Employee engagement: a three-legged stool

A few days before Christmas, I received a package in the mail—a book with a photo of burned toast on the cover, written by a long-time colleague Ben Snyder. I reluctantly put down an adrenaline-packed adventure novel to scan Ben’s chapter headings. I never got back to the novel.

Ben’s book entirely reframed the employee engagement discussion for me. I have been too busy thinking about specific engagement killers and how to rectify them, instead of stepping back and looking at engagement from a “systems” perspective.

Most employees want to do great work and make a difference. When they can’t do their best or don’t see a purpose in their work, they become de-motivated. They show up to perform their jobs, but they’re not 100 percent engaged.

I’ve always viewed low engagement as a two-pronged issue. The corporate culture and/or people management practices are in some way eroding employee enthusiasm.

Ben’s book changed my thinking. Engagement is a three-legged stool. When organizations tweak aspects of people management and corporate culture in an attempt to improve engagement, their efforts fall flat because two-legged stools aren’t stable.

The third leg is “project environment.” Many R&D and IT folks actively think about processes and tools to make projects run smoothly. Most of the rest of us don’t, even though we are doing project work.

When employees are unhappy, it’s often because something is amiss on their projects. Maybe chronic deadline pressure is stressing them out. Maybe they can’t get the answers they need to complete their work. Perhaps, they don’t understand your definition of success, and they are fretting about whether their work will meet your expectations. Maybe the project scope keeps changing, so they are working with a moving target and constantly feel off-balance. There are literally dozens of project-related causes for low employee engagement. These project causes may involve people management or corporate culture components, but not always.

Give your monster a haircut

Many authors have written about people management, project management or corporate culture as separate topics. But Ben’s book ties together all three topics and paints a clear picture of how they interact to nurture (or damage) employee engagement and organizational performance.

He succinctly explains a wide range of topics, such as:

  • How unwieldy bureaucratic processes develop in the first place (understanding this is a first step to creating simpler, more efficient organizations).
  • How projects develop into overly complex “big, hairy monsters” that devour too many resources and overrun your time estimates (this book provides haircut instructions to tame your monster’s locks).
  • Why “people leave meetings worn out, as though they just went through three rounds in a boxing ring, but actually accomplished very little.”

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

  • “When organizations are at their best, they are hardly noticed. At their worst, they can be as restrictive as shackles and toxic as an oil spill. Organizations can create an emotional tie with people by making them feel comfortable and wanted, or threatened, pushing them to a ‘fight or flight’ response.”
  • When corporate strategy is unclear, “work is a series of non-related events that must be carried out without a higher purpose.” Motion without meaning diminishes morale.
  • “A ‘squeaky wheel’ isn’t the highest priority project. It’s the loudest or most noticed. In many organizations, it gets the grease, while projects with greatest potential to bring about business results get delayed or set aside.”
  • “You thought you ordered chicken. The server brings you rat eyes.” A translator would have prevented this grief. Often, a communication gap exists between a visionary and those responsible for implementation. Assign a good translator to bridge the gap.

For executives and managers, not just project leads

The title of Ben Snyder’s book is Everything’s A Project: 70 Lessons from Successful Project-Driven Organizations.

Ben is a masterful systems thinker and CEO of Systemation, a performance improvement firm. He’s also a former baseball pro who played for the Houston Astros, meaning you can expect superb sports analogies.

Each chapter takes five minutes or less to read. And you can read them in any order (almost like surfing the Internet). You’ll chuckle. You’ll cringe. You’ll nod as you see yourself and your company in the case studies and cut-to-the-chase commentary.

Take notes, and by the end, you’ll have a comprehensive list of actions steps to strengthen your enterprise and boost employee engagement.

Read this book, get a match and prepare to blow things up.

Disclosure: I have been a contractor to Systemation, Ben Snyder’s company, since 1999. But I am writing this piece on my own, independent of my work there. Thank you, Ben, for your insights and for being an inspiring example. You will give Seth Godin a run for his money.  :-) 


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