entities.)

Granted, many employees are already assigned to special projects around product development, process improvements, new technology deployments, and other strategic initiatives.

However, it’s always helpful to review the work from the lens of employee involvement to ensure leaders are maximizing the opportunity for employees. For instance, is it total drudge work, or an experience to remember, or at least something in between?

In other words, if you asked employees the wonderfully insightful Net Promoter question, “How likely is it that you would recommend this special project to a colleague?”, would you get “9” and “10”’s, which are the signs of promoters? Or would you have the passives (“7” and “8”’s) or even worse, the detractors (“0” to “6”)?

The more promoters you have—who are either intrinsically motivated or boosted with a supportive environment that you and other leaders have helped create—the better chances you have of achieving the results you want. Plus, employees’ actions will help you and the organization build sustainable behavior change.

“But at what price?” some other prospects ask me.

To get a high return on involvement doesn’t require a huge dollar investment. Yes, there is a time investment.

However, research by Dr. Paul Nutt as described in the book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Dan Heath and Chip Heath, showed that while involving people slows down decision making, it speeds up implementation.

And as a leader, you can make the implementation easier for yourself by adopting the practices of Tom Sawyer. (See Channel Tom for change on the value of getting employees to help you figuratively paint the picket fence and love the experience.) Peter Bregman also explains this efficient, brain-friendly process beautifully in this HBR blog post, Why Doing Things Half Right Gives You The Best Results.

Once my clients have tried employee involvement and experienced its benefits for them and their employees, it’s no longer a “flavor of the month” but instead a regular practice.

Are you ready to involve, not just engage?


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