If engagement in your organization needs a boost, there is a better solution than installing latte machines or allowing employees to bring their dogs to work: align them to what is most important to your organization.
Getting all employees aligned to your strategy, mission, and values is something you should do even if you don’t give a hoot about engagement. It is a requirement for high performance. After all, your organization has invested a lot of time in setting its course, and you need every member of the workforce rowing in sync, in the same direction, at full power, to attain your goals.
Lack of employee alignment is the silent killer of engagement. It is overlooked because: a) soft definitions of engagement emphasize satisfaction and don’t address contribution and performance; b) leaders assume it exists already, since strategy and performance are what leaders already understand and know how to drive (so the thinking goes).
It is unfortunate that strategic alignment is taken for granted, because maximum contribution (one half of the engagement equation) can only be achieved if employees are crystal clear on the organization’s definition of success, how they fit in, and what they need to do every day to drive organizational objectives.
“I am no different than the average employee. If I had an understanding of what the organization needed, why the organization was doing what it was doing, and how my role and actions fit in, then I was super engaged.”
—David Norton, former group chairman, global pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson
Why the Cats Won’t Herd
Getting people to work toward a singular goal is no simple task. Despite the increase in fancy performance management systems, cascading goal setting, sophisticated internal communications, and social media tools, aligning employee and organizational priorities remains difficult.
As we examine some of the most common reasons for disconnected or misaligned employees below, you should consider whether or not each is limiting your ability to create a more engaged workforce.
Disagreement at the Top
If senior executives are not completely aligned—whether in overt disagreement, well-intentioned confusion, or passive/aggressive compliance—employees are going to get mixed signals, at best, about what matters most to your organization. Change initiatives will stall. Worst case scenarios include bad leader behavior and lack of collaboration across departments, both of which drive disengagement and turnover.
Your acid test: Watch for symptoms like decisions that are revisited each time you meet, unspoken challenges or skepticism behind stated questions, overt disagreement (in comments and nonverbal behavior), silence, and lack of progress on agreed-to action items. To uncover misunderstandings, ask leaders to reiterate in their own words the intent of the strategy, the meaning of the mission, and implications for the groups of employees that they manage.
Engaged employees understand organizational priorities, but they also care enough to take the right action. To create more engaged employees, leaders need to capture hearts as well as minds. Unfortunately, leadership communications often fail to achieve that type of commitment, suffering from what we call “too seldom, too much, and too dry.”
- Too seldom. Senior teams are big on strategy, but don’t adequately or frequently share it throughout the organization. One CEO told us, “What do you mean people don’t know the strategy? I told all the employees what the strategy was in an e-mail last year.”
- Too much: We are certain that at least once in your career (only once if you ’re lucky) you have attended a 30-minute town hall meeting where a top executive speaks for 28 minutes, flashes through 80 numbers-filled slides that you can ’t read from the back of the room, leaving 2 minutes to answer only one question. With improvements in technology, a leader can confuse thousands of employees around the world through synchronous and asynchronous virtual presentations while disinterested employees clean out their e-mail or play games on their smartphones. This is a combination of too much and too little—too much information jammed into too little time.
- Too dry. Some executives actually believe that the rallying cry of increasing shareholder value is a shot of adrenaline for employees. Using the most-sophisticated business school jargon, they position strategic decisions as rational, well-researched, and a good use of the organization’s best assets. The absence of inspiration ends any hope for strategic alignment and increased engagement.
Your Acid Test: Just as recording everything you eat when you’re dieting provides a reality check on the amount of food you never realized you consume each day, tracking your organization’s leadership messages can reveal how few communications are actually distributed. To gauge whether a message has been heard and understood, consider formal feedback loops (like a short online survey) or talk to employees. Ask if they have questions, about their level of commitment, and even about what specific details they remember from the message.
Disconnects on the Front Lines
When employees say they don’t know the organization’s strategy, they often mean they don’t see how their job fits into the strategy. Norton, formerly of Johnson & Johnson, says: “You want people who are working with you to be engaged in the central mission and how their piece of the puzzle fits. Sometimes people low down in the organization don’t understand how and what they are doing fits into the bigger picture. Then they are not motivated or passionate. They may bitch and moan. They won’t go the extra mile when the organization needs them to.”
Even when they do understand how their job supports the organization’s big picture, employees are often misguided on which of the 10 projects on their to-do list matter most. When an employee and manager are asked to identify the employee’s top three priorities, we find there is usually agreement on only one of the three.
Your Acid Test: Talk to front-line managers and individual contributors. Find out whether they have received the message, understood the intent, and see how organizational imperatives shape their role. Spend more time listening than talking. You might also pull data from your performance management system to review priorities. You will probably find irrelevant goals (most systems suffer from “garbage in, garbage out”) or priorities that no longer apply in your fast-moving business environment.
Making Employee Alignment Happen
Check out The Engagement Equation: Leadership Strategies for an Inspired Workforce for examples of organizations that figured out how to get their strategy right; communicate and translate it; and build connections to their mission and values. When you do the same, engagement will follow, and you may hear stories within your own organization like this one: The apocryphal tale about the NASA janitor who, when asked what he did, said, “I am putting a man on the moon.”