In November 2015, in a bid to make myself seem smart and important, I delivered my very first TED talk. It was filmed in a dark room with theater-style seating (a TED requirement), and I wore the blue-jeans-with-sport-jacket combo that is one of the only two acceptable outfits for a man to wear. (The other, of course, is form-fitting turtleneck.)
I wanted to address a paradox of the business world. Years of employee surveys have repeated come to the same conclusion: most of us (roughly 65%) are satisfied with our jobs, and most of us (again, roughly 65%) are disengaged. How is that possible? How can most of us be satisfied and disengaged? At the time I argued (and still believe) that the answer revolves around leadership. Leadership is usually depicted as a binary system – essentially good leadership vs. bad leadership – and so most leadership education basically boils down into a very simple equation: “Do good leadership, avoid bad leadership things, and you’ll be OK.”
This, I contended, is a flawed approach. Effective leadership is comprised of two equally important pieces, which I dubbed (wait for the brilliance to shine like diamonds here) Good leadership and Great leadership. Good leadership focuses on the human element of leadership – in other words, making people feel valued and respected as individuals – while great leadership focuses on the vision and mission of the business itself. Most leaders concentrate their energies on being either good or great leaders, and that leads to satisfaction but not engagement. In order to have widespread employee engagement, I argued, the effective leader needs to employ both good and great leadership tactics.
My main piece of data to support this hypothesis came from an analysis that payroll processor ADP conducted on hundreds of thousands of employee survey results compiled by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM, which is pronounced ‘sherm,’ and which is fun to say). Their analysis finds the following 6 characteristics to be essential in the formation of employee engagement:
- The work itself
- Relationship with co-workers
- Opportunities to use skills and abilities
- Relationship with immediate superior
- Contribution of work to the organization’s overall goals
- Autonomy and independence
In 2015 I argued that two of these characteristics (#2 and #4) deal with the human side of leadership, two of them (#1 and #5) deal with the mission/vision side of leadership, and two of them (#3 and #6) are a combination of both. Therefore, engaged employees are becoming engaged employees because their leaders and practicing both good and great leadership skills at the same time. (You can see the entire TED talk here if you’d like.)
I still believe quite strongly that the central thesis of my TED talk is on the right track. However, in the 18 months since then I’ve realized that I didn’t do a great job of explaining how to put those good and great leadership skills into practice. Those of you who have seen my keynotes will know that I am a huge fan of trying to simplify unnecessarily complicated business practices, and this is no different.
So, how do you create employee engagement? I’ll show you in three sentences.
Sentence #1: I like you as a person.
People who say this to others on a regular basis – and who can convince their colleagues or employees of the sincerity of those words – will necessarily be building healthy relationships with their co-workers, superiors, subordinates, and everyone in between. Thus, #2 and #4 on our ADP list is satisfied.
Sentence #2: The work we do is important.
If you can convince others that your business is making a valuable difference in the lives of others, then they won’t feel like they’re wasting their time every day they show up for work. You might need to say how specifically your job/industry/vision is an important one, but that shouldn’t be complicated. And voila! You’ve ticked off #1 and #5 on our ADP list.
Sentence #3: I think you’re capable to doing that work.
If you really believe that your people can do the work they’ve been assigned to do, then you won’t be micromanaging them. You’ll focus more on outcomes than on process, which means you’ll allow them to work flexibly when necessary and give them the freedom to work the way that makes the most sense for them. And before you know it, you’ve checked off #3 and #6 on our list.
There it is. I like who you are, what we do matters, and I think you’re up to the challenge. Those are the three sentences that can turn your satisfied employees into engaged ones. If you’re not in the habit of saying some version of those three sentences on a regular basis, give it a try and see what happens. It won’t cost you anything, it doesn’t take much time, and it has the potential to completely change your business for the better.
Thanks for reading. And remember, I was wearing blue jeans and a sport jacket over a form-fitting turtleneck when I wrote this, so you know it’s worth paying attention to.