Have you ever left a meeting and thought, “I’m not sure what we accomplished, but I feel really good about it”? It is a common theme we find in organizations today. Leaders often mistake meetings and general activities for employee performance. Frequently, employees attend meetings unprepared to contribute because they are not given the information required to prepare in advance. This causes a large consumption of human capital but delivers little employee performance that creates real value.
What do we mean by employee performance? It is the act of accomplishing work through the execution of tasks. Desired performance should ethically produce valuable work while contributing to a worthy purpose. If the work being accomplished does not fulfill this definition, it is not adding value to the organization. Better employee performance comes by increasing value delivered through work while reducing the energy consumed by the work.
Knowledge, capability, good ideas, skills, and intention, absent work that increase value, do not improve performance. In addition, performance is not worthy if it negatively impacts employees. We will need to get our employees fully engaged to accomplish any improvements. But how to get employees engaged? Real engagement requires leaders to let go of some decision-making and prove to employees that improvements they identify will be implemented. This is particularly important if the organization has already tried and failed at improvement initiatives. Failed initiatives spawn distrust that requires conscientious effort to reverse.
Principles of Employee Performance
Abundant information is available concerning the value of employee engagement for improving employee performance. To increase employee engagement, you must first understand these psychological truths about people:
- We who directly control a situation must be included in any effort to change that situation.
- We are much more likely to modify our own behavior if we participate in identifying and analyzing the problem and developing the solution.
- We are much more likely to carry out decisions we help to make.
Not as much is written on the “how-to’s” of employee engagement and the characteristics that make engagement more successful. To be successful, efforts to increase employee engagement must address a problem that is meaningful for the employees, must create the right team to look at the problem, must develop skills for the employees involved, must provide the employees with adequate time to participate effectively, and must empower employees to make the changes they identify. People need to have a purpose and to be equipped and supported to fulfill that purpose. Of course, that purpose should be aligned to the strategy to ensure the organization’s success.
We know from our work that employee engagement is a powerful and necessary component of organizational performance improvement. We also know there are ways to create successful employee engagement that increases the likelihood of sustainability:
Focus on the work
Employees want to know their job matters. When they have a voice in how their work is done, they are more motivated and engaged in the process. A major weakness in many employee involvement efforts is the lack of identification of important problems to solve; leaving employees feeling like their efforts don’t make a difference and management doesn’t value their input. Part of a focused effort is to ensure that meetings, sessions, and other time commitments are well organized; the fastest way to lose engagement is to waste employees’ time.
Listen to what is really going on
If you utilize structured methodologies for capturing input, it is not difficult to find out what really happens on the front lines. Employees know the problems that prevent them from doing their jobs well. All you have to do is, first - understand what they go through to perform their jobs, second - capture the problems that prevent them from doing their jobs better, and third - listen to their wisdom on how those problems can be fixed. As Stephen Covey once said,” Seek first to understand, and then to be understood”. Because employees are often fearful of providing direct feedback, leadership should think creatively to obtain unfiltered employee feedback and concerns that must be addressed.
Resolve the improvement opportunities
Problems and improvement opportunities are barriers to performance. It is not enough to simply listen to employees. You must work with them to eliminate the problems that form barriers to their success.
Provide helpful skills & tools
To fully enjoy the benefits of employee engagement, you must provide training and necessary information, instructions, tools, and technology. The expectations of work must be accompanied by the necessary support that enables the work to be accomplished effectively and efficiently.
Too often we see organizations where departments never speak to one other or communication only takes place at the highest levels. These departmental silos cause barriers to successfully executing work. Process definition tracks tasks from suppliers through to customers. Because most business processes cross organization boundaries, cross-organization teams can attack those boundaries looking for ways to overcome barriers to improvement. It’s exciting to see people with different backgrounds, who may have otherwise never met, coming together for the first time for a common purpose.
Compensate employees fairly
While fair compensation alone will not drive employee engagement and performance improvement, the absence of fair compensation will certainly contribute to its demise. Do not let employee compensation impede engagement on the one hand, on the other hold employees accountable. Take care, however, to not attempt to hold employees accountable for performance expectations over which they have no influence.
Measure what is important
Effective measurement must be timely, accurate, complete, and meaningful to employees. Employees often do not view measurement positively because the wrong things are measured, or employees are held responsible for things they do not control. Measurement must accurately assess the extent to which the desired performance is being achieved. Giving prompt and accurate feedback to employees about their performance is a critical element in measurement. Rarely do organizations provide empirical feedback in a timely fashion. Be mindful that the most powerful feedback available is positive reinforcement of desired employee performance; negative feedback not done well will not necessarily change behaviors.
Engaging employees is a sometimes difficult but very rewarding strategy for improving an organization’s performance. There is no better way to uncover an organization’s most difficult problems than to engage employees to improve not only their own work, for which they are accountable, but also the work of their surrounding teammates.