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Engagement is not enough


Employee involvement
Employee engagement is a high priority for most HR professionals, but Jeremy Starling, managing director of INVOLVE, explains why engagement is no longer good enough and shares some tips on getting employees involved.

“Our people are our most valuable asset” is a sound bite uttered by many a corporate executive, but for businesses that aspire to be great this statement has never been more true.

Employees are often the only differentiator an organisation has. So, finding quicker and more powerful ways to help your people make a difference is central to having a winning business.

Engagement is not enough

It’s not enough to have employees who are passively engaged, in terms of being on your side, feeling reasonably positive and bought into the direction, but not inspired and without sufficient ownership to make them want to do anything differently.

“Employees are often the only differentiator an organisation has. So, finding quicker and more powerful ways to help your people make a difference is central to having a winning business.”

What a winning business needs is active employee involvement – where employees get it, own it and get on with it. Think Google, which has a ’20 per cent time’ philosophy, where employees are encouraged to spend 20 per cent of their time on side-projects they’re really passionate about but which have nothing to do with their main job function. Many of these side projects eventually become actual Google products.

Involving employees in how a business is run has been happening since 1771, when William Denny introduced the business world’s first employee suggestion scheme in a Glasgow shipyard.

Most organisations have progressed beyond this basic level of involvement, but despite a mass of evidence proving the ROI of an involved workforce, many fall short and limit themselves to merely engaging their employees.

Involved business performs better

Employee involvement is not a soft issue. It’s about profit, share price and results.

Collins and Porras (Built to Last) reported that businesses which sought active involvement with their employees had a massive 16-to-1 long-term stock market differential compared to those organisations that didn’t.

Buckingham and Coffman at Gallup (First, break all the rules) surveyed over 1 million employees and 80,000 managers worldwide and found that positive employee involvement correlated directly with business profitability.

Involvement is about ‘What, why, and how?

How can you have involved employees who are active participants in the business, wanting to take positive actions, own initiatives and get stuck in?

Getting the right balance between ‘what, why and how’ is the key to having an involved workforce, where everyone is actively pulling in the right direction.

First, leaders need to explain precisely ‘what’ the business needs to achieve and ‘why’, and then give employees true ownership of the ‘how’. Everyone knows that people own what they help create, so ask them to come up with what needs to be done and not only will they will come up with great answers, they will also take ownership.

Active participation and emotion, not email, are essential techniques business leaders should use to communicate the reasoning to employees. If the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are not sold in clearly and effectively, the issue won’t be a lack of employee involvement, but a series of loose cannons – employees going off in different directions, having taken out slightly different meanings from when they had the ‘what and why’ explained to them.

Similarly, if you tell employees ‘how’, they won’t own the process and won’t, therefore, be personally driven to make change happen.

The GE ‘Work-Out’

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, frequently cited his employee action plan ‘Work-Out’ as a key catalyst in the turnaround that increased GE’s market value from $14 billion to over $410 billion in two decades.

Overnight, ‘Work-Out’ changed thousands of ailing processes – with solutions entirely proposed, scoped out and driven through by the 290,000 employees.

Liverpool Victoria’s change to LV=

After listening to members, customers and employees, the management of Liverpool Victoria decided the brand needed to evolve to make it more relevant.

“Everyone knows that people own what they help create, so ask them to come up with what needs to be done and not only will they will come up with great answers, they will also take ownership.”

Once the new look, brand name, LV=, and values had been agreed, it was crucial that all employees worked out what this meant for them as individuals and had real ownership for how (differently) they needed to behave to reflect the new values and bring them to life in their work.

Rather than merely engaging LV=’s 2,000 strong workforce in the new brand identity, values and behaviours, INVOLVE created four powerful, intensive and fun, active half-day experiences.

To sell the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, standard engagement techniques were employed.

The involvement really started when employees were split into groups and put through a series of active experiences that enabled teams to gain a deeper understanding of the behaviours, values and actions behind the new brand.

Visualisers, graffiti and story-board artists worked with each team to capture their top-level ideas for bringing the new brand to life in their daily work. Giant murals were created live at the events and then put on permanent display in prominent locations at LV=’s Bournemouth head office.

To maintain awareness and momentum following the events, the same teams got together to add a further layer of detail to the ‘how’ and the murals were updated accordingly. Leadership team coaching is also helping to keep employees involved by continuing to ‘evolve’ brand and customer focus.

The success of the employee involvement project is demonstrated by the soft and hard figures below:

  • All LV= now have ownership of a very successful ‘external’ rebrand
  • New business in Life and General Insurance, as well as General Insurance renewals, are all up year on year
  • 2.0 per cent fall in employee turnover year on year
  • 23 per cent improvement in employee understanding of organisational direction
  • 31 per cent improvement in confidence and motivation by brand, values and behaviours
  • 21 per cent improvement in commitment to living values and behaviours, and confidence in leadership of the business

To have an involved workforce, where employees are active participants, wanting to take positive actions, own initiatives and get stuck in, a business needs to build an involving culture that encourages and supports active participation. So:

  • Make involvement a key part of the leadership agenda.
  • Encourage employees to be involved in defining and delivering the ‘how’. Making it their right.
  • Commit to the long-term – it takes time, effort and commitment to deliver a truly involved culture.

Originally formed in 1996 as The Eventworks, Involve is the UK’s leading employee involvement team. For more information, please visit:

4 Responses

  1. Allow employees to care about what they do.
    You are so right.
    If we allow our employees to care about what they do then their performance becomes astonishing.
    The problem with this is that “How to Create the Environment that Allows the Workforce to Care” is not on the curriculum at any School of Management or any HR course.

    Most HR or Management professionals would not understand that it was anything to do with them or even possible.

    Sir Nigel Crisp, ex head of the NHS, suggested that giving the frontline staff the ability to control and therefore care about the service they delivered would have an effect on performance. He was right but nobody else understood how to do it.

    HR are in the perfect position to be able to transform the way organisations are managed but first they have to understand how to use the tools that will allow it to happen.

    Peter A Hunter
    Author-Breaking the Mould

  2. Chcken and Egg?
    I don’t really care what you call it, but the holy grail is to have employees that really care about the business and are right behind its goals.

    I think Involvement is an important part of this jigsaw, but not the only part. To be really “engaged” or motivated, I think that employees need to be involved, but it isn’t the whole story.

    Rob Robson
    Head of Employee Research
    Apter Development

  3. Engagement is not something that we can give to the workforce, i
    What employees want is engagement, we don’t have to try to figure out what it is and then go to all this trouble of creating a strategy to deliver it to the workforce. All we have to do is identify the current management behaviour that is causing employees to disengage,then stop doing it.

    In their private lives employees are engaged, enthusiastic, imaginative, creative, in all sorts of surprising and powerful ways.

    This all stops when they get to work and they turn into the disengaged sullen individuals that we spend so much time trying to engage.

    When we discover what is happening to the workforce at work that is disengaging and demotivating them, all we have to do is Stop doing it!

    As W Edwards Deming said, “Remove the obstacles to performance and count the whistles on Monday morning.”

    Peter A Hunter
    Author-Breaking the Mould

  4. Why settle for engagement – go for passion!
    I agree with many of the points made in this article. However one of the real challenges that we have been working on is what are the constituent parts of engagement and how does that become real and sustainable ‘passion’. The model we work with has two axes – MEANING – do people get their meaning from the product or the process of what they are doing, and; PROGRESS – how do people know that they are making progress against the things that are important to them? PassionWorks brings these two elements together and provides a framework that is practical for individuals and leaders.

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