Clarity in the Workplace

According to the 2017 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report from Aon Hewitt, less than one quarter of employees are highly engaged and 39% are moderately engaged. In a single year, employee engagement globally dropped from 65% in 2015 to 63% in 2016.

Numbers like these are startling, but they are hardly surprising for most managers. Leaders see the symptoms of a disengaged workforce on a daily basis, but ironically, employee engagement is an area that is most often overlooked by leadership when it comes to the day-to-day management of an organization.

An org. chart defines hierarchy and reporting structures, but how does an organization do a better job of changing how employees think of their role and their impact on the organization’s goals? How do you change one’s mindset from being “just an employee” to a difference maker? How do we continue to keep employees motivated and passionate about the work they do?

A number of remedies exist to address employee engagement in the workplace, but there is one approach that most company’s can apply immediately: by tying the company’s overall strategy and vision to the individual. Tools like the balanced scorecard and strategy maps do a great job of explicitly showing how a department, or an individual function, can directly impact an organization’s strategy. They can also show the cause and effect links that exist between different objectives the organization has for its strategy. When employees see where their work fits into the bigger picture, then they achieve a level of clarity and purpose that’s critical for sustainable employee engagement.

In short: people just want to know where they fit in the bigger picture.

The story of “Twenty Stone Cutters” from Business Parables perfectly captures this point. In this short story, twenty stone-cutters toil away under the supervision of a tyrannical foreman who constantly shouts and abuses the workers to make sure their daily quota of stone-cutting is met. Jobs in the village are scarce, so the workers endure the abusive foreman and depressing work environment, knowing full well that having this job is better than none at all. One day, the foreman receives word from his supervisor that his quota had been doubled. Despite the foreman’s bravado when conveying the news, each stone-cutter put his tools down and walks out on the job. After reaching their breaking point, they finally came to the realization that the foreman relies on their manpower to get the job done and they were no longer willing to put up with the abuse.

The next day, the workers return to their job site to find a new foreman in charge. His first order of business is to take a field trip from the quarry to the site where their handiwork now resides. As the bus slowed to a stop, the stone-cutters saw before them an enormous, marvelous stone temple. The workers immediately recognized the handiwork as their own and complimented one another. The foreman explained that the temple, when completed, would stand for the test of time and would be a place the workers could bring their families to worship and enjoy.

But the stone-cutters immediately recognized that the inner chamber of the temple was uncompleted, and to make matters worse, it needed to be completed before an important religious ceremony two weeks from then. Without hesitating, the stone-cutters got to work crafting a plan to ensure the timely creation of the temple. With a renewed sense of pride and a perspective on the bigger picture, the workers insisted on fashioning the inner chamber out of marble, a material twice as hard to cut, but infinitely more beautiful and worthy of the temple’s stature. The temple was completed on time and with special modifications that came directly from the stone-cutters creativity and skill.

Benefits from employee clarity and understanding of strategy:

1. Pride in one’s work makes the product better. This may be the most obvious outcome of clarity. Employees want affirmation that their work is critical to the organization’s success. Showing a clear depiction of how an individual’s role impacts an objective on a strategy map provides an explanation of impact and tells a story of employee worth. The stone-workers from our parable considered themselves masters of their craft. They became disengaged with the drudgery that their work became due to a lack of vision. Present employees with a compelling future state and demonstrate how their work comes together to accomplish something bigger than their individual effort.

2. Understanding the big picture can provide different perspectives. Understanding the big picture allows others to provide meaningful input and interesting new perspectives. A powerful example of this occurred at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. A documentary film crew spotted a janitor cleaning a hospital room and asked if he was preparing the room for a patient. The janitor casually remarked off-camera, “No, I’m saving people’s lives.” This isn’t just an overstatement. Custodial employees have been responsible for pointing out commonplace issues that lead to bigger problems in hospitals across the country. In another example, it was an observation from a janitor that doctors perform rounds while wearing the same necktie from room to room. It has his understanding that most men never wash their ties and this could possibly help spread hospital acquired infections like MRSA from floor to floor. Examples like this show how even line level employees tie their role to the bigger picture — in this case the mission of delivering a better overall healthcare experience. This sort of awareness can lead to innovative approaches in the way organizations can work.

3. Lend a hand — we’re all in this together. Individuals who understand the big picture can step up and provide a helping hand at just the right moment. If the billing department has a continuous improvement initiative that can be applied to the sales team’s processes, it would be beneficial to both departments to combine resources and build out a solution that could apply to both. Greater alignment is one result, but it also allows for a better use of resources. Few things are more detrimental to an organization’s performance than redundant platforms or systems that don’t integrate from one department to the next. A corporate strategy map that is accessible across the enterprise allows for departments to find opportunities to step in and collaborate with one another in order to fulfill the organization’s vision.

4. Build it and they will come… or perhaps they will leave. Company’s with compelling visions and clear strategies are beacons of light for aspiring employees. The best companies to work for routinely score high on areas related to strategy and vision. People want to do something meaningful with their work lives, or at the very least, they want clarity with the direction their company is going. Setting a vision and articulating a strategy will allow employees to reengage, but it can also have another unexpected benefit: it allows the detractors within the company to decide for themselves whether this is the company for them. It may be harsh truth to accept, but not everyone belongs within some work-cultures. The way an organization communicates, how it organizes its processes, the vision for its future state, even the color paint and décor in the office, all have an effect on the culture of an organization. And what works for one person may not for another. But clear strategic direction gives those unwilling or unsure the extra “push” they need to choose other opportunities that are more beneficial to them.

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