All of us who own, manage or lead companies long for employees who are productive and engaged with their work. In fact an increasing number of business leaders have come to believe that employee engagement is a key to business success. Evidence supports this belief. In a recent Environmental Leader article, I cited several studies that show a strong relationship between engagement levels and favorable company outcomes. However, engagement strategies that lack direction and follow-through may not only fail to provide these benefits but may actually backfire and lead to lower morale and skepticism. Therefore, leaders who are embracing employee engagement as a tool for supporting their sustainability efforts would be well advised to think through why they desire employee engagement, what they are trying to achieve, and how they intend to carry it out.
A recent study by Green Research indicates that employee engagement will be among the top sustainability-related initiatives in 2012. Yet according to another survey just released by Brighter Planet, only 58% of the current employee engagement efforts initiated as part of a company’s sustainability strategy were deemed to be effective. As with most tools, employee engagement must be applied with forethought in order to get results. When carried out well, employee engagement can be a marvelous means of energizing the workforce and at the same time enabling the company to meet its goals for sustainable strategies. Here are some tips for ensuring that employee engagement helps your company achieve its goals for sustainable strategies:
l. Connect your employee engagement strategy with the big picture. Employee engagement is a tool and, as such, is a means to an end. Avoid launching an employee engagement effort without clearly connecting it to an overall plan for sustainable strategies.
2. Determine what you are trying to achieve with employee engagement before launching it. Employee engagement without goals is meaningless. What exactly are your goals? Are you interested in generating ways to save money? Are you after creative thoughts about new products or business models? Do you want employees to change their behaviors? (If so, which behaviors do you want to change and how?) Engagement goals without focus will waste your resources.
3. Commit to follow-up and follow-through with ideas from engaged employees. For example, if you ask employees for suggestions pertaining to ways for improving the sustainable performance of the company, respond to their ideas. Nothing is more frustrating to employees than being asked to make suggestions that are promptly ignored. Prepare to provide feedback to those who generate suggestions, whether or not you are able to use their ideas.
4. Use your employee engagement initiative as a way of helping employees learn more about the business. In the absence of knowledge about how your company actually makes money, employees may make suggestions that are not sound from a business standpoint. In such cases, they have wasted time and energy generating ideas that cannot work. An informed and empowered workforce will yield the best results from employee engagement initiatives. Teach them about the business as part of your engagement strategy.
5. Do not assume that your current business model is the only business model that can be effective. Even though it is important for employees to understand the business in order to make useful suggestions, you should also be open to innovative ideas which challenge the status quo. If you only act on ideas that are risk-free, you are unlikely to make much progress via an engagement initiative. Employees are likely to become disenchanted quickly.
Employee engagement can be a powerful tool for companies striving to make headway with their sustainable strategies. However, like any other tool, it will be effective only if it is used with purpose and in the hands of those who are skilled in using it.
Dr. Kathleen Miller Perkins is a psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management founded in 1980. In addition to managing the company, she continues to remain active in assisting client organizations in assessing and addressing the organizational culture and leadership requirements for executing sustainability strategy. She has delivered services to over 100 public and private sector companies. Dr. Miller’s client list includes organizations such as IBM, Toyota, BC Hydro, Brown -Forman, General Electric, Ashland Chemical, Ernst and Young, Bristol Myers Squibb and Kindred Health Care.