Six Warning Signs You Lack Employee Engagement and Commitment

In the past two blog posts regarding this topic I explored the problem of lack of commitment and looked at two case studies. In this post I examine what to do if you want to tackle your commitment problem. Where do you begin? What are the most effective ways to assess if and where there are commitment problems? Here’s a list of some observable indicators:

1. People don’t speak up even when they know things aren’t being dealt with honestly and directly. This is relatively easy to spot, especially in meetings. Everyone knows important issues are not being addressed. Yet they fail to speak up because of fear or cynicism.

2. Missed commitments met with excuses, explanations, rationalizations and finger-pointing rather than a rigorous and energetic desire to get to the source of the problems, get back on track and take ownership for what went wrong.

3. Problems discussed and debated endlessly, with little lasting improvement from repeated attempts at resolution.

4. Initiatives to improve organizational performance progressing slowly or stalling altogether, despite sizable investments in resources and technology.

5. “Hallway” conversations are also a good indicator and can be easily detected. For example, when people spend their time talking about how things are not their fault or how another department or organizational level is to blame for sub-optimal results, commitment is lacking.

6. When people complain about how busy they are rather than doing what needs to be done, or complain about the unreasonableness of leaders’ expectations, this too can be a good indicator that people are avoiding rather than taking responsibility.

These are the informal ways of discerning commitment problems. We suggest that CEOs who feel they may have such issues go beyond sensing to asking employees directly – the members of their executive team and workers up and down the organization. In diagnosing the state of commitment in dozens of organizations, we have found questions such as these to be revealing. To what degree do employees:

  • Effectively address and resolve difficult issues around here?
  • Take ownership for solving problems rather than make excuses or point fingers when things go wrong?
  • Take risks and challenge the status quo?
  • Have confidence in the leaders of this organization?
  • Feel they can be honest with their leaders, including about negative or contentious issues?
  • Feel connected with, and empowered by, their leaders?
  • Communicate honestly and directly, without fear of retribution?
  • Trust each other and work together effectively across departments?
  • Come to work every day feeling that they make a critical difference to the future of the business?
  • Feel enthusiastic about their work experience?

There are also proven assessment tools and surveys available to help gauge commitment and engagement, the Gallup Q12 being a particularly noteworthy one where a 0.2 improvement along a 5-point scale has been statistically proven to correlate with an improvement in employee productivity.

One word of caution: If trust is low and fear is present, employees will not be truthful about the poor state of commitment. They must feel safe to tell it like it is. They must believe executives are genuinely interested in hearing unvarnished views, and they must feel encouraged to speak up about the real state of things, and praised when they do. Otherwise they will pay lip service to the process and say only the things they believe are safe. Unfortunately, this kind of lip service is more the norm than the exception.

To significantly improve commitment, the CEO and his team must be completely honest about, fully aware of, and own the current reality, especially the aspects that are dysfunctional. Once they understand the size of the commitment problem and no longer take it personally, they can begin to transform the cynicism, resignation, apathy and complacency into an environment of passion, ownership and total support.

A Tale of Two CEOs and Employee Commitment

In a previous blog post on this topic, I outlined the problem of CEOs mistaking compliance for commitment. In this next post, I show the profound difference that owning the commitment problem makes, by comparing two CEOs of $1+ billion-plus organizations, leaders in their respective industries, one a manufacturer and the other a services firm.

Both had significant commitment issues to deal with – weak trust and alignment between levels and functions that were undermining ambitious growth plans. The CEO of the services firm, who rose to his position after having been one of its best salespeople, was a proud but arrogant leader.

Despite repeated attempts by senior managers, including his direct reports, to convey to him the high levels of politics, distrust, and lack of commitment throughout the organization, he wasn’t moved, insisting that employees were “just whining and not doing their jobs.”

As a result, his aggressive cost reduction and productivity improvement initiative gained little, if any, passion and ownership among his leaders, achieved far less than he had hoped, and was an uphill struggle with many excuses and explanations along the way.

The CEO of the manufacturing company was also a proud and tough leader. He rose to his position by having turned around two other divisions in his company. However, when his management team criticized him around the lack of trust and collaboration across departments, he listened – not immediately but over several weeks. He decided the commitment problem was serious enough to launch a process to resolve it.

Admitting the depth of his company’s commitment problems was not easy for him, given his command-and-control style. The results of his growth initiative, however, were spectacular, both in terms of meeting the performance objectives as well as creating a strong platform for cross-functional collaboration and partnership.

Two CEOs. Two commitment problems. Two approaches to solving them – one discounted it, the other admitted it and fixed it. Most important, two very different outcomes in terms of both business performance and organizational morale.

Are you paying attention to indications of commitment problems, or blaming “whiners?” These problems don’t go away by ignoring them.

Does Your Organization Have a Commitment Problem?

Organizational commitment to a CEO’s strategy is a key factor in how successful that strategy will be. How far employees at all levels will go to execute the strategy — what we call their “strategic commitment” – doesn’t just make the difference between stellar and mediocre results – it can be the deciding factor in producing any results at all. But in many organizations, such commitment is often lacking, and executives don’t even know it. When revenue and profits are suffering, these managers rarely look to a deficiency in commitment as the culprit.

As a result, many CEOs avoid dealing with commitment problems simply because they assume they don’t have one. They believe that if people are doing their jobs without interruption and abiding by organizational rules and procedures, everything is fine. But this point of view mistakes compliance for commitment. Most likely they haven’t had direct experience of how robust commitment produces extraordinary levels of personal effort, investment, engagement and contribution.

Why then are so many CEOs blind to commitment problems in their organizations? Many are simply out of touch with the sentiments of employees — even their direct reports. When they do sense morale problems, they often avoid them, worried that they reflect poorly on their leadership. They sugarcoat situations to preserve their self-image. Further, they may not feel competent at addressing such commitment problems, believing this is the work of their HR department.

But in our experience, it doesn’t have to be this way. We have seen that getting employees to embrace and adopt a strategy is the ultimate factor in whether that strategy will succeed according to plan. And despite what some may think, every CEO and his management team possess the ability to generate substantial levels of commitment – even in the most dire of circumstances.

The first step is probably the hardest and most important: being brutally honest about the extent of the commitment problem. Only when leaders are willing to admit the level of apathy or dissension – and only when they recognize the impact of it – can they hope to reverse things.

Confronting the internal politics, silos and trust issues can be a grueling and uncomfortable exercise for the CEO and his team. People have become accustomed to workplace environments where pretending, protecting and “covering your ass” are the norm. In fact, they are so used to such toxic workplaces that they need an enormous amount of courage to try to reverse it.

However, when we see the CEO and his team undertake this task with sincerity and conviction, it has always elevated their levels of cohesion, trust and communication. In every case, it has given the CEO and all employees much greater hope, confidence and commitment.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Last week, the Conference Board research group released its latest report on job satisfaction. The results are pretty grim; only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their work, the lowest level ever recorded in more than 22 years of studying the issue. Experts say the drop in workers’ happiness can be partly blamed on the worst recession since the 1930s, which made it difficult for some people to find challenging and suitable jobs. But worker dissatisfaction has been on the rise for more than two decades.

Quoting Linda Barrington, managing director of human capital at the Conference Board, who helped write the report, “It says something troubling about work in America. It is not about the business cycle or one grumpy generation,” she says.

The report cites several reasons for the decline, including:

  • Fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting.
  • Incomes have not kept up with inflation.
  • The soaring cost of health insurance has eaten into workers’ take-home pay.

Of note to us, however, are comments from the one employee the Associated Press interviewed about the report. Nate Carrasco, 26, of Odesa, Texas, says he’s been pretty unhappy in most of his jobs, including his current one at an auto parts store. “There is no sense of teamwork in most places any more,” Carrasco gripes.

He continues: Carrasco said he wishes his bosses would take time to listen to workers’ ideas – and their difficulties on the job. “Most of the time they only listen to what their bosses are saying,” he says. “Bosses need to come down to the employee level more and see what actually goes on, versus what their paperwork tells them is happening in the stores.”

There are a couple of key lessons here. First, you may not have the flexibility to change what people are being paid, especially when times are tough. Second, you may not be able to give everyone the “interesting” jobs.

But improving collaboration, getting people engaged in what they are doing, creating opportunities for people to find ways to improve the products or processes they use and are making every day, are all within your control. Stop blaming the economy, or the markets, or the climate, or any other outside-your-control factor for the levels of satisfaction and engagement within your organization. It’s not your job to make people happy, but it is your job to get them engaged and involved. Do that, and you’ll soon find them more satisfied and more productive.

Start the New Year with a Bang!

What will it take for 2010 to be an extraordinary year for you and your organization? One where you position yourself for success?

As we discussed in our previous post, “Complete Your Year Powerfully,” step one is taking stock of your successes and shortfalls from 2009 so you are free of the regrets, resentments, guilt or denial that could drain you of energy as you enter the New Year.

Once you’re at peace with 2009, the opportunity before you is to generate a deep alignment around a bold, ambitious future for 2010. Rather than merely reacting to 2009 by extrapolating 2010 objectives and opportunities from spreadsheets of best case/worst case scenarios, we recommend a generative approach. This is much more powerful and energizing, but it will require you to think deeper.

Gather your team and imagine you are rolling the clock forward to the end of 2010, and ask yourselves the questions below. Let the conversation be guided by imagination and possibility rather than prediction and constraints. Make this a “remembering” exercise rather than a “predicting,” “anticipating” or “planning” conversation.

  1. What did we accomplish in 2010 that allowed us to be so successful?
  2. How did we distinguish ourselves in the eyes of our customers, key stakeholders and team members?
  3. What meaningful positive changes did we cause with respect to products, services, processes or performance?
  4. What are we known for today (end of 2010) that we were not known for in 2009 – internally or externally – that we feel good about?
  5. What characteristics did we exhibit as a team that we are proud of?
  6. What obstacles did we overcome, and how did we do so?

Now, take whatever time is needed to narrow this list down to the 4-6 items – strategic commitments – that fit in the space between mere prediction and fantasy. These should be aspirational, yet plausible – otherwise people will nod “yes” but feel “no way,” which will evidence itself in the lack of effort people expend trying to deliver. These items should be those that every single person in the room aligns with; by that we mean they are willing to make the list their own, and fully buy into their achievement.

This discussion might take several hours, or even extend over multiple meetings. Better to get total alignment now than deal with the, “but it wasn’t really my idea and I didn’t think we could do it’s” later on when progress is lacking.

Establish owners for each item, with clear measures of success, and agree on a process to track these on a monthly or quarterly basis – or more frequently if necessary.

Communicate these items to your entire organization, and ask people to ensure that what they are working on connects to at least one strategic commitment.

One last thought – people’s mood, outlook and behavior are driven by what they are anticipating and looking forward to (good or bad). Which means the primary job of leaders is to get people inspired about what their organization can achieve, and ensure they are clear about how to achieve it. This approach incorporates both these dimensions, therefore if done well will enable you to start your year with a bang.

Posted by Josh Leibner and Gershon Mader