Lead Engagement! Action Plans Don't Work

Lead Engagement! Action Plans Don't Work

For 20 years, companies have conducted engagement surveys and planned and executed action plans. After all this time, what do we have to show for our efforts? Gallup, one of the world's largest surveyors, cites that only 31 percent of employees in the US are engaged and only 13 percent are engaged worldwide. These results have not changed in the last five years.

These results tell us a few important things:

  • Our efforts aren't paying off, despite billions of dollars and hours spent on engagement
  • Traditional action planning, followed by many companies, does not work
  • We need a fundamental shift in how we lead engagement

We have to change the way we think about engagement, and change the way we develop leaders to motivate and engage their employees.

The Problem with Planning

Survey action plans have been the traditional method of improving engagement. They are not a bad idea...they just don't work. For starters, 60 percent of companies don't require managers to create action plans to improve engagement. This means that action plans are driven at a BU or function level.

First, let's assume that you are in the 40 percent of companies that do have managers create action plans. Unfortunately, it is easy for a manager to put an engagement plan together and lose track of it amongst all other operational, strategic, and customer demands. Just think of individual development plans (IDPs). Managers mean well, but most employee IDPs sit on a shelf with little follow-up.

Some consulting firms and companies address this by publishing action plans on-line so that they can be monitored by more senior leaders or HR to ensure there is follow-up (yawn!). Having visibility is great, but this is not necessarily how you want senior leaders spending their time.

How do you change this? The secret is in the follow-up process with employees. Leaders can create and execute an action plan and see no change in engagement results. To improve results, leaders need to meet with their teams regularly to remind them of the survey results, remind them of the action plan, and review progress. After all, who remembers survey results and action plans 1–2 years after the first survey?

You can develop leaders to have these conversations and to integrate this review into their business rhythm. By doing so, your action plans will gain some traction. Unfortunately, even if you do this well, it is not enough.

Jobs are Important!

One of the biggest drivers of engagement is an employee's job. If employees think they are in boring, unfulfilling jobs, engagement will be low. A function- or BU-level action plan will not change this. (Remember the 60 percent of companies that don't require managers to have an action plan?)

Just think about it. If you were in a boring job, would an action plan including quarterly senior leader communication sessions, lunch and learns, and a compensation review against market pay improve your engagement?

Companies have standardised many jobs over the past decade as they have sought efficiencies and productivity. Typically, companies do not think about making jobs more engaging and fulfilling when they do this. Instead, they focus on decision rights, standardisation, and ERP system implementations.

Leaders have to address this challenge and make up the difference. This means they must take an active role in enriching jobs and providing challenge to employees, whilst also helping them control job stressors and demands. Often, leaders do not know this is an important driver of engagement and are not developed in how to manage this challenge well.

Over the past few years we have been training leaders to do this, and it works. We have seen dramatic turnarounds in job satisfaction and engagement levels of employees. One particular leader went from well below average in engaging employees to the top 10 percent of managers in his company within six months. Developing leaders to manage individual needs differently drives engagement.

Leader Practices Drive Fast Change

Leadership is important to engagement in many ways. Leaders that inspire, stimulate thinking, develop, and act as role models typically have more engaged employees.

Developing leaders to this standard takes time, and most leaders and companies want to see rapid improvement in engagement scores. When developing leaders, we help them strike a balance between developing skills for the future whilst implementing practices that can have immediate impact. By implementing new practices, they begin to connect with their team differently in the short term whilst building a foundation to better inspire their team in the long term.

For example, many managers conduct 1x1s with their team members on a regular basis. However, these 1x1s often focus on work priorities and projects. We help leaders refocus some of this time on more important conversations that help enrich employee jobs, help them connect with employees, and ensure employees are developing on a more regular basis.

We helped one company execute leader practice changes across Asia Pacific and their engagement scores improved engagement from 53 percent to 71 percent in one year. This improvement occurred across 8,000 employees in 10 countries. Developing their leaders resulted in a much more engaged workforce.

Putting It into Practice

Most companies want their leaders to better motivate and engage their employees. They want committed employees that will stay with the company longer and be more productive. Relying on a few high level action plan items to do this won't give you the results you want. To drive engagement, consider:

  • Developing your leaders to follow-up through a regular communication process instead of relying solely on an action plan
  • Developing leaders to shape the jobs, resources, and demands employees face every day, so that employees are actively engaged. We work with companies to do this at an individual level through coaching and through leader development programmes. Both methods are effective
  • Identifying great leader practices and developing leaders to use these. We recently used engagement research and best practice to help a number of country leadership teams define such practices, which they are now driving within their organisations

To have true impact, rethink your plans and spend more time developing your leaders in the right areas to reengage your workforce!

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