The Most Effective Method For Engaging Employees? Simply Ask Questions

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Brian Grazer (2015), the movie producer of such blockbusters as Apollo 13, Splash, 8 Mile, A Beautiful Mind and Friday Night Lights, popularized the notion of being curious and asking questions in his best seller A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.  Grazer makes the case that asking questions allows us to understand and imagine the perspective of others.  This is obviously a useful skill when one is crafting a movie plot line that will grab the attention audience.

However, Grazer also contends that the ability to ask questions is a strategic tool for many professions.  Don’t we want police detectives who are able to predict criminals’ next move, military leaders’ ability to stay ahead of the opposing armies and coaches’ ability to grasp the game plans of the opposing team and put counter plans in place?

Similarly, it is useful for organizational leaders to understand the wants and needs of our workforce.  The best way to get into the minds of employees is to ask them targeted and insightful questions.  Rather than guessing your employees needs, the most credible original source is the employees themselves.

This method of asking questions may sound like a simple task.  In fact, it may not sound like a method at all!  Isn’t asking questions an intuitive human behavior? Research and practice would suggest not. There is more to asking the right question, at the right time, to the right group of employees than initially meets the eye.

However, asking powerful questions is learnable.  Skilled facilitators such as Dorothy Strachan (Questions That Work: A Resource for Facilitators, 2001) advises us to ask ourselves the following three fundamental questions in crafting questions for others:

  • What do I want to ask?
    • What information do we need to accomplish our work? For example, background information, data points, reflections, interpretations, etc.
  • Why do I want to ask this question?
    • How will the response to this question lead us to accomplishing our work? For example: Input of data, offers up a new approach, prioritization, clarification, etc.
  • What response might I get?
    • What is the possible range of answers I may get when I pose this question? For example: An initial response, confusion, curiosity, etc.

Your responses to these three questions will help you select a series of questions that will allow you to accomplish your purpose.  This exercise will also help you craft individual questions for getting the most useful data back.  Finally, the responses will help you figure out who else you need to ask these questions in order get accomplish the objective.

By asking myself these three questions, I developed a series of questions to ask during a change management initiatives that involved launching a new product.  The objective of asking these questions was to engage this operations group in the change.  I was attempting to build ownership in the employees for the change.  The questions I asked dozens of times over a period of months were:

  • What is it about this approach that most interests you?
  • How will you use this approach?
  • How should we evaluate the success of this approach?
  • What can we do to ensure that you are committed to this approach?
  • How can we transfer ownership of this approach to you?

The answers to the last two questions get directly at figuring out how we can ensure that employees are able to accomplish the work at hand and will continue to over time.  The employees I posed these questions indicated that in order to be committed to rolling out this new product over time they needed more information about how the product worked, they needed to talk to potential customers to learn more about their needs and they needed to craft a more defined implementation process.  Once I was aware of these needs, I was able to help facilitate them becoming a reality.

Our Hollywood producer, Grazer, provides us with what is perhaps the most convincing reason to start asking more questions: You can stop having to force, trick, cajole or even charm your workforce into being better.  Instead, your employees will have the internal drive and excitement to carry them through any challenging work.

How does this happen? Peppering your workforce with interesting questions will inevitably lead to dynamic two-way conversation.  Your employees will be actively engaged with you.  At this point, your team will have the same level of enthusiasm and commitment for the tasks at hand that you do.  By creating in your workforce a high level of interest and curiosity for the work at hand, you are essentially generating a self-sustaining culture of productivity.

Who would have predicted that asking key questions could result in such a powerful outcome!

Questions:

What are some key questions that you want to start asking your workforce?

What is your response to Grazer’s three fundamental questions?

What will asking these questions mean for you and your organization?

 

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What True Employee Engagement Looks and Sounds Like

Mikado

As leaders we seek to create a calm work environment which is programmed.  All of our actions should be by design based on logic as opposed to spontaneous actions based on emotion.  We have been led to think that employees work together best in quiet, rationale and controlled spaces.

However, the reality we experience is vastly different.  Some of the most productive, innovative thinking I have experienced has resulted from dynamic work teams.  These have been conglomerations of employees coming together to solve difficult problems.  We sometimes operated on emotions which, at times, have verged on the edge of chaos.

For example, during a global roll out of SAP software team members participated in animated discussion, loudly challenged others thinking.  We even found ourselves at times shouting and at other times on the verge of crying.  Being on this roller coaster was one of the most challenging, productive, rewarding and downright fun work teams I have ever experienced.

This is where a great deal of robust, open dialogue to seek understanding takes place.  In these electric environments there is no need to survey employees regarding their level of engagement.  Rather, one can simply walk into the room and see and hear the engagement.  One can:

  • See employees who are actively collaborating with one another for understanding
  • Hear employees who are having lively conversations which at times can get loud
  • Experience conversations which take twists and turns no one could predict!

Employees who are truly engaged are ‘in the moment.’ They are internalizing the topic at hand in real-time through the most enjoyable and effective method of learning which is experiential.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this type of optimal experience ‘flow’ – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.  This researcher discovered that when people are in a state of ‘flow’ the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will seek to carry out these activities even at great cost, for the sheer sake of experiencing ‘flow’. http://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Perennial-Classics/dp/0061339202

Csikszentmihalyi’s finding that people experience the best moments of their life when their body or mind in stretched to its limits in an effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile has significant implications for us as leaders.

This suggests that it is not always advisable to create manageable workloads for employees.  It also calls into question ‘dumbing down’ tasks so that they can be easily accomplished.  Rather, the research on ‘flow’ proposes engineering a much more dynamic, unpredictable work environment, where employees will inevitably be stretched and challenged in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Proactively creating this type of unruly work environment may go against much of what we have learned.  It may seem downright counter intuitive to good leadership practice.   Our paternal instincts to protect our workforce may kick in.

However, think back to your most rewarding and fun teaming experience.  Chances are that you were in a state of ‘flow’ which resulted from a work environment that was anything but calm!

Questions:

  • Why do you resist creating work environments which are dynamic with new priorities and directions emerging in real-time?
  • How can we create work environments where employees feel ‘flow’ on a regular basis via challenging work environments where they are stretched beyond their limits?

Note:The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.

How To Obtain True Employee Engagement

Intelligent toddler girl wearing big glasses while using her laptop

Intelligent toddler girl wearing big glasses while using her laptop

We agree that engaging our employees is one of the keys to organizational success.  In fact, most organizational improvement, at some point, involves actively involving our teams of  employees.  We have been told countless times that this is the ‘secret sauce’ for improving our products, processes and culture.

The key question is: How do we truly engage our employees in their work?

Engaging our workforce in authentic conversation is not as easy as it sounds.  I have worked with peers who have claimed to be experts at drawing out our workers. I once tested this claim by tracking the amount of time my peer talked (95% of the time) versus team members talked (5% of the time) at a session with the specific outcome of ‘hearing’ from the employees!

How then do we ensure that our teams of employees are heard and fully engaged as they deliver on the important work of designing new products, creating better processes, reshaping our culture, etc.:

  • Cultivate Understanding of the Work and How It Will Impact Them
    • To achieve a high level of commitment and avoid resistance, involve those impacted in the development of the work itself.
    • Enable our teams to understand the dynamics of the work being carried out, new behaviors required of them and how their actions will contribute to success.

 

  • Assess the Level of Change Required By Our Teams & Make Adjustments
    • Continually assess change readiness levels over the course of the journey and adjust work and change management activities to address issues and gaps.
    • Our leaders should be accountable for making sure their teams are understanding and internalizing the work in their respective organizations.

 

  • Align the Organization to Enable and Sustain the Work
    • Explore the following elements of the organization: structure, culture, people, rewards, work processes and management processes.
    • Ask, ‘Do the above areas encourage or discourage employee engagement and the new/changed behaviors required to achieve the goals?’ Focus on areas that have the greatest influence on desired results.

The above advice involves grappling with complicated organizational dynamics.  However, the first easy thing leaders can do is simply to talk less and ask employees more questions.

Had my talkative peer I mentioned above reached even a 50 – 50 split between his air-time versus the amount of time employees shared their thoughts, we clearly would have gained more insight from our workforce.  Start by asking more questions.  It is that simple.

Questions to consider:

  • How should we evaluate the success of employee engagement?
  • How can we further transfer ownership of the work to employees?
  • What is standing in the way of you asking employees more questions?

Note:The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.

Aligning Strategy with Employee Values for Improved Organizational Performance

Values Vintage Letterpress Type in Drawer

The word “VALUES” written in vintage metal letterpress type in a wooden drawer with dividers.

Part 3 of 4 part blog series discussing employee motivational challenges.

Tackling strategy, and the corresponding projects, in a manner which fits with the organizations’ larger culture, leads to employees with enthusiasm (and even passion) for their efforts. This is about helping employees feel part of an effort which is bigger than themselves. As a result, your workforce will be connected and committed to your efforts.

You are providing your workforce with purpose since their efforts have meaning for them. Employees signed up for a tour of duty with your organization because of your culture, mission and values. If you are asking your employees to execute a strategy or carry out projects which are inconsistent with fundamental tenants of who they are, employee motivation will plummet.

Garth Morgen (1986) sums up the ability of organizations to chart their own destiny perfectly in his classic book Images of Organization:

“By appreciating that strategy making is a process of enactment that produces a large element of the future with which the organization will have to deal, it is possible to overcome the false impression that organizations are adapting or reacting to a world that is independent of their own making. This can help empower organizations to appreciate that they themselves often create the constraints, barriers, and situations that cause them problems.” [p. 137]

Case and Point:

The Situation: A nonprofit organization I worked with launched a state-of-the art technology learning center in the heart of a booming metro area. The center attracted mainly business people who worked near the center who had no problem paying top dollar for the Internet and application training.

The Challenge: The center was exceeding goals in terms of usage and financial results. Who could find any fault in such a successful endeavor? The answer is mission driven employees at the nonprofit who were advocates of the organization’s educational efforts aimed at disadvantaged populations. This new effort, aimed at serving the business community, did not fit with these employees’ values, nor their belief about the mission of the nonprofit.

The Outcome/Lesson: All the success in the world was not going to move the employees of the organization to be fully behind the business focused technology project. How could this effort be fully embraced when it was not fully aligned with the mission of the organization? Over time, the educational efforts of the nonprofit shifted back to serving the core audience.

Key Questions: Sense of Purpose and Connection
• Is there a clearly articulated and understood employee value proposition?
• Are there mechanisms in place to help ensure that the strategies being considered are aligned with the employees’ values and beliefs about the purpose and mission of the organization?
• Do employees feel their work adds value to the organization?

Note: The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.

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Improved Organizational Performance through Employee Motivation (Not Skill vs Will!)

Part 1 of a 4 part blog series discussing employee motivational challenges. This is an important topic in our organizational transformation work related to Strategy to Execution.

If I had a dollar for every time someone suggests training as the solution for an HR issue, I would be a rich man. However, there is a barrier to performance which is lying below the surface. This less obvious challenge, which people rarely admit to, is around motivation. It is critical to understand how this phenomenon, which can quickly make productivity plummet, plays out so that it can be addressed.

Here are some simple questions to determine if motivation is the root cause of a performance problem:
• Could the employee do the job if they had to? (E.g.: Their life depended on it!)
• Does the employee perform the job at standard or above when they are being observed?
• Does the employee do the job well at times and poorly at other times?

If you answered yes to these questions, then your employee has the ability to do the job. However, they are not always choosing to ‘do’ the job and you are probably dealing with a motivation problem. And you are not alone! A recent national study showed that less than 1 in 4 non-management employees are fully engaged. [http://bit.ly/1Lk0xSm]

Motivation is too often assumed to be solely about the employee lacking a desire to succeed (E.g.: Lacking will). Many of us were introduced to this view of motivation by Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership training program where one learns that direct reports have either a “skill” or “will” issue preventing them from performing. Situational Leadership has helped 10s and 1,000s of leaders pay more attention to the needs of the work force and, thereby, improve overall performance. http://www.kenblanchard.com/Solutions/Situational-Leadership-Development/Situational-Leadership-II

At the same time, additional approaches to employee motivation are needed. I have rarely discovered a deficiency of employee will due to a lack of desire or inclination to work hard. Very few people wake up every morning and say to themselves: “Today, I want to do a very poor job at work.” The vast majority of our workers want to do well.

Rather, if an employee is not willing to perform a task, there is often times a missing component on the part of the employer. The most common causes of employee lack of motivation are that the leader has not explained to the employee the importance of the work, has not aligned work to employee values or has not aligned the rewards being offered.

In all these cases, the quickest way to get the employee up and running again is for the leader to figure out the specific barrier(s) to motivation and address them. There is no need for the leader to dive into the complex, murky topic of the employees’ “psychological maturity” as Situational Leadership training would suggest. Rather, the leader needs to carry out the much simpler tasks of:
• Explaining the importance of the work
• Aligning employees with work which fits their values and
• Making sure that the employee is motivated by the reward system

We will explore each of these motivational issues in my upcoming blogs.

What motivational issues do you see with your workforce?

Note: The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.

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A Formula for Organizational Performance So Simple That It Is Ignored

Formula_500_F_13443858_RNR2YnK5y3GRqqtJp79hXtmx1WQSO9ufThe Obama Administration is promoting legislation that would help many students go to community college for free.  This is an effort to once again kick-start education as a driver of economic growth. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/nyregion/raising-ambitions-the-challenge-in-teaching-at-community-colleges.html?_r=0

As a former community college administrator and instructor, my burning questions are ‘Why community colleges?’ and “If they have figured out the ‘secret sauce’ for performance, how can we all get some?”

In short, community colleges are masters at change management.  I saw first-hand hundreds of students of all ages enter community college ill prepared for work, and in many cases struggling in their day-to-day lives, and leave the college changed people.  Ready to perform!  Community colleges understand this simple formula that all organizations could learn from:

  • Input: Students enter who are in many cases underprepared and lack the motivation required for success.
  • Process: Faculty connect students to ideas and goals bigger than themselves and instill the skills and habits of thinking.
  • Output: The students leave more prepared to successfully navigate the world of work (and the world in general) and are energized (in some cases, even transformed!)

Substitute the word ‘Employees’ for ‘Students’ and the word ‘Leadership” for ‘Faculty’ and you have the change readiness and adoption ‘secret sauce’ for any audacious goal that you may throw at your workforce.

This suggests that success is all about connecting your workforce to the objective at hand: Be it a new strategy, the roll out of a new technology, etc.  Bam, you have motivation!  Then, help make sure that the employees have the requisite knowledge and capabilities.  Bam, you have performance!

This formula for success, which the community colleges figured out years ago, could not be more easy to comprehend!

  • Why then do our organizations run off into countless directions, many of them pointless, trying to discover the formula for high performance?
  • Is the answer simply, so simple that we do not believe it?

 

Note:The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.

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