I doubt many executives really care about their company’s employee engagement model — much like how most employee engagement action plans seem to be complete BS. (You can argue, and probably successfully, that employee engagement is a consultant-driven scam.) I’m not necessarily knocking any of these concepts, by the way. Most people who come to run companies are beholden to a specific group of stakeholders, and those stakeholders would like to discuss money and growth — not employee engagement. Who cares if James, eight levels below the CEO, is happy? Sammy Stakeholder wants to spend Christmas in the South Pacific. We all kinda know how this goes.
There is an employee engagement model that can work, and doesn’t even cost anything. Well, let me walk that back for a second. The psychological costs of this model could be huge. What we’re going to do, essentially, is take the idea of “strategy” and move it away from the C-Suite. (But what about our “Chief Strategy Officer?!??!!” Oh Lord!) We’re going to make “strategy” into a community concept and let that drive our employee engagement model. In the process, maybe we’ll even reduce some turnover!
Ready to come on this journey with me? Let’s dance.
Employee engagement model: The New York Public Library
Here’s the article we’ll commence with: “How Employees Shaped Strategy At The New York Public Library.” Good, long article with lots of examples. I’d read the whole thing if stuff like “employee engagement” interests you.
The crux of what they did:
In the spring of 2014, we proposed a radical approach: offer anyone on staff – over 2,500 individuals, many of them union members – the chance to shape the library through strategic conversations with senior leaders. We believed that if the Library was to be truly nimble, senior leaders couldn’t unilaterally come up with a plan. Involving staff in conceiving, designing, and implementing the change would result in a course of action that was more fit-to-purpose and more likely to be well executed. Staff would fully understand the changes and be accountable to each other for their implementation.
I think you can already see the pros and cons of this model, but we’ll dive a little bit deeper. You can read all about the different results and processes at that link above. Here’s the central takeaway, though:
Staff was energized by the opportunity to shape how the library worked. As a core team member put it, “We entered the process with the perspective of employees and came out with the perspective of leaders.” They were deeply appreciative of the chance to interact with, and learn from, peers across NYPL, something that rarely happened otherwise. They were excited to master new skills and knowledge relevant to librarians such as sophisticated data collection and analysis.
Cool. What next?
What are the challenges with this employee engagement model?
The No. 1 challenge would be how “senior leaders” tend to view themselves. A lot of those people think they are the only ones in a company who can set strategy or make big decisions. As a result, they often withhold information down a business chain. You absolutely need to remember that work is predominantly about (a) being seen as relevant and (b) not being seen as incompetent, and in some ways that matters more than salary to people.
Opening up “strategy” as a “community” concept would terrify a lot of senior executives. What if a good idea came from down the chain? Does that mean my perch is threatened in some way? The psychology is the biggest hurdle — not the process.
The irony, of course, is that most “strategic plans” could be written on toilet paper and have roughly the same value. It actually makes logical sense to involve more employees. Why? Because usually employees down a chain are closer to (a) the customers and (b) the pain points. They can speak to, and solve, those issues. Unfortunately, we don’t design companies to maximize this. We design them around hierarchy, so that people can make more money, make less decisions, and never get called on their ethical wanderings. Nice!
What would be the positives of this employee engagement model?
Off the top of my head:
- Employees would feel more connected to their work.
- They’d also feel more empowered.
- There would be an increasing sense of respect, which doesn’t exist at many companies.
- You’d get better ideas.
- You’d also get different ideas as opposed to the senior leaders who have been saying the same stuff to each other for 3-5 years.
- It doesn’t cost anything.
- Turnover would likely be reduced because employees would feel like they had a strategic stake in the future of the place.
- You’d create an instant leadership pipeline, as opposed to letting HR design 927 charts around what that looks like.
- Employees are being recognized without any Starbucks gift cards needed.
Solid list, right? Seems so.
How do we move to this employee engagement model, then?
The psychology aspect mentioned above is the biggest roadblock. Aside from that, this is what we need:
Process: Businesses love processes, so that would need to be defined in some way. Who are the teams? The reporting lines? How does it all work? Who “vets” the ideas that come of this?
Stakeholders: Same deal. We love stakeholders. So that needs to be defined. Gotta know what posteriors to pucker.
Compensation/bonuses/perks: If you participate in this employee engagement model and a great idea comes from it, how will you be rewarded? It cannot just be intrinsic. There needs to be a financial model as well — kind of like how some bonus pay deals are set up.
Understand the flaws of hierarchy: Ah, back to the psychological. Hierarchy is actually designed to protect ineptitude. It’s by no means designed to get the best ideas or innovations from people. But you need ideas and innovations to make more money. So you can’t invest in just hierarchy — you need to invest in turning strategy into a community deal, and not just “this is what the execs do.”
The beauty of this employee engagement model is that you’re doing it and it doesn’t even feel like “employee engagement.” It just feels like empowering people and respecting their potential ideas. Instead of some program managed in spreadsheets by some HR jamoke chasing process, this is organic.
What else would you add on this employee engagement model, or the concept in general?