Zombie engagement 3 easy cultural shifts to help engage your employees

Here are three good ways to enhance employee engagement with cultural changes during team meetings.

Food for thought: In 2013, the percentage of Americans who believed there was at least a small chance of a zombie apocalypse was greater than the percentage of individuals worldwide who said they were engaged in their work.1 Truth be told, the percentage of Americans who report feeling engaged at work is actually much higher than the global number—coming in at a whopping 31.5 percent in 2014, according to a Gallup survey. As one might expect, the engagement level of managers and leaders is higher, but it isn’t grounds for celebration; 38.4 percent of respondents say they are engaged by their work responsibilities. But that means 61.6 percent of surveyed managers in business and government don’t really care.

According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends Survey for 2015, employee engagement and culture issues have become the top concern for many businesses worldwide. The issue became so hot in the past few years that the Gallup organization now conducts daily tracking surveys on employee views. Many sound approaches are being offered, and it’s widely agreed that a different leadership focus is an important first step. But managers who achieve great business results on the backs of their staff can destroy the morale of their employees as well as the reputation of an entire company. In its own analysis, Gallup has found that managers account for 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement surveys.2

What if the issue is even more fundamental? What if the very existence of a leader–follower dynamic is at the root of these abysmal engagement numbers? I suspect that’s the case. As Daniel Pink documents, autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose are the most effective drivers for individual performance and personal satisfaction.3 And yet, too many work teams follow the same tried-but-no-longer-true formula: The person in charge tells her staff what to do, and the staff members execute her orders. Supposedly, this formula worked in the industrial era, and so it maintains a foothold in knowledge and creative work. But at what cost?

A few CEOs are starting to dismantle the traditional leadership model in their organizations. Perhaps most notably, Zappos’s Tony Hsieh is currently working to transform his company into a self-managed and self-organized entity, but probably not without some resistance from members of his work force. Given that such a drastic change is likely to be traumatic for any organization, the safer path may be to encourage leaders to change their behavior. In Rebels at work: A handbook for leading change from within, we offer three ways to enhance employee engagement with cultural changes during team meetings:

Reduce your share of air time at staff meetings. In a typical staff meeting, the boss sets the agenda, talks about recent developments and explains new edicts from on-high, and then, at the end, goes around the room and asks for comments or questions. Many employees assume that this last agenda item is largely pro forma, and by leaving employee input for last, the manager may, in fact, be signaling that it’s a lower priority, even if he didn’t do so purposefully. So, lose the pulpit for once. Let someone else lead the meeting. In fact, make a schedule that rotates responsibility for meeting leadership between your employees. Hearing from the employees you’re trying to engage tends to have a way of improving employee engagement.4

Make it safe for employees to disagree with you. Returning to the scenario above, most employees assume that when the manager asks for comments, he doesn’t actually want to hear any. It’s a pro-forma, verbal tic. This may actually be unfair to the leader, who can be frustrated people won’t tell him what they’re thinking. One approach is for the leader to ask better, more direct questions. Instead of merely inviting comments, ask your team, point blank, “What did I get wrong?” Or even more to the point, ask an employee “What the worst part of my proposal?” When was the last time you heard that question in a meeting? There’s a chance, in fact, that team members may be dumbstruck by such unaccustomed levels of frankness, so I would recommend letting someone on the team know the question is coming so she can set the tone for the rest of her colleagues.5

Stop advising people to be more corporate. I used to get this kind of advice in my government career, and I resented the idea that getting ahead hinged on compliance. Agreeing with the boss can’t compromise an employee’s career prospects, right? But this mindset can also invite employees to disengage, to care less about a workplace they can’t save. There is a tendency for some organizations to view dissent as a symptom of disengagement. My experience in government was that these employees were among my most engaged staff; they cared so much about a mission that they were willing to risk their careers to improve it. Instead of telling them to button up, help them figure out how to advance their ideas within your organizational landscape. Don’t tell them to be quiet; help them be more effective.6

In short, the best way to improve employee engagement may very well be to engage employees.