Be like NASA: Engage your employees


A very large component of employee engagement is centered around work tasks and the degree to which employees can immerse themselves in their work. The hope is that employees experience the pleasure of working and even reach the nearly euphoric state of flow while doing so. You could describe this state of flow as “work engagement.”

However, employee engagement is not just assessed by the level of focus reached while working. The object of that focus is critical to effective engagement as well.

The reason is, work directionality matters.

A hypothetical example

Imagine you have two teams within your organization:

One team is fairly normal. They don’t seem to go above and beyond what is required of them and they don’t express a great deal of passion for the organization, but at least their work is aligned with business objectives. By all observation, they are not very engaged.

The other team demonstrates all of the behaviors of a team intensely focused on their work. They’re absorbed in their tasks and committed to their work. However, the work they are doing is not closely aligned with the business—or worse, it’s not helpful at all to the business.

That extreme scenario is not likely, but it makes for a nice object lesson. The point is to recognize that employee engagement is about an employee engaging with the organization and not just their work.

The importance of directionality

Engaging with the organization gives focus and directionality to the work. If the work isn’t aligned with the company, what is the point of putting effort into the work? From an organizational standpoint, that effort is wasted. I’d argue that a team that’s absorbed, but directionally misguided, won’t be able to sustain any sense of engagement in the long run.

That’s why we need to consider engagement beyond work engagement. Over long periods of time (years), work engagement alone is likely a good way to capture and measure employee engagement. But like anything you measure, if it can be understood and influenced in shorter cycles, it can be improved more rapidly.

When trying to capture and act on shorter interval assessments, it’s important to consider the relationship with the organization. This can provide assurance that the engagement you see is directionally accurate and not wasted.

A different methodology

If we think of employee engagement as a force multiplier, we want to ensure that force is applied in the most accurate direction possible. A fundamental component of Emplify’s Measure methodology is that engagement behavior is directionally aligned with business goals and focused on the mission of the organization. In other words, the most effective organizations are those that can inspire each team member to push in the same direction in support of the organization’s mission.

This happens at multiple levels, but falls into three big buckets:

1. The “why” of the organization

It’s important for organizations to find the meaning behind what they do and articulate it to their teams. At the end of the day, this is why the organization exists.

We find that employees are extremely capable of connecting to a big mission without a ton of specifics. If you are going to do one thing right, figure out why your organization exists and articulate it clearly so everyone can buy into it.

2. Goals and objectives of teams/time

The next level of alignment is time-bound goals and objectives. While there are many frameworks to choose from, I’m partial to the OKR framework created at Intel and popularized by Google. It helps strike a balance between company-guided initiatives and bottom-up goal setting.

No matter what framework you choose, the important thing is that employees know where the company is headed. That will help influence and guide their day-to-day work and help them to reach those goals. Obviously, if these don’t connect with the “why” of the organization, they will have a weaker impact.

3. An individual’s competency/clarity in their role tasks

This speaks more to the topic of “work engagement,” but it’s still relevant here. If the work that an employee does day in and day out has little to no connection to the direction of the organization, the organization won’t reap the benefits of employee engagement to the degree that it wants.

There are many things that influence how relevant or engaging role tasks are for an individual. We’ll discuss this more in future posts. In the meantime, here is an expression of organizational alignment in the famous story of a NASA janitor:

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy toured the NASA space center. He saw a janitor carrying a broom and asked him what he was doing. This was his response: “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Now THAT is an engaged employee focused on the right thing. Your job as a leader is to help employees see their role this clearly.

 

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