Performance Management

What is Employee Engagement? It’s time to demand better answers.
What is Employee Engagement? It’s time to demand better answers. 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

One of the things that makes me crazy about the work of employee engagement is the sloppiness we allow around how we define and approach about it. As I talk to leaders within organizations who are currently spending enormous sums of money on measuring and attempting to improve engagement, they struggle with basic questions like “How do you define employee engagement?” and “How does employee engagement drive your organization’s success?”

If we can’t clearly define this work and why it matters, how can we ever expect to make a huge impact, let alone be taken seriously? We have to do better.

Over the past year, I’ve been working out a conceptual model of employee engagement as an attempt to create movement towards a solution. That model is laid out in this post.

Before I get into the model, let’s call out a few things about why things are such a mess today. Employee engagement isn’t a tangible thing. It is an invention of academics and consultants intended to help us make sense of the complex relationship between employees and their work.

Because “engagement” is a made-up construct used to describe abstract ideas, there is no universal definition for engagement. The closest we could come would be to agree upon a standard, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

The challenge is that every consultant, researcher, and technology tool provider has a slightly different take on employee engagement. And they like it that way as it helps them differentiate their approach. This feels both confusing and annoying to anyone trying to actually engage employees.

This lack of clarity means that managers, leaders, and even HR professionals are often left wondering exactly what really matters when it comes to engaging employees. And the employees end up paying the price by living through an inconsistent and non-optimal work experience every day.

Today, I’m going to share with you some definitions and a model of employee engagement based on my research and experience. My intention in sharing this isn’t to sell you something or test out a new product idea I have. Instead, I want to help you think differently and better about employee engagement in a way that might actually help us bring more intention to our work.

What I share below is an evolving work in progress. I don’t proclaim this as the “right” answer but I hope to provoke conversation and debate that moves us forward in the quest to create work experiences that work better for humans.

WHAT EXACTLY IS ENGAGEMENT?

Most commonly, engagement is defined as some combination of discretionary effort and intent to stay. In other words, an engaged employee gives me more effort than I pay them for and they aren’t thinking about leaving me. Call me a skeptic, but I think these definitions were created to secure funding from executives rather than to drive the actual work. Who wouldn’t want more effort you don’t have to pay extra for or decreased turnover? I’m in!

Other definitions (including some I’ve embraced in the past) define engagement in terms of emotional or social connection to work. And while this may be true, it is incomplete because it does not capture the “why.” Definitions like these feel hollow to bottom-line focused execs because they sound squishy and disconnected from value creation and performance.

Here’s how I am defining engagement today.

Engagement is the degree to which an employee is both willing and able to perform to their potential.

Ultimately, engagement is about unlocking performance potential. Organizations exist to perform. Without this performance imperative, the organization need not exist. So, any model of employee engagement that isn’t directly tied to performance is inadequate.

Notice the use of the words “willing” and “able” in the definition. Engagement is a gauge of both conscious commitment to achievement and the degree to which an individual’s experience and environment are either enabling or hindering their ability to give their fullest efforts to their work.

Engagement is not, however, the “end all, be all” for performance. There are also processes related to talent and management, separate from engagement, that are equally important to overall performance.

 

Talent processes are responsible for finding people with the right performance potential and then continuing to increase that potential through ongoing development. If you fully engage subpar (or wrong) talent, you get subpar results. Engagement without talent will always lead to subpar results.

Management processes are responsible for ensuring that available performance potential is applied and aligned to achieve organizational success. When you unlock performance potential but use it in the wrong way or apply it to the wrong thing, you can still fail.

It’s important to note here that management processes are different from the role of a Manager. A manager will have responsibilities across all three of these processes.

The point of sharing this is to highlight that while engagement is critical, it’s not a silver bullet. Good employee engagement won’t make up for bad talent or management processes. They are interconnected.

Talent delivers performance potential. Engagement unlocks that potential. Management ensures that potential is applied in the right way.

HOW DOES ENGAGEMENT WORK? 

Based on my experience and research, I believe that there are three major variables in employee engagement.

  1. Satisfaction. This is the extent to which an employee’s experience of work exceeds their expectations.
    • Experience is the cumulative of an employee’s interactions with “work” over time that impact how they feel about their work and employer.
  2. Drive. Drive in my model is the degree to which an individual is motivated to achieve the goals and outcomes that are important to organizational success.
  3. Wellness. This represents the degree to which an individual’s core human needs are satisfied. When these needs are left unmet, it diminishes the individual’s ability to offer up their full potential.

I’ve always been a bit of a math nerd, so when I started working on a model, a math equation emerged. Please don’t take the equation literally. This equation is meant not as a simple calculation but as a conceptual model to represent the relationship between the variables.

Here’s how I believe engagement works:

SATISFACTION

At the heart of the equation is satisfaction. Satisfaction has gotten a bad rap as the early, not-as-sophisticated, version of engagement. Satisfaction is, and always has been, central to engagement. In this model, satisfaction is a measure of how your experience of work compares to your expectations.

The work of engagement is not only about shaping and creating employee experience; it’s also about managing and shaping employee expectations. In my career, I’ve seen very few organizations that do both well. When you have unrealistic expectations, even a great experience can leave you feeling unsatisfied. When you have lower expectations (for whatever reason), an average employee experience might feel pretty good. Positive satisfaction occurs only when your experience exceeds your expectations. Both factors are important.

It’s a lot like happiness. Happiness isn’t as much about what happens to you as it is about how you feel about what happens to you. The key to happiness lies in learning to manage your expectations. This is also true for engagement. Managing expectations is critical and often done poorly.

Employee experience is new language for us over the past few years, but it’s not new in actual practice. This is the area of the engagement equation that we’ve (as a profession of HR and leadership) been primarily focused on and where we’ve had great difficulty. At the heart of the issue is that employee experience today at most organizations was designed through a “work as a contract” way of thinking. Most modern work experience is designed for the primary benefit of the employer—to ensure that the employee is living up their end of the employment contract (psychological or otherwise). It’s a compliance-driven, “what have you done for me lately” experience.

The problem is that most of the research we have into employee engagement reveals that it is relational factors that most strongly motivate employees to greater contribution. Work is a relationship for employees. Things like feeling valued and trusted are always at the top of any list of engagement drivers along with other factors like appreciation and feeling like someone cares about us. Employees expect to be treated like they are in a relationship with work, not bound by a contract.

WELLNESS

Wellness is an often overlooked but critical variable to engagement. If I am sick, hungover, scared, distracted, tired, lonely, worrying about how I’m going to pay my rent or in any other way compromised, I cannot give my fullest effort to work. If I’m suffering domestic abuse at home or I’m trying to care for a dying parent without much support and resources, my ability to contribute at work is diminished.

Wellness is and should be about helping, supporting, and equipping employees to pursue a greater sense of well-being in their lives. It’s about equipping each person to navigate more successfully the complexities of being human, so that when they show up to work, they feel like a whole and well person, able to give their full effort and energy to the work.

To do this work, we need to develop a better understanding of core human needs. In 2017, I worked with colleagues Christina Boyd-Smith and Joe Gerstandt to develop a model of motivating human needs. The model was distilled from a host of research-based frameworks ranging from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Carol Ryff’s Well-Being model and the Max-Neef model. I share it as an example of what a model for wellness might look like.

  • Authenticity: Living and being embraced as a whole, unique person.
  • Connection: Having quality relationships and intimacy with others.
  • Freedom: Having and exercising choice in our lives. Influencing our future.
  • Growth: Making progress towards a better version of ourselves. Moving towards our potential.
  • Meaning: Knowing our actions matter. Feeling part of something bigger than ourselves.
  • Safety: Feeling protected from danger or harm. Having a sense of security. Being free from fear.
  • Health: Maintaining a well-functioning mind and body. Managing our energy and balance.

When these human needs are met at the individual level, we feel a sense of well-being that enables us to be our best and give our best.

DRIVE

Drive is the third variable of engagement. While this is a complex aspect to unpack, this is where the “willingness” of engagement lives. Hat tip to Dan Pink for introducing this idea of “drive” into our thinking about employee motivation. I don’t use the word here to mean exactly what Dan did in his great book, but something in the same realm. It’s where purpose, meaning, and perceived impact lives. It’s about the degree to which I believe and can see alignment between my personal career goals and the goals put upon me by the organization. Even when I feel well and satisfied, if I am not motivated to move the organization forward, I may not be of much value. Motivation to perform is critical to unlocking potential.

There are a lot of motivational theories that could be applied or used as a measurement framework for drive (including Dan Pink’s). I’m not going to argue here for any model as that debate can wait for another day. The argument I am making is that motivation to perform is a core variable in engagement. Without it, your engagement efforts will fall short.

THE MATH

In the employee engagement model (equation) above, each variable multiplies one another. For those who aren’t algebra geeks, that means that while any largely positive variable can amplify the others, if any one of the variables goes toward zero, the whole equation goes toward zero regardless of how positive the other variables may be.

In other words, if do an adequate job of supporting wellness, satisfaction and drive within your organization, investing in dramatically improving one of the three variables should provide a boost to engagement overall. But, if you do a great job on two variables (like satisfaction and drive) but overlook a third (wellness), if employee wellness suffers it could have a pretty dramatic negative impact on engagement overall.

Each variable is critical to overall engagement. If any of them fail, the whole thing fails. And to succeed in engagement requires that we succeed in maximizing each variable.

This is only a model. It’s meant to help us think more deeply and critically about the variables involved and their relation to one another. One of my goals in the upcoming years is to design, collaborate, and support research efforts to move from a theoretical model to a validated, quantitative framework that could give birth to a standard that could work across industries. I hope you will join me on that journey.

For now, I just hope to provoke your thinking and some debate.

What do you think?

Engaging Employees from Inside Bad HR Processes
Engaging Employees from Inside Bad HR Processes 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

When I speak to people about treating work as a relationship with employees rather than a contract, there’s a question I am commonly asked.

It typically sounds something like this:

“How do you make work feel like a relationship when you are trapped inside a bureacratic organization with archaic processes?”

This question is a great one because it describes the challenge (or more accurately PAIN) of so many managers and HR pros out there. It reflects a more fundamental question, “how do you make an impact when you can’t change the system itself?”

I feel the angst and frustration in the question. This question is so common and important, it seemed like a good idea to address it in a blog post.

To address this challenge, let’s focus on an example that many can probably relate to.  Let’s assume your organization still requires a traditional annual performance appraisal, the kind of process that culminates in a rating that triggers a merit increase amount. Regardless of how much is written about the flaws in this type of process, a majority of organizations are still using it.

If you want to unlock performance in your team by making work feel more like a healthy relationship, you will have to work around bad processes like this. Despite how broken or poorly designed your HR and management processes might be, it doesn’t have to be a barrier if you do the followings things.

1. Always think about the relationship first.

The first thought for any manager or team leader should be about maintaining and building healthy relationships with the people on their teams. Time is the currency of relationships, so if you aren’t spending time with your people in conversation about both life and work, start there. Nothing sends a clearer message to people that you value them than when you invest your time in them. This means regularly scheduled one on one meetings at the minimum.

Regardless of the process, one technique I highly recommend is the relationship test. In short, ask yourself how this process would go if someone you really cared about in your personal life (i.e. best friend, significant other, child, etc.) was on the other end. If it would likely be hard on the relationship, then you should step back and consider a different approach. For example, if you had to communicate some bad news to your significant other, would you do it in an email? Probably not. So, why would you choose that approach for people at work?

2. Invite your employees to help you create a better experience.

At the heart of what relationship means is that we do it WITH others. So, whenever you are asked to do something “to” someone else, it’s probably not a great process to grow relationships. The performance appraisal is a great example of this. The traditional appraisal is something we, as managers, are asked to do to the employee. Sometimes, we offer employees the opportunity to appraise themselves, but generally, it’s a one-way process.

To make these processes more human (and humane), we must find ways to involve the employee in the process. Invite them to help create ideas for how to make the process feel more positive and valuable. For example, invite employees into the goal-setting process to provide input and negotiate their goals on the front end. Another example might be to explore how you could use the one-on-one meetings throughout the year to check-in about progress on the appraisal.  You might even have conversations along the way like, “If we had to agree on a performance rating for you based on your work this year so far, what would it be?” This allows you to align and calibrate throughout the year to ensure no surprises when it comes appraisal time.

The more the employee feels they are able to participate in and shape the process, the less harmful it will be to the relationship.

3. Don’t be confined by the process.

This brings me to my last bit of advice. Just because the process exists doesn’t mean that’s where your work as a manager stops. I think it’s ironic that there’s so much talk lately about replacing the annual appraisal with a process of more regular performance check-ins. The reason it’s ironic is that a good manager doesn’t need permission or a new process to be conducting regular check-ins. The best managers are always doing this, regardless of process.

The bad process you are trapped inside is simply a compliance exercise. It should never represent your intention and practice as a manager or leader. Consider the advice I offer above and then ask, how can I hack or work around the process to actually improve team performance by forming better relationships?

I recently wrote about 5 ways to hack your performance process. That should get you started with some ideas. Treat the process as the “paperwork” you have to do to stay in compliance, but don’t let it dictate your approach with your people.

You are the solution. 

I am going to continue to crusade against bad, inhumane work processes. These processes need to change. If you can change out a bad process, please do it as soon as possible.

But, if you happen to be stuck with some bad processes, don’t let them stop you. Create a great experience for your employees in spite of them.

Soft Skills are Hard. We need to stop calling them soft. #Workhuman
Soft Skills are Hard. We need to stop calling them soft. #Workhuman 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

I’m just back from spending four epic days in Nashville at my favorite conference event of the year, Workhuman. As is always the case after this event, I’ve got a lot of ideas swirling in my head from the great content and conversations.

Sidenote: I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. If you believe that we need to make work a more human experience, you need to get to this event next year.  It’s a gathering of our tribe to connect, support one another, and gain the information and inspiration we need to keep doing this righteous work. Go to the event site and sign up for updates so you won’t miss it next year. 

As you’d expect, there was a lot of discussion about what it means to create a work experience where humans can bring and be the best version of themselves.

The topics ranged from courage and vulnerability to mindfulness. There were experts who spoke about happiness, trauma, emotional resilience, and community. We explored the very real issues of equity, sexism, racism, and more that affect the workplace every day–whether we like to admit it or not.

At one point, I was having a conversation with someone and they referenced the importance of developing “soft skills.”

For some reason, when I heard the word “soft” this time, it was like someone slapped me across the face.

The phrase “soft skills” is a short-hand we adopted in HR and management years ago to describe those skills we need to work successfully with other people.  When I Google the phrase, at the top of the page I get this definition:

personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.

When I heard the phrase used this time, it seemed so…wrong. So woefully inadequate to describe what we are talking about.

As I reflected on why it hit me as it did, it became clear pretty quickly.

These skills aren’t soft. Not even a little bit.

Soft Skills are Hard 

Learning to be in healthy, positive relationships with other people is HARD. Yes, it may come more naturally for some than for others, but learning to be vulnerable (for example) is never easy. Some people go their whole lives and never figure it out.

Active listening is real work. You have to be committed and dedicated to it for it to happen. And even then, we get distracted and fail sometimes. It’s hard.

Empathy is also not easy to learn. Finding the awareness to see and feel not only outside of yourself but to then climb into another’s shoes to find their perspective is a developed skill. Again, hard work.

But, it’s not just that these skills are hard to learn and master.

Soft Skills make Immense Impact

When someone really listens to you and hears you, you remember that feeling. When someone sees you and recognizes your potential, it lifts you up. When someone shares themselves with you in a way that is risky for them, it draws you to them and changes your relationship.

These “soft skills” that we strive to train and develop in our leaders and employees are anything but soft in their impact on others. We’ve all witnessed or experienced the power of authentic human connection. I doubt that any one of us would choose the word “soft” to describe it.

So, I think we need to remove this from our language. These skills and attributes aren’t soft.

If we need a better word, perhaps we could consider vital or essential or human.

When we call them soft, we diminish their importance. And we give those who fail to recognize their importance the permission to minimize them. No more.

Creating a work experience that’s good for humans is hard. Being a leader or coworker who creates an experience for others that celebrates and welcomes the full splendor of their humanity is hard.

And it’s worth it. It is the work we are called to do.

So here’s my #Workhuman challenge to you:

  1. Remove the phrase “Soft Skills” from your vocabulary. Vow to never utter those words again so as to never unwittingly undermine the importance of these vital, essential, human skills.
  2. When you encounter someone who uses the phrase “soft skills,” engage that person in a conversation about the critical importance of these skills, how hard they are to learn, and why you don’t call them “soft” anymore.

Language is important. We need to choose and use our words wisely.

It’s time for “soft” to be removed from our vocabulary.

 

Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week
Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, Quartz published a piece about a New Zealand company that has implemented a 4-day work week policy.

This company offered the shortened work week without any reduction in pay or other benefits. They tested it and then implemented it broadly when they found that it didn’t cause any decrease in overall performance for the organization.

The owner of the company, Andrew Barnes, is bullish about these results and wants every company to try it. But, he offers some words of caution not to talk about this effort in terms of employee well-being. Instead, he advised that you talk about it in terms of productivity.

Here’s a quote from Barnes about how they rolled this out:

“We sat down with each team and we said, ‘Right, let’s agree what is the base of productivity that you’re delivering now,’” he says. “And then the deal was, provided you delivered on the productivity goals, you would be gifted a day off a week.”

This is a cool story. It highlights what is possible when organizations think differently about work.

Is this really about a 4-day week?

While I think it’s awesome that this company is proving that some of our assumptions about work (i.e. the 5-day work week) are limiting, I think the article is misleading for anyone who might want to pursue something similar in their own organization.

The 4-day work week is the kind of gimmicky silver-bullet we love to read about and debate. The gimmick is a distraction.

If you read between the lines, here’s what you find echoed in this article.

  • This company found that employees could produce the same amount of output in 4 days that they had been producing in 5.
  • When given this challenge (or opportunity) to work more effectively, employees stepped up. When surveying employees before and after the 4-day week trial, they “found that 78% of staff felt able to manage work and other commitments after the trial, compared to 54% before.”
  • The policy is less about a 4-day week than it is about autonomy and flexibility. The leaders essentially told employees that if they can get their work done in less hours, they could have those extra hours back.
  • And please don’t say this effort is about employee well-being if you want to be taken seriously because nobody (particularly leaders) cares about that. (Forgive my sarcasm, but this seems to be what they chose to lead with).
  • The key to making this transition happen swiftly is an owner or CEO who gets it or has a eureka moment.

My Take

Conversations about a shortened work week are colored by how we think about work. It highlights a fundamental conflict in management philosophy. The practice of management was born during the industrial revolution where the objective was primarily to maximize the productivity of employees per hour. A majority of organizations today are still rooted in this belief.

The objective of work processes is to motivate and/or coerce the maximum amount of productivity out of each hour the employee works. 

In this model, the number of hours the employee spends working is viewed as vital to achieving performance expectations. Your role as an employee is less about achieving specific outputs as it is about seeing how much you can contribute. The manager’s role is to get the maximum amount of value out of the employee.

This way of thinking is prevalent among leaders. It’s this way of thinking that makes the “discretionary effort” model of employee engagement so attractive. It’s oriented towards getting more and more out of the same investment in people–to maximize productivity for the benefit of the organization.

An alternative way of thinking about work is that employees are hired to fulfill specific roles with clear expectations for the value they contribute to the organization’s success. This role clarity drives compensation, management evaluation, and other work processes. This way of thinking about work might be summarized this way:

The objective of work processes is to ensure that employees are clear about the expectations of their role and that they have everything they need to succeed.  

In this way of thinking, a manager’s role isn’t to get the maximum about of productivity out of each employee. Instead, it’s about ensuring that each employee is crystal clear about what is expected of them and then supporting them in achieving those goals successfully.

If an employee can complete their work in less than 40 hours per week, good for her. She’s met her expectations, so what she does with those extra hours is up to her. If she’s able to do her work in 25 hours/week, then that likely means she’s either due for a more challenging role or the role she’s in is poorly designed. Or, maybe she’s just super efficient at her job and everyone’s happy.

These two very different ways of thinking about work are really what the discussion about the 4-day work week is truly about. If your leaders believe that their mandate is to create a workplace that extracts the maximum amount of productivity from employees, then you are dead in the water before you start.

I suspect that’s why the article led with the insight to talk about this effort as “productivity” and not well-being. The implication seems to be that perhaps you can trick your leaders into the 4-day work week. But, if you don’t address the underlying belief that the goal is to maximize employee output, how long do you think it will take before your leaders realize that if employees can be 20% more productive in four days a week, imagine the productivity if they get back that fifth day?

Instead of trying to trick your leaders into this experiment, focus instead on building a better system of performance management that clearly defines expectations and creates systems of measurement and feedback to help managers effectively manage to those expectations. Once your organization and its leaders are more clearly oriented around thinking of roles in terms of defined performance expectations, the conversation about greater autonomy and flexibility will become much easier.

P.S. This has everything to do with employee well-being, even if your leaders aren’t ready to invest in it yet.

 

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Why Performance Management Still Sucks
Why Performance Management Still Sucks 395 120 Jason Lauritsen

I’ve spent a large part of the last year writing a book about performance management.  

One of the big questions I wrestled with was “how did we get this so wrong?” That question isn’t all that hard to answer when you look at the history of management and discover that it was based on a contractual, compliance-based model.

This helps explain how we ended up with compliance-based processes like the annual performance appraisal and performance improvement plans. They make sense in the historical context in which they were created. 

But times have changed. And work has changed. A lot. 

Performance management hasn’t. 

A majority of organizations are still running these same compliance-based processes today. Taken in the context of our climate of work, they make little or no sense.

Employees hate it. Managers cringe at the mention of performance management. And HR keeps running the system despite knowing that it doesn’t really work.  

It’s glaringly obvious that it’s a broken system. It’s been obvious for decades. Why is it taking so long to fix?  

This might be the more important question. 

Performance is the lifeblood of any organization. Without it, the organization withers and dies.  What could be more important than the management of performance?

And yet.

No one owns it.  

Everyone participates. Everyone is impacted.

No one owns it. 

Managers are charged with the day to day responsibility of ensuring employee performance. Leaders are broadly responsible for organizational performance.  And HR is where the formal, compliance-based processes for the appraisal of performance.  

But who is responsible for designing and deploying and maintaining a system for managing performance across the organization? 

Certainly, HR is the assumed answer. 

But, I think I’ve only met a handful of HR professionals in my life who’s primary job role and function was performance management. 

This fall, I facilitated a panel of HR leaders at the HR Tech Conference to discuss the evolution of performance management. I asked each of them how performance management fit into their overall HR structure. Each of the four companies was different. 

In one case it was part of total rewards (i.e. benefit and comp). In another, it was viewed as part of employee engagement. In another, it was under the banner of employee relations (i.e. compliance). 

In two of the four cases, the main reason HR undertook the process of changing performance management was that executive leadership demanded it.  

It’s crazy. 

A well-designed performance management system should be the operating system for your organization. It ensures a sustainable and consistent employee experience that unlocks individual and team performance. Most organizations today are still running a performance management operating system written in the 1920’s.

It’s way past time for an upgrade. But, that upgrade will never happen unless you make it a priority.  

Every organization should have a role or team dedicated to performance management systems. If you don’t like the phrase “performance management,” then call it performance enablement or performance processes.  

It can be in HR or it can be elsewhere. It will depend on your organization. 

We would never let something like sales or financials or technology go without an owner who has the responsibility to ensuring process effectiveness.

Why do we allow it with something as vital as the management of performance?

Let’s change that.