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Lessons we’ve learned about engagement in 2015

December 7, 2015

It’ll soon be the end of another busy year, during which we have worked in almost fifty different organisations. We thought that before diving headlong into 2016 we should pause to reflect on what we’ve learned about employee engagement this year. We learned some high level lessons, as well as some valuable insights from individual businesses. This post focuses on the big picture; three clear lessons from client experience that apply to most if not all businesses. In subsequent posts we will take a look at some of the individual insights we’ve learned from our most talented and successful clients.

Lesson 1: Engaging employees is a long game, not a quick fix

Looking back over the year, there’s one very clear overall message. The organisations with the most positive, committed workforces have all taken a long term, strategic approach to engagement. Their leadership teams really ‘get’ what engagement is all about and they all make it a priority to be actively involved in measuring and monitoring it. It’s not something they delegate to a corner of the HR Department. So focused on engagement are these clients that some have very frequent - monthly or bi-monthly  feedback on how employees are feeling and why. Where appropriate they act to maintain and optimise engagement. As a result their people love working where they do and deliver exceptional performance. Survey response rates are invariably high – often over 90%. Crucially, CEOs and other leaders involve themselves directly in the survey feedback process and are often seen by employees as inspirational. No wonder these businesses are commercially successful. Of course they also make short term improvements when they’re called for. But these senior teams always keep in mind what it’s all about – that the ingredient that separates the great businesses from others is the commitment and energy of individual employees: commitment that can’t be achieved without consistent, long-term effort to make and sustain fundamental shifts in values and behaviour. These clients have all recognised the need to. It’s these changes that take the most time and which need active support from the leadership team. When we look at the results that these clients have achieved in 2015 (and before) it’s very clear that real progress takes significant time: years not months. The CEOs who demonstrate their beliefs day to day, year in and year out – for example by consistently spending time face to face with employees and actively sharing their vision and values – are the ones who have by far the most engaged workforces.

Lesson 2: Leaders who ‘get’ engagement have the most successful businesses

One of our most seriously committed client CEOs is on record as saying that securing cash and determining strategy are relatively simple when compared with maintaining contact with and engaging people: he sees it as his most critically important challenge. This view is strongly supported by the evidence provided by the results of our 2015 surveys. In every case we have seen this year, the businesses whose leaders are actively involved in and committed to measuring and building engaged workforces are the most successful. Conversely where leaders detach themselves and are remote from their people, we find that their businesses are not thriving to anything like the same extent. This extends to the surveys we run: where the process is fronted by a CEO (or board level HRD) there is invariably a qualitative difference in the culture and, critically the performance of that business. This doesn’t mean these senior leaders are involved with the day to day mechanics of running engagement surveys, but they are seen to have listened and are publicly committed to responding positively. Where engagement surveys are initiated lower down in the organisation and/or their results are not discussed in any depth at Executive levels we often see businesses that are not prospering: sometimes we even see them in decline. So it’s not just a platitude: the evidence confirms that leaders who ‘get’ engagement run more successful businesses.

Lesson 3: It’s worth the effort

Finally, we see clear evidence from our clients measuring and working to optimise engagement is always worth the effort. We see, for example, that nine out of ten existing clients had raised levels of engagement as a result their efforts to respond to the findings of prior surveys. Hence their willingness to maintain the survey feedback process as a regular part of keeping in touch with employees. Many clients have worked with us for a number of years. In the small number of cases where we found that engagement had not improved, or even deteriorated, the clients concerned acknowledged that they had neither fed back the results of their previous survey nor taken any action to remedy the situation it had revealed. Similarly, our new clients most of whom who have not previously measured engagement have found, in every case, that the survey data matched their own performance measures exactly. In addition, the feedback from the engagement survey pinpointed where to focus their attention and on the remedial efforts that were most needed. As one CEO put it recently “it looks easy when you see the survey results … what isn’t obvious is the effort it takes to change the hierarchy behind the scenes that makes it all happen, but it’s worth it.”

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