The ten C’s of employee engagement

How can leaders engage employees’ heads, hearts, and hands? The literature offers several avenues for action; we summarize these as the Ten C’s of employee engagement.

1. Connect:

Leaders must show that they value employees. In FirstBreak All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman argue that managers trump companies. Employee-focused initiatives such as profit sharing and implementing work–life balance initiatives are important. However, if employees’ relationship with their managers is fractured, then no amount of perks will persuade employees to perform at top levels. Employee engagement is a direct reflection of how employees feel about their relationship with the boss. Employees look at whether organizations and their leader walk the talk when they proclaim that, “Our employees are our most valuable asset.”

One anecdote illustrates the Connect dimension well. In November 2003, the CEO of WestJet Airlines, Clive Beddoe, was invited to give a presentation to the Canadian Club of London. Beddoe showed up late, a few minutes before he was to deliver his speech. He had met with WestJet employees at the London Airport and had taken a few minutes to explain the corporate strategy and some new initiatives to them. He also answered employees’ questions. To paraphrase Beddoe, “We had a great discussion that took a bit longer than I had anticipated.” Beddoe’s actions showed that he cares about the employees. The employees, sensing that he is sincere, care about Beddoe and the organization; they “reward” his behavior with engagement.

2. Career:

Leaders should provide challenging and meaningful work with opportunities for career advancement. Most people want to do new things in their job. For example, do organizations provide job rotation for their top talent? Are people assigned stretch goals? Do leaders hold people accountable for progress? Are jobs enriched in duties and responsibilities? Good leaders challenge employees; but at the same time, they must instill the confidence that the challenges can be met. Not giving people the knowledge and tools to be successful is unethical and de-motivating; it is also likely to lead to stress, frustration, and, ultimately, lack of engagement. In her book Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End, Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains that confidence is based on three cornerstones: accountability, collaboration, and initiative.

3. Clarity:

Leaders must communicate a clear vision. People want to understand the vision that senior leadership has for the organization, and the goals that leaders or departmental heads have for the division, unit, or team. Success in life and organizations is, to a great extent, determined by how clear individuals are about their goals and what they really want to achieve. In sum, employees need to understand what the organization’s goals are, why they are important, and how the goals can best be attained. Clarity about what the organization stands for, what it wants to achieve, and how people can contribute to the organization’s success is not always evident. Consider, for example, what Jack Stack, CEO of SRC Holdings Corp., wrote about the importance of teaching the basics of business:

The most crippling problem in American business is sheer ignorance about how business works. What we see is a whole mess of people going to a baseball game and nobody is telling them what the rules are. That baseball game is business. People try to steal from first base to second base, but they don’t even know how that fits into the big picture. What we try to do is break down business in such a way that employees realize that in order to win the World Series, you’ve got to steal x number of bases, hit y number of RBIs and have the pitchers pitch z number of innings. And if you put all these variables together, you can really attain your hopes and dreams … don’t use information to intimidate, control or manipulate people. Use it to teach people how to work together to achieve common goals and thereby gain control over their lives.

4. Convey:

Leaders clarify their expectations about employees and provide feedback on their functioning in the organization. Good leaders establish processes and procedures that help people master important tasks and facilitate goal achievement. There is a great anecdote about the legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. He showed how important feedback – positive and constructive – is in the pursuit of greatness. Among the secrets of his phenomenal success was that he kept detailed diaries on each of his players. He kept track of small improvements he felt the players could make and did make. At the end of each practice, he would share his thoughts with the players. The lesson here is that good leaders work daily to improve the skills of their people and create small wins that help the team, unit, or organization perform at its best.

5. Congratulate:

Business leaders can learn a great deal from Wooden’s approach. Surveys show that, over and over, employees feel that they receive immediate feedback when their performance is poor, or below expectations. These same employees also report that praise and recognition for strong performance is much less common. Exceptional leaders give recognition, and they do so a lot; they coach and convey.

6. Contribute:

People want to know that their input matters and that they are contributing to the organization’s success in a meaningful way. This might be easy to articulate in settings such as hospitals and educational institutions. But what about, say, the retail industry? Sears Roebuck & Co. started a turnaround in 1992. Part of the turnaround plan was the development of a set of measures – known as Total Performance Indicators – which gauged how well Sears was doing with its employees, customers, and investors. The implementation of the measurement system led to three startling conclusions. First, an employee’s understanding of the connection between her work – as operationalized by specific job-relevant behaviors – and the strategic objectives of the company had a positive impact on job performance. Second, an employee’s attitude towards the job and the company had the greatest impact on loyalty and customer service than all the other employee factors combined. Third, improvements in employee attitude led to improvements in job-relevant behavior; this, in turn, increased customer satisfaction and an improvement in revenue growth. In sum, good leaders help people see and feel how they are contributing to the organization’s success and future.

7. Control:

Employees value control over the flow and pace of their jobs and leaders can create opportunities for employees to exercise this control. Do leaders consult with their employees with regard to their needs? For example, is it possible to accommodate the needs of a mother or an employee infected with HIV so that they can attend to childcare concerns or a medical appointment? Are leaders flexible and attuned to the needs of the employees as well as the organization? Do leaders involve employees in decision-making, particularly when employees will be directly affected by the decision? Do employees have a say in setting goals or milestones that are deemed important? Are employees able to voice their ideas, and does leadership show that contributions are valued? H. Norman Schwartzkopf, retired U.S. Army General, once remarked:

I have seen competent leaders who stood in front of a platoon and all they saw was a platoon. But great leaders stand in front of a platoon and see it as 44 individuals, each of whom has aspirations, each of whom wants to live, each of whom wants to do good.

A feeling of “being in on things,” and of being given opportunities to participate in decision making often reduces stress; it also creates trust and a culture where people want to take ownership of problems and their solutions. There are numerous examples of organizations whose implementation of an open-book management style and creating room for employees to contribute to making decisions had a positive effect on engagement and organizational performance. The success of Microsoft, for example, stems in part from Bill Gates’ belief that smart people anywhere in the company should have the power to drive an initiative. Initiatives such as Six Sigma are dependent, in part, on the active participation of employees on the shop floor.

8. Collaborate:

Studies show that, when employees work in teams and have the trust and cooperation of their team members, they outperform individuals and teams which lack good relationships. Great leaders are team builders; they create an environment that fosters trust and collaboration. Surveys indicate that being cared about by colleagues is a strong predictor of employee engagement. Thus, a continuous challenge for leaders is to rally individuals to collaborate on organizational, departmental, and group goals, while excluding individuals pursuing their self-interest.

9. Credibility:

Leaders should strive to maintain a company’s reputation and demonstrate high ethical standards. People want to be proud of their jobs, their performance, and their organization. WestJet Airlines is among the most admired organizations in Canada. The company has achieved numerous awards. For example, in 2005, it earned the number one spot for best corporate culture in Canada. On September 26, 2005, WestJet launched the “Because We’re Owners!” campaign. Why do WestJet employees care so much about their organization? Why do over 85 percent of them own shares in the company? Employees believe so strongly in what WestJet is trying to do and are so excited about its strong performance record that they commit their own money into shares.

10. Confidence:

Good leaders help create confidence in a company by being exemplars of high ethical and performance standards. To illustrate, consider what happened to Harry Stonecipher, the former CEO of Boeing. He made the restoration of corporate ethics in the organization a top priority but was soon after embarrassed by the disclosure of an extramarital affair with a female employee. His poor judgment impaired his ability to lead and he lost a key ingredient for success – credibility. Thus the board asked him to resign. Employees working at Qwest and Continental Airlines were so embarrassed about working for their organizations that they would not wear their company’s uniform on their way to and from work. At WorldCom, most employees were shocked, horrified, and embarrassed when the accounting scandal broke at the company. New leadership was faced with the major challenges of regaining public trust and fostering employee engagement.

Practitioners and academics have argued that competitive advantage can be gained by creating an engaged workforce. The data and argument that we present above makes a compelling case as to why leaders need to make employee engagement one of their priorities.

Leaders should actively try to identify the level of engagement in their organization, find the reasons behind the lack of full engagement, strive to eliminate those reasons, and implement behavioral strategies that will facilitate full engagement.

These efforts should be ongoing. Employee engagement is hard to achieve and if not sustained by leaders it can wither with relative ease.