Turning engagement upside down

by Iain Hopkins06 Feb 2012

Human Capital: In your view what is the problem with existing models of engagement?

Ian Hutchinson: I think what we’re seen is a lot of organisations have been plugging away, doing their engagement research every year, but many organisations spend 80% of their time on the research and only 20% on the implementation.

Many are getting frustrated – they’re trying to do the right thing but aren’t really getting cut-through. We’re slipping down the global engagement rankings because a lot of organisations are trying to do the same old same old and using the umbrella approach, the concept that one size fits all. It hasn’t really ever worked. It’s just that HR has been limited with time and budget and therefore that’s the only paradigm seen: we’ve done our research, let’s put some broad brushstroke umbrella solutions in around where the weak points are let’s hope that’s going to keep the tribe relatively satisfied. That’s the top-down approach.

Organisations also tend to shower people with benefits and gifts in a mad hope to try to engage and motivate them, and what that’s done is create this whinge entitlement culture, where it’s very much around the employees becoming conditioned to doing more with less, but what are you going to give me to relieve my pain? By giving them more and more benefits it creates this spoilt whinge entitlement culture – what are you going to give me next Christmas? It actually disenfranchises them; it’s like an only child, the more you do for them, in the hope to show your love, the more you just create a spoilt brat.

HC: You mention the top-down approach – what’s the alternative?

IH: I’m on a mission to get across to frustrated HR people that we’ve been doing it the wrong way. The approach should be bottom-up. That’s the whole workforce of one approach where everyone is an individual, and broad brushstroke initiatives don’t work. Instead of doing organisational engagement plans we need to do individual engagement plans and get individual employees responsible for understanding what engages and motivates them.

This is psychologically one of the major obstacles and problems of why engagement hasn’t worked: employees know what they don’t want – that’s easy for them to work out – but few know what they do want. If employees don’t know what motivates and engages them, HR and managers have bucklies. Not only that, if employees don’t know what they want the default driver usually becomes ‘give me more money’, which is the most expensive and ineffective way of trying to engage and motivate people.

What we’ve found is 70% of engagement can be improved by individual employees themselves – they’re just not aware of it yet.

HC: Hence Life by Design’s ‘7 Key Drivers’?

IH: From a common dialogue perspective we’ve boiled it down to seven key drivers, which we present as a set of cards. Each card has a key word on it [see box]. Simplifying it down to seven means that right across the organisation you can have this simple, but powerful conversation around what drives people. People leaders can then understand that there are seven things that engage and motivate their people, but everyone is going to be different in terms of the order of what those are. For individual employees they can see there are seven key motivators that really drive them at work. When talking to employees we call them motivators; when talking to HR or people leaders we call them engagement drivers – but they are basically the same thing. One is employee centric, the other is employer centric. Employees are happy to discuss what motivates them – we present them with seven, and ask them to pick their top three for the next 12 months.

HC: So they can be used to kickstart a conversation?

IH: Absolutely. This is engagement 101. The reason most people leaders don’t do that is because they don’t have the tools, skills or resources. They think they are not psychologists or coaches or counselors, and in the past they’ve been burnt by sitting down with employees and asking, ‘what do you want moving forward?’ Fifty per cent of them won’t know, and the other 50% will probably have a crack at it and will probably get it wrong, thinking it’s either money or opportunity, and it could be some of the other drivers.

HC: Does this approach make it more difficult for managers to manage everyone’s expectations?

IH: It should be happening anyway. Everyone in my team is motivated by a different set of drivers. To get the most out of everyone it’s important to know what everyone’s top motivational drivers are. Once you’ve uncovered what the top three are, it’s a matter of keeping on top of them with development plans. That’s why we’ve created MeCentral, a dashboard that managers can use simply and easily to keep track of them. It’s almost counter intuitive that you think it takes more work, but actually a 15 minute coffee chat can save you weeks of time.

MeCentral is a whole platform to help employees take responsibility with career development, work-life balance and other key areas. The people leader has a simple window that they can look into, about what the employees’ top motivators are and what the employee believes they would like to do about it, and how they are ranking in a simple traffic light system. It’s all about employee activated engagement.

HC: Can you use these insights across the entire employee lifecycle at the company?

Correct, we would have the whole career development process covered. We’ve also seen it used in the recruitment process. Are you getting the person for the right reasons? What is the candidate really looking for? If they’ve got career development and opportunity down there, and it’s a small business and you know they’ll hit the ceiling quickly, maybe that candidate is not the right person.

HC: So is it an urban myth that HR is responsible for engagement?

IH: A lot of traditional companies will point to HR because they do the research, therefore the reasoning is that HR should know what the problems are and how to fix them. We would say that everyone is responsible for engagement. HR is responsible, sure, for doing an organisational engagement plan; but what’s more effective is leader’s being responsible for doing team engagement plans; and what’s even more effective is getting employees responsible for their own engagement plans. The light can be switched on by providing a few simple tools and getting employees to understand that they can control a lot more than they thought they could.