Improving employee engagement is a perennial management concern. While difficult to quantify, there is little debate that engaged employees contribute more to the enterprise. An HR executive recently summarized the keys to improving engagement with three words: “Respect, Empower, Inspire.”
Ok, fine, but how does a company or manager do this exactly? Beyond admonitions to managers, what specific behaviors can managers employ? I suggest one key lever to focus on is how managers communicate with their staff, i.e., what words are used, what are the conversational patterns, what are the means of following-up and reaching closure, etc. These are “systematic behaviors” that can be observed and strengthened with an eye to increasing respect and empowerment.
I am referring here to the ground-breaking work by Drs. Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd who developed the model of a “conversation for action” that embodies a new pattern of communication between work colleagues. First of all, each work conversation begins with a “request”. Not an “assignment” that presumes a one-up and one-down relationship between the parties, but a “request” which acknowledges from the start the mutual dependency and the associated respect due to the performer. Just using the words “can you. . .” changes the mood of the whole work delivery conversation.
The second stage of the conversation is equally powerful. The performer is provided the opportunity, as a respected equal, to “negotiate” their response to the request. The performer is empowered to say what they can and cannot commit to. No more just assigning a task with a person’s name on it and a due date. Rather, an actual agreement with a performer who is empowered to respond with what they can accomplish by when. Note, also, that providing this measure of autonomy to the performer is the quid pro quo for clarifying subsequent accountability for delivery. Accountability is baseless without negotiation. If the performer never has room to say no (i.e. decline a request), then how can you trust a yes?
The work conversation proceeds full circle with a clear delivery of the agreed outcome followed by the manager’s acceptance and praise or critique. A successful cycle inspires the next one. Trust, a key element of engagement, is built along the way from repeated cycles.
So, the next question is how do you instantiate these behaviors throughout the organization?
We believe technology can improve engagement by guiding and facilitating a “managed conversation” between requesters and performers. 4Spires has developed a new generation of social task management software that combines task and relationship management. It goes right to the heart of the engagement question with a specific and tangible intervention that can change the conversation content and dynamics. The software acts as a third party to the conversation by prompting the use of specific words and responses and by assuring explicit closure of the conversation. The tool is an expression of new practices and new behaviors. Helping individuals make and keep their commitments builds engagement.