Since the Gallup Organization started surveying employee engagement in 2000, we have been made acutely aware that only 30% employees are fully engaged in their work. Over the past 20 years there has been an improving trend. In July of this year, for example, about 40% of workers were fully engaged after a large dip in June of 31%, when we experienced the protests across our nation.
There is high correlation between engagement and organizational performance. Kevin Kruse, author of Employee Engagement 2.0, tells us that organizations with high engagement scores have 2x customer loyalty, 3x in net sales, and 2x annual net income, among other advantages. For so many reasons, engagement rightly continues to be a concern for business leaders. But how do we increase engagement?
There are many theories about motivation. The general consensus is that leaders and managers motivate their employees. But this is extrinsic motivation; superiors using their higher organizational position to convince others to work harder. The alternative theories are based on intrinsic motivation where the desire comes from within the individual.
Some leaders will tell you that “people are just lazy,” which is why they don’t believe in intrinsic motivation. But over and over again, I’ve experienced just the opposite. When individuals become a part of a highly energized team, they become individually energized and are intrinsically motivated to perform at a higher level.
We all have the same needs
Let's try a different way of thinking about engagement. Consider, as Aristotle suggested, that we are all human beings and have the same needs. Those needs span across our organization from the top (leadership) to bottom (value creators).
What are our fundamental needs? The leading theory on self-determination and intrinsic motivation was explained through a collaboration between Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester. They started their study in 1985 which ultimately led to their 2018 book Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness.
Deci and Ryan say there are three needs we all have as humans:
- Autonomy: the ability to interact with the world based on alignment with our needs.
- Competence: the skills we have that enable us to solve problems, and
- Relatedness: the ability to feel a connection with others
If we can respect the fact that we all share these needs, and if we work together toward common goals while moving toward our own individual ends, then everyone wins.
So, what if instead of “rolling out” engagement programs, we develop the same fundamental skills that benefit all, at all levels of the organization? For example, the skill of problem solving is fundamental for everyone. What about working to create problem solvers at all levels of the organization?
Start with the high leverage points – the “value creators”
Let’s think about the importance of the value creators, the people doing the direct, frontline work at the work process level. Value creators are generally less engaged than leaders and managers. According to a 2013 article from GRF CPA's and Advisors, leaders and managers had a 36% engagement rate vs. manufacturing workers at 24%. And yet, it is the value creator, with the lower engagement numbers, who is key to making real performance improvements. Together, value creators are the hub of knowledge in the organization.
Why? Value creators have the greatest understanding and knowledge of the way the work is currently being done, and it is from this place that continuous improvement can take place and be accelerated. What this reminds us is that the system and culture need to change so that value creators are respected, honored, and intrinsically motivated, using self-determination theory for personal growth while taking advantage of their knowledge to make real work process and organizational improvements.
As I have written in the book Transforming Leader Paradigms, it is the role of the leader to create the conditions for respecting the thinking of these value creators so that everyone can benefit, both personally and organizationally. In other words, there is a way to close the knowledge gap and the motivation gap at the same time.
When value creators are focused on problem solving to improve organizational performance, they can use these same newly developed skills to pursue their own personal aspirations. This problem-solving process, along with leaders creating the environment for self-determination, is what produces the right conditions for intrinsic motivation and high levels of engagement.
The three basic skills required to create such conditions are:
- Effective problem solving,
- Respectful social interactions, and
- Fast learning cycles
When value creators are actively solving problems using these three skills, they form new habits, people are more respectful toward each other, and both personal growth and organizational performance improve. The result is high performance thanks to genuinely enthusiastic, collaborative individuals and teams.
At Lean Transformations Group, we’ve spent decades helping leaders and managers help value creators become more “engaged”, and not engaged in just anything either… The idea is to get people engaged in solving real organizational problems. What we know (because we have observed it first-hand) is that organizations that approach change this way—by involving value creators in identifying and solving well-defined business problems—have the greatest chance of making a meaningful difference. This is the way sustainable continuous improvement becomes possible.
Leaders in these organizations recognize that using an effective problem-solving process is critical. If such a process doesn’t exist, effective leaders do the hard work of creating one! No less important, these leaders realize that trust is created by leading with respect and humility. They facilitate and continually encourage fast cycles of learning because they know that deep reflection, including their own, is key to sustainability.
Perhaps more than anything else, these leaders understand that their role is dramatically different from most of the stories we’ve been told about leadership… They are committed to guiding a culture transformation that grows from the bottom up, not top down.