A succinct summary of employee engagement by Kevin Kruse, NY Times bestseller author of Employee Engagement 2.0 states:
“It is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. …When employees care—when they are engaged—they use discretionary effort.”
It’s a straightforward definition that is easy to get one’s head around.
‘Emotional commitment’ and ‘care’ are both feeling words. Although we think we must focus on hard numbers, the reality is that these ‘softer’ feelings make a difference.
They make the difference between an individual doing his/her work in a mechanical fashion and the same individual shaping a career. They make the difference between chipping at a piece of marble, on the one hand and building a cathedral, on the other. Feelings may seem ‘soft’ but their effect is tangible and hard. And when ‘soft’ feelings motivate individuals to offer their discretionary effort to the organisation, that’s when ordinary individuals do extraordinary things.
How does one achieve this state of employee engagement? There are vlogs, blogs and a whole bunch of literature that provide a comprehensive overview.
In his YouTube video titled, “The Surprising Truth About What Really Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink identifies the top 3 influencers of engagement: Autonomy (“the desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives”), Mastery (“the urge to get better at stuff”) and Purpose (our desire to seek meaning in our work that goes above and beyond our day to day tasks).
Contrary to what many of us assume, cash incentives can be detrimental to performance, particularly when the nature of the work is knowledge/cognitive work versus repetitive menial work.
In another YouTube video, “The Power of Why,” Simon Sinek underlines how purpose fosters engagement for individuals and organisations. Companies and teams that clearly articulate their ‘WHY?’ are a powerful magnet for good talent. And that good talent is inspired to use its discretionary effort on doing great things for the organisation.
To expand on the subject of doing work with purpose, the seminal work of Victor Frankl, a psychologist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, is worth perusing. Frankl’s observations of human response during the extreme conditions of the Holocaust culminated in Man’s Search for Meaning, a slim book filled with wisdom about what drives human beings.
Finally, it is worthwhile to study Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, which lucidly fleshes out the experience of engagement-in-action.
It is one thing to understand employee engagement but quite another to apply it in practice.
And yet, if there’s any leadership process that facilitates a working environment where autonomy, mastery, and purpose, can thrive, it’s the Agile way of working.
A series of seemingly small, almost innocuous agile practices add up to a whole that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Let me share just a few of these:
(1) daily standup: this is a scheduled standing meeting (standing to keep it short – usually, no more than 15 or 20 mins), where each squad member gets to share what they’re doing and whether there are any blockers in their path;
(2) wall of work: a visible board that is transparent in showing all squad members’ key priorities, dependencies, and distribution of work. This visibility fosters fairness in workload distribution across the team;
(3) sprints: instead of planning 2-4 months ahead, sprints are generally one or two weeks long. They create a sense of urgency to complete the tasks required to close a story, and at the same time, enable iteration on the path to a larger epic. Sprints have the built-in component of encouraging squad members to pull work versus our more traditional approach of pushing work down the line. That alone is enormously empowering and autonomy inducing.
(4) retrospectives: A built-in continuous improvement that propels individuals toward mastery and helps teams get better. Using post-it notes to capture key points, there is an automatic focus on the issues versus the individuals. The squad can put their heads together to solve the problems instead of wasting time and effort on pointing fingers.
Considering its clear benefits, why do more teams not adopt the agile way of working? Inertia is a big part of the problem. Perhaps, there is also some fear from the leadership about what value they will be able to add when agile teams become self-directed. We need to address these blockers head on to encourage a cultural change that is far away from compliance, and closer to engagement.
My call to action: drive engagement the agile way and you will reap the benefits!