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What Leaders Often Misunderstand about Improving Employee Engagement

Measuring and improving employee engagement is often revered as the holy grail to improving business performance.  Moderate employee engagement results encourage the C-Suite to pat themselves on the back.   But ask the CEO some truth-seeking questions and they confess that despite good employee engagement levels there are a few problems that are still impacting performance –  employees not being fully challenged, certain leaders unable to harness the collective intelligence of their teams and frustration around constrained expansion plans.

Fixating solely on employee engagement alone is not the most efficient path to company nirvana.  It is akin to saying you want to create a happy life.  Research on seeking happiness and proverbial wisdom will tell you that pursuing happiness won’t help you find it.  It’s vague and time-consuming, but for some reason, as humans, we think happiness will solve all of our problems.  

Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder      

Henry David Thoreau

Not surprisingly, improving employee engagement isn’t about making employees happy, either.  Happiness can lead to complacency, while engagement is more about drive, motivation and enthusiasm to meet goals.  After all, companies exist to serve customers, not keeping employees happy.  Yet, companies feel compelled to provide their staff with lots of free stuff believing they can buy employee engagement.   Look at any of The 100 Best Companies to Work For lists and surprisingly, the distinguishing theme underpinning all of the best companies is not their fancy yoga classes, parties or lavish annual leave policies.  It’s something else.

Just like searching for happiness doesn’t bring you happiness, so too does focusing on employee engagement not always improve employee engagement.  

When you think about it –  when was the last time you heard a higher-performing leader say “I am going to increase engagement today!” 

Instead, what high-performing leaders and companies do is intuitively focus on the root cause of employee engagement. 

The Magic Ingredient of High Employee Engagement

Engagement issues are really only symptoms.   You can waste a lot of unnecessary time and resources focusing on them.  The real issue is whether actually employees trust their direct manager and the organisation overall.  

A Canadian research firm analysed 12 different employee engagement models with 26 different drivers of employee engagement and found the strongest causal factors towards high employee engagement were the trust levels that a person has with their immediate supervisor and in their company at large. 

Trust even impacts how effective we are in our job roles.  According to Tolero Solutions45% of people say a lack of trust in leadership is the biggest issue impacting their work performance.  

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense.  What employees really want is that leaders appreciate their effort and they will be rewarded for their loyalty and commitment towards the organisation and its customers.  They want leaders who care about them and want to support them in their careers.  They want to work for companies that do the right thing by customers and their employees.  

When employees trust management and the organisation they are more likely to exchange ideas and information, discuss difficult issues and find ways to create synergy.  But if people don’t trust, they close down.  It means they won’t contribute in meetings, co-operate, or try anything new.  Ignoring trust issues means that businesses are missing out on the benefits of staff loyalty, discretionary effort, innovation and productivity.  

If you want engagement, you need trust first.  Trust doesn’t cause engagement, it’s a pre-requisite for it.  Working to improve trust first is the surest way to fix all of the undercover symptoms that are sabotaging efforts to improve employee engagement overall.

Trust serves as the foundation for any relationship and is linked to high performance.  It gives us a sense of safety to explore and understand our world.  In a business context, it means we can commit to actions, make decisions faster and have the confidence to buy into a big vision and get an innovative project off the ground. 

Leaders are Employee Engagement Linchpins

In a high-trust collective, you will find leaders who are trustworthy and who have a concept of what it means to act with trust.  They are intentional about building trust and they have learned about it comprehensively so that they can more accurately build, judge and rely on trust with others. 

On a regular basis, they self-reflect and ask themselves: “What can I do to build trust with my direct reports or peers today?”  They also expect high trust behaviours from others ensuring that trust gets embedded into the company culture.

Consider Ali Rowghani  and what he learned about leadership from working alongside Steve Jobs, Bob Iger (CEO, Disney), Ed Catmull (CEO, Pixar) and John Lasseter (Chief Creative Officer, Pixar).  His remark was that all of them were outstanding leaders with unique and very different leadership styles.  But what they all had in common was that they all knew how to build trust with those around them.  They encouraged people to contribute, voice their opinion and take control of their work.  And they did it from the position of being engaged in their own work.  After all, leaders can’t engage others if they are fearful about the future, dislike the company and its products.

Setting Out to Improve Trust

Leaders are the channel for an organisation’s purpose and values.  If leaders fail to connect to them, they can hardly connect others to it.  It’s the same with trust.  If leaders don’t believe in building trust or changing their behaviours, then they will fail to put the right effort behind it.  Such inauthenticity immediately fuels further distrust with employees.

Building trust starts with the CEO and senior leadership team (and board) First of all, they have to be willing to build trust with each other.  Executives lead by example and set the cultural tone with their behaviours.  If top leaders aren’t working collectively, then any attempts to tell employees trust is important will be ignored.

When you set out to improve organisational trust, you have to bust all of the common trust misconceptions.  You have to understand what it is and what it is not.  Typically, most people confuse it with whether they can trust other people. 

One of the first questions we ask ourselves when we meet a new person is “Can I trust them?”

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s critical to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.  In a business setting, relationships are everything.  From the relationships, employees have with customers, each other, leaders and the actual organisation itself.

Whenever I ask a room of leaders to write down what they need to do to build trust in their company, 95% of people will fall into complaining about their boss or direct reports. When I remind everyone that the real task was to look at themselves and not complain about others, I get a range of responses from “can you repeat the question again?” to complete shock on people’s faces as they realise they have fallen into a low emotional intelligence trap.

Trust is not about what other people are doing wrong.  Nor is it about controlling people to get what you want (and becoming frustrated when they don’t).  

Narcissists and sociopaths are adept at superficially building trust to meet their needs at the expense of others.   Often, they sit in executive boardrooms either sabotaging trust efforts or using it inauthentically to protect themselves.  They will dress things up to make out they are collaborating.  Care must be taken to ensure that trust isn’t being used as a thinly veiled excuse to manipulate others, pursue profit, self-interest or protect reputation.

To improve trust means looking truthfully at what we are doing  – individually and collectively.  Then, establishing how both parties need trust built both ways rather than from a one-way perspective. 

To avoid that requires anchoring everyone to a definition that ensures no confusion about what trust means in terms of what behaviours are required (and not) and how to go about it for the greater good of the organisation.

In a business context, I define trust as:

The willingness for everyone in an organisation to confidently rely on and predict that others will do the right thing and make good on their promises.

In companies where trust is high, people are talking about it.   They have a trust framework that forms a common language on the dimensions of trust.  This helps individuals and teams understand, discuss and practise trust with one another.  It means employees have the language to call people out on behaviours that are destroying trust.  

After all, it’s trust that enables different people within an organisation to consistently rely on each other. It’s trust that enables your customers and other stakeholders to believe that you will deliver on your promises and behave responsibly. It’s trust that enables a company or brand to bounce back after a crisis.  And it’s trust that enables an organisation to change, grow and improve employee engagement.

According to research undertaken for Fortune magazine by Great Places to Work Institute, even high trust, high-performance companies get it wrong.  

Their research uncovered major discrepancies between the experiences of those on the frontline, as well as differences between gender, ethnicity and even full-time versus part-time workers.  

What’s becoming increasingly obvious is that companies that have leaders right down to front-line workers who all embrace the value of a candid and open exchange of ideas and information, create highly functional and profitable enterprises.

Trust is Leadership Competency

Few organisations strategically improve trust in order to improve employee engagement.  One of the problems is that because trust is an emotional issue it’s hard to see, let alone fix in enterprises.  For most leaders, looking at a workplace problem through the lens of trust is not in their sphere of capabilities or even in their language.  Even when they determine trust is a problem, they have a different frame of reference on trust compared to other leaders making it tricky for everyone to know the best steps forward.  Often leaders, waste time and headspace focusing on the wrong trust elements or not even fixing trust at all.  

Not only that, few human resources or learning and development leaders even consider how to improve the trust competencies of their leaders, in order to overhaul the most critical business relationships that generate such a ripple effect on company culture.

Providing leaders with foundational skills on building trust are critical to any leadership development program.  And it’s not just about throwing in a superficial module that talks about the importance of trust.  It has to be connected to how trust building is required in your unique corporate culture together with the right tools and routines to institutionalise a new trust leadership habit.

Creating a high trust culture boils down to every employee knowing they can count on every person around them.   It means everyone is committed to performing at a high level and helping their peers achieve as well.  It’s about how everyone can work as a collective and SUCCEeD TogetherTM.

Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting to fix employee engagement.  Or even measure it.  The issue is that focusing on fixing employee engagement alone is inefficient and time-consuming.  Not only that employee engagement surveys often don’t go deep enough to understand the leadership interactions required to build trust.

Trust is the fire that sparks teams into cohesive action. If you want to foster high-performance teams that will act as force multipliers for your company, ensure every leader and employee knows how to cultivate trust with each other. Only then can you improve how willingly employees interact together and go above and beyond delivering on customer needs from the factory floor to the corner office. 

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