Leaders are enamored with employee engagement. They repeatedly conduct surveys to assess it and hold meetings to address it. Yet, despite the millions of dollars that are invested annually, engagement continues to be among employees’ biggest disappointments and management’s top challenges.
Maybe it’s time to rethink our expectations, to reframe the issue, to take the next logical step. What’s beyond engagement? Well, in life outside of work, it’s typically marriage.
Couples enter into a romantic engagement as a transition to another, more committed state. In 2010, the average time from proposal to wedding was 15 months. “Five years” was a long enough engagement to get its own movie. Yet we expect employees to remain engaged for decades over the course of their working careers.
What might it look like to take the plunge to the next level — to the equivalent of marriage in the workplace? It certainly can’t look like a “to have and to hold until death do us part” scenario. The old employment contract was broken long ago, making a vow of lifetime employment impossible today.
But there are other vows that employers and employees can make to deepen relationships and expand commitment for mutual benefit.
Employers can take the development vow, committing to ensure growth opportunities to employees throughout their careers. And frankly, this is an easy one. Why wouldn’t an organization want to build its workforce’s skills and abilities?
Smart leaders are figuring out how to provide development opportunities so that people can keep growing without the need for new or different positions. Really smart leaders know how to find these development opportunities in the real work that needs to get done, making for a win-win situation.
Of course, vows go both ways. Employees must be prepared to put this investment in their development to work, deploying expanded capabilities toward improved outcomes and business results.
There’s also the meaning vow. People want to know that the time and energy they invest makes a difference. As a result, employers looking to graduate from engagement can commit to facilitating the experience of meaning at work. They can value contributions. They can help employees understand how they fit into the bigger picture. They can recognize and celebrate accomplishment and achievement.
This can only work long-term if employees treat their work with the respect and attention consistent with its meaning. What’s involved is a vow to honor the work accordingly.
Another way for organizations to deepen their relationships with employees and activate greater commitment is to consider the choice vow. Research conducted by Deci and Ryan find that one of the primary psychological needs employees bring to the workplace is the need for autonomy. Employers who understand this can realize remarkable results by finding ways to allow choice, control, and autonomy when and where it’s possible.
Let’s be realistic, though; it’s not always possible. For instance, employees rarely get to set strategy or even goals; but they are in the best possible position to determine how to realize those goals. Leveraging this dynamic builds strong bonds as well as business results.
The vow back from employees who enjoy this sort of autonomy is clear. They must be willing to honor and abide by the rules and guidelines that do exist. Rather than challenging or second-guessing management’s parameters, they need to view them as the guardrails and rules of the road that enable a safe and successful journey.
Finally, moving from mere engagement to a “marriage” of employee and organization demands two-way trust. Employers must have confidence that employees will behave as committed partners. When this happens, trust infuses its way into every corner of the business: policies, procedures, etc. Even working conditions can reflect trust; where appropriate, employees are allowed flex time and the ability to work remotely (two workplace features that are consistently positively correlated to satisfaction).
This outpouring of trust is only possible, though, when employees make a reciprocal vow: to earn and return that trust every day.
Can you say, “I do”?
To achieve the commitment required to realize today’s ambitious business goals, maybe it’s time to consider extending the metaphor of engagement to the next logical step. Marrying the hearts, heads, and hands of employees more closely to the organization involves writing vows or realistic agreements that both are willing to exchange and abide by. Until death do us part? Probably not. But a strong foundation for a mature, reciprocal relationship? Quite likely … and that sounds like a match made in heaven.
Please share your thoughts.
- What kind of “reception” might this idea get in your organization?
- What vows might you be willing to exchange with employees to deepen commitment and results?
Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.