Expert: Processes, Not People, Drag Down Engagement

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR May 2, 2012

When organizations ask how they can get employees to be more engaged, they are asking the wrong question, according to Karen Martin, principal, Karen Martin & Associates LLC, San Diego because such a question implies that employees are the ones causing low engagement levels.

“People aren’t the problem; they never have been and never will be,” she said during a concurrent session of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2012 Talent Management Conference & Exposition held April 30-May 2. Instead, she said, it’s the processes, systems and communication methods organizations use that drag down employee engagement.

Though experts use different definitions of engagement, some of which focus on internal feelings and others on external results, Martin said she believes that employees need three things to be engaged: connection, creativity and control. “Give people the ability to use creativity to solve problems and you will have one engaged workforce,” she said.

That’s why she encouraged attendees to explore how they handle employee onboarding as well as problem solving and continuous improvement efforts.

Employee Onboarding

“Everyone starts their first day hopeful,” she told attendees. They assume they’ll have a better work environment, better boss and better pay and benefits than they had in their last job. Yet it is far too common for new hires to arrive to find they have no computer, desk, business cards or other tools and guidance that they need to be effective in their new roles.

“We have to start looking at [onboarding] from the employee’s perspective,” she said, suggesting that attendees recall their expectations and reactions upon visiting a new doctor’s office. “Pay attention to the details. On day one everything needs to be ready, and they need to be greeted with open arms,” she said.

This includes tools such as a desk, technology and identifying information; company background information including organizational charts and phone directories; and, most importantly, job-specific information, such as a clear definition about what success in that job looks like.

“People need someone to teach them the organizational values and how to get their job done,” she said, adding that the old apprenticeship model—in which employees first observe, then act with supervision before working independently—should be reconsidered.

Employers can take steps to improve the employee onboarding process, she said, by talking to recent hires and working with a cross-functional team to decide what new hires need as well as who (and when) will provide those things.

Problem Solving and Continuous Improvement

Martin said organizations try to play down problems by calling them “opportunities for improvement.” But she suggested that organizations “call ‘em what they are” so that the sense of urgency is maintained.

She used the concept of “Kaizen”—a combination of “Kai,” which means “change,” and “Zen,” which means “good”—to describe a method of continuous improvement that she advocates. Organizations that operate under a Kaizen mind-set create a “high” for front-line employees by getting them involved in problem solving.

Martin suggested that attendees use a Plan-Do-Study-Adjust (PDSA) approach to problem solving:

  • Plan = develop a hypothesis for a problem.
  • Do = conduct an experiment.
  • Study = measure results from the experiment to see how it affects the problem.
  • Adjust = refine, standardize and stabilize as needed and begin the process again.

“Every problem you have can be solved much more effectively by using a PDSA process,” she said.

More importantly, once people get the problem-solving “high,” employee engagement “goes through the roof,” she said, and it can reduce the need for middle managers to micromanage people. The goal, she said, is to improve processes to such an extent that typical employees can perform brilliantly.

Thus, when an organization becomes adept at problem solving and continuous improvement—a process that can take several years, she noted—middle managers will be freed up to focus on their main role: developing people.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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