“Now wash your hands”: Three ways to look at employee engagement

Are employers guilty of infantilising their staff? Photo: REX Shutterstock

We can really over-engineer things in HR. The jargon, the models of engagement, the diagnostics. Are we creating a veneer of complexity to make ourselves believe we are actually changing things? Lucy Adams presents three simple ways to look at employee engagement.

All the research we come across that tells us that, even with billions being spent on employee engagement in its various forms, levels remain depressingly low and stagnant.

I speak to CEOs, HRDs and communication directors who are crying out for some fresh approaches to engagement, and i’ve become increasingly convinced that the answers might just be a bit simpler than we’ve made them.

We adopt a lowest-common-denominator approach. We take the worst possible behaviour and to ensure we protect the organisation, we create a policy that means no-one, anywhere, will repeat that behaviour ever again”

Through leading and experiencing numerous change and engagement initiatives, I’ve come to believe passionately that we need to do three things:

  • we need to treat our people like adults;
  • we need to think of them as customers; and
  • we need to engage with them as human beings.

Treat me as an adult

Most employer-employee relationships start with the assumption that employees are like children and need to be either protected or controlled.

A few months into my stint as HR director at the BBC I was told, one snowy afternoon, that “It was time to write the email”.

This was the email that told BBC staff that they should try and make their way home due to bad weather. I wondered at the time whether this wasn’t a bit infantilising – but duly pressed send.

From our paternalistic benefits schemes, through treats like “dress-down Fridays” to instructive notices to “wash your hands” in the loos, we too often assume the role of in loco parentis to our employees.

On the other hand, we also make them sign employment contracts with dozens of rules, the contravention of which could lead to their dismissal. We give them an end-of-term report (appraisal) and make them do the same mandatory training course regardless of their current understanding and ability.

We adopt a lowest-common-denominator approach. We take the worst possible behaviour and to ensure we protect the organisation, we create a policy that means no-one, anywhere, will repeat that behaviour ever again.

This means we alienate the 99.9% of people who had no intention of behaving badly to protect against the tiny minority.

There are not enough rules in the world to protect you from someone who wants to take advantage, and by creating countless rules you render an adult to adult relationship almost impossible.

So how would you adopt a more adult approach? Which policies would you take away that annoy people most? Try and share good news as well as bad.

Stop broadcasting and find ways of helping your people talk to each other – without veto. How much more creativity, innovative thinking, extra energy, conscientiousness and enjoyment could we engender by treating people like adults?

Think of me as your customer

I am amazed at the insights consumer organisations have about me as their sophisticated algorithms assess my buying patterns and demographic profile – such as predicting my next likely purchase and suggesting one I hadn’t even thought of yet.

We work with a bank that has hundreds of different risk models they can apply to every single lending decision. But what do they have to understand employees? The annual engagement survey.

The survey that takes three months to finalise as departments wrangle over the questions. The survey that is never at “quite the right time” due to restructures and pay reviews. The survey that we plead, coax and coerce to get a miserable 60% completion rate.

If we were to think about our employees as customers, then we would do things differently. We would insist on better analysis, better predictive data, better granularity of understanding.

We would recognise that surveys can only provide the most superficial of snapshots, and we would harness line managers as the means to get to a much richer appreciation of our people.

We would recognise that shoehorning employees into one-size-fits-all processes can’t possibly work and we would throw out tired old approaches such as the annual appraisal and the bonus scheme.

People are sophisticated, messy and complex entities that need to be engaged in a variety of ways, with multiple channels and with a coherent internal brand.

Engage me as a human being

The so-called “VUCA” world – where we are experiencing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – means we need our people to follow us to work in new ways, with different people, with different technology in new locations.

A scary enough request when you trust the person who’s asking you to do it, and yet trust in our leaders is at its lowest at the very point we need it most.

It’s simple, human stuff. I worked with a leader at a law firm, for example, who after announcing a major restructure, went round to every person’s desk and made himself available all afternoon to take their angst and anger.

It’s also the language we use as leaders that mark us out as either human beings or corporate automatons. I once got a call from a sub-editor at the BBC to tell me my recent all-staff email was “crap”.

People are sophisticated, messy and complex entities that need to be engaged in a variety of ways”

I re-read it and he was right. By the time it had been made accurate and press-proof by my colleagues in communications, legal and HR, it had been stripped of any humanity or personality.

It can be harder to rediscover your human language than you think. Try not to say words like “dialogue” or “interaction” for a week and you’ll realise that we adopt a language that defines us as corporate and detached – not “real”.

The same with PowerPoint, which I make a point not to use at speaking engagements.

We know that stories move us and they help us transcend sceptical analysis as we co-create with the story teller. That’s how we talk to our friends and our families and yet as leaders we feel we need to have data.

A story is so much more effective at creating a human interaction (damn, see what I did there?).
Adult to adult. Employees as customers. Human beings talking and listening to each other. They may not be original concepts but I think they could work.

This article is based on a post from Lucy Adams’ Disruptive HR blog.

Lucy Adams

About Lucy Adams

Lucy Adams is the founder of Disruptive HR having previously held senior HR roles at the BBC, Eversheds and Serco.
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