The Best (And Easy) Thing You Can Do to Increase Employee Engagement

It's easy to blame employees for lack of engagement, but without a clear, simple, and engaging mission statement and strategy--they won't.

This month, three prospective clients complained about the same thing: lack of employee engagement. The clients are completely different organizations: one is a Fortune 500 software company, another is a local government system, and the third is a defense industry company. All three were in a similar situation: they had just developed a new strategy, they needed the employees to engage in it, but the employees didn't.

Given that the focus of my practice is to help build a culture of innovation, and that my tag line is "corporate culture starts with you! not your boss," I started asking questions to understand why their employees were not engaging. I found the same phenomenon in all three organizations: lack of a clear, exciting, galvanizing mission statement.

All there organizations developed their mission statements "by the book." Just like they were taught in business school. They spent more time refining and word-smiting the mission statement, and less time in making them meaningful and galvanizing.

You've seen it before. The mission statement of one large school district is "to provide excellent education to all students." The mission statement of one manufacturing company is "to be the best provider of highest quality products to our customers."

And there lies the problem. Those mission statements are obvious. No employee of the school district would ever come to work thinking that their job was to provide the worst education, and only to some of the students. No employee of the manufacturing company will come to work thinking that their job is to be the mediocre provider of poor quality products. Those just don't make sense, and thus employees can't find a reason to engage. Especially during times of change, in which engagement could be so critical. It's "just another mission statement" for them.

In their 2005 article Strategic Intent, Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad quoted a few mission statements that really got employees excited. Cannon's mission was to "beat Xerox," and Komatsu's mission was to "encircle Caterpillar." Employees can rally behind mission statements like these, as they generate team-spirit, local pride, and common goal (sometimes, through a common enemy). Think about the rivalry between US colleges (often, around their football or any other athletic teams). Don't you want that kind of "local patriotism" in your company? As research shows--this kind of pride leads to higher levels of productivity and creativity--exactly what you want to achieve with engagement employees.

There is a second part to it, though. With all three companies, I asked them to share their strategy with me. For two of them, the strategy was presented as a 20+ page document. I took the document, hid it under the table, and ask them to tell me what the strategy was. They couldn't. They needed the document. The strategy was a complete document with many moving parts. "What is the purpose of the strategy?" I asked. "To let the employees know what they need to do," came the answer. Do you expect your employees to read a 20+ page document every morning to know what they must to today? Do you need them to read that document every time they reach a fork in the road and need to make decisions? In reality, those documents were not created for the employees. They were really created for the board of directors, or for public consumption. They were more descriptive than prescriptive.

Strategy must be much simpler than that. It has to start with that galvanizing mission statement. I'm not a big fan of separating vision from mission. One statement is enough for me. But I do want to have a small number of metrics that would show how we measure successful implementation of the mission statement. If you are a public library, and your mission is to have the people in your city "come back to the library," a good metric could be the percentage of people in your city who hold a library card and use the library services every month. Put a goal. Make it a stretch goal. If only 5% of cardholders today visit the library every month, you may want to target 20%.

The next, and last part of your strategy should really be a small set of rules, as described in the 2001 Eisenhardt and Sull article Strategy As Simple Rules. Those rules should, for the most part, set the boundary, priority, how-to, timing, and even exit criteria for making decisions. Don't confuse strategy with implementation. The strategy should set an exciting direction, with metrics/goals, and few simple rules. The entire strategy should fit on a single page, with a large font. It should be something that is easy to memorize. The implementation would be different for every part of the organization, and be functionally-relevant to the employees there.

The strategy document would excite the employees and, as a result, cause them to engage. It would not guarantee engagement, which still requires the right culture, a culture that provides autonomy, and that doesn't punish employees for trying things and failing. But it's a critical first step.

This article was originally published at Inc.