Engagement is one of the big buzzwords in social and professional circles. It promises greatness but often rings hollow. Mark Babbitt’s frustration is palpable.
“We’ve spent three decades and billions of dollars on so-called ‘employee engagement,’” he said. “Yet, we haven’t made a dent, let alone a difference. As soon as your values and behaviors are a contradiction to your stated culture, well, now we have trust issues.”
Babbitt is president of WorqIQ, specializing in workplace intelligence and building human-centered results. He discussed the future of employee engagement with Meghan M. Biro, analyst, brand strategist, podcaster and chief executive officer of TalentCulture. The company studies leadership and the future of work.
They agreed that businesses in general fail at workplace culture.
“Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at how work expectations erode culture if we’re not careful,” Biro said. “Good leaders will step up and assume responsibility for leadership and not pass the buck.
“Here’s a fun exercise: Ask 10 coworkers, What is our workplace culture?” she said. “If you get 10 different answers, your organization isn’t getting it right and not ready for prime time.”
Babbitt has found a fundamental misunderstanding of the key word.
“Culture is more than ‘how we go about getting our work done,’” he said. “It is more than following the personality traits of the person in charge. Culture is about leadership, purpose, inspired performance, a sense of community and so much more.
“To make a difference in workplace culture, we must take a close and honest look at many factors,” Babbitt said. “This includes issues most of today’s executives don’t want to hear about — including their leadership.”
Much of the culture drag starts from the top.
“The No. 1 barrier to success when attempting to genuinely change workplace culture: The mindset of existing leadership,” Babbitt said. “How can we change culture if we don’t change the way leaders lead, or if culture and values take a back seat to short-term deadlines and crises?”
Natural and supporting
In a culture-obsessed world, companies typically take great pains to over-engineer their cultures. They become less inclusive in the process.
“The keyword here is ‘over-engineered,’” Babbitt said. “The best cultures are both organic and reinforced.”
Overthinking hinders organizations that try to do better by their employees.
“I love surveys and feedback, but let’s all just start talking instead,” Biro said. “Do we even know each other?”
She agreed that leaders should manage change by focusing more on the emotional aspects, not just the logic behind it.
“Employers can never lose sight of the human side of their business,” Biro said. “Can this be the year we do better by employees by creating truly diverse and inclusive workplaces? That’s huge.
“Give employees a voice in how they work: benefits, perks, space, work-life issues and schedules,” she said. “How far can we go with this?”
Collectively, worker’s voices will shape their environment.
“Enable employees to organically co-create the ideal culture for your company,” Babbitt said. “Give them a voice. You’ll soon learn exactly what is working — and what is not.
“Rather than use ’employee engagement’ as a management manipulation tool, be a role model for building mutually beneficial relationships with employees,” he said.
Empathy and clarity are combo morale builders.
“We rarely show employees that we genuinely care about their personal and professional growth while they help us accomplish the clearly defined mission,” Babbitt said. “In fact, we rarely clearly define the mission.
“Show truly engaged and inspired employees that their voices will not be drowned out by the disenchanted and disengaged,” he said. “Show them you understand: Sometimes, attrition is our best friend — and that you’re unwilling to tolerate the toxic.”
The message should be succinct.
“Stop being a leader or a manager,” Babbitt said. “Start being a mentor.”
Learn about each other
With mentorship comes acquaintance.
“Ask thoughtful questions and not just on a professional level,” Biro said. “Get to know the people behind the job titles. Listen to them.
“Servant leadership means being open and humble and vulnerable: not having one-sided, reactive conversations but considered ones that are two-way,” she said. “That has a big impact.”
An even greater reward springs from genuine interest.
“Become a human feedback loop,” Babbitt said. “Learn everything you can about today’s employee experience. Then work to close the gap between ideal — co-created — culture and current — real — culture.
“Perform random acts of leadership,” he said. “Walk the hallways — without your phone in your face or with that ‘I’m late to my next meeting, don’t talk to me’ look. Actually engage, human to human.”
That means digging deep to know each person.
“Show genuine interest by asking people what they’re working on and how those projects are going,” Babbitt said. “What keeps them up at night? What challenges do they face? What can you do to help?
“Deliberately recognize and reward,” he said. “That’s not in an Employee of the Month kind of way but with sincere recognition, not just for results. Exemplify the organization’s primary values and desired behaviors.”
As part of daily routine, culture change can go viral.
“Make trust and respect contagious by showing employees that ‘good comes first’ — that you care just as much about doing the right thing as you do bottom-line results,” Babbitt said. “Through action, show that all decisions will be made for all the right reasons — and at the right time.
“This goes beyond emotional intelligence,” he said. “It comes down to understanding our collective level of ‘workplace intelligence.’ How do we treat each other? How do we communicate? Do we feel like we truly belong here?”