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Employee Engagement Is More Than a Buzzword

Our CEO Ron Zamir sat down with Jathan Janove, principal at Janove Organizational Solutions, to discuss the importance of and opportunities that come with a paradigm shift in employee onboarding. Read more about employee engagement (and why it’s more than a buzzword!), the role of managers in driving successful engagement, and creating excitement around new beginnings.

Ron Zamir: When someone talks to you about employee engagement, what are the first things that you think about?

Jathan Janove: I think first you have to begin with definition. Employee engagement—that term has gotten a lot of flak. It’s a flavor of the month kind of thing. If you define it as employee happiness or satisfaction, then I can see where the criticism comes from. But I have a definition of employee engagement that I think translates in terms of bottom-line, organization success. And my definition is, an engaged employee is enthusiastically committed to, accountable for, and aligned with the organization’s goals.

If you’re truly engaged, you’re committed.

RZ: So the operative word is alignment?

JJ: Well, there are several operative words.

First is enthusiastic. I’m a great believer that one’s level of enthusiasm influences behavior and results. I’m also a great believer in organizations maximizing the enthusiasm potential in the workplace.

Another key word is commitment. Who doesn’t have a job where there are parts of the job that aren’t as much fun as other parts of the job? But the problem is, when you’re not committed, the unfun parts tend to get neglected. And so I say if you’re truly engaged, you’re committed.

The next key word is accountable. What I try to do when I work with employers is help them create environments where accountability isn’t based on fear of consequence, but where it’s ownership at the individual level. It’s self-accountability. They do it because they feel a sense of responsibility.

Then the final key word is the one that you identified… aligned with. As the late Stephen Covey used to say, “You’re climbing the ladder just fine, but is it against the right wall?” What is the organization doing that daily behavior on the part of employees is truly aligned with what it means to succeed?

RZ: I want to stay on engagement. Part of the work of any manager is to define his or her need to be involved or influence certain things in the business. When it comes to engagement, how do you see the optimal way they should define their responsibility for engagement vs HR? The executive managers versus the role of the team manager?

JJ: Starting with the manager of managers, there are certain things I look for when I work with somebody in those positions. First and foremost, what kind of environment are you creating?

RZ:  So, you see the role of the manager as creating an environment that could support engagement?

JJ: Yes, they should be thinking of the overall environment, how to create a completely engaged workplace. What are they doing to support, to train properly, select and empower the line managers to really make that happen?

How do you not step in, but instead lay the foundation where there won’t be a need for you to step in, because it’s being handled at the level below you? To have engaged employees, you have to have engaged managers.

RZ: We’ve seen it with our customers where they focus a lot of their energy on creating engagement surveys. Then hand that information over to an HR function.

JJ: Yes, and there’s a lot of evidence that employee engagement surveys themselves are disengaging, and that’s typically the model where they do the surveys, they give it to HR and they say, “Okay, do something with this.”

RZ:  If you were coming in as an outside observer and had to evaluate if a team is engaged or not engaged, what are the first things you look for to identify an engaged or non-engaged workforce?

JJ: One is observation, and the other is an interview. In either way, it isn’t hard to drill down and get a sense of what the engagement level is. I’ve never found that to be the challenge. The challenge is what do you do about it. I think the diagnosis is important.

If I’m working with a dysfunctional team, I can deal with the surface conflict. But what are the root causes? Is it personality? Some grievance that was never brought to the surface? Is it cultural? So I think that’s always the importance of a root cause analysis, which I think is necessary for crafting effective solutions.

RZ: I couldn’t agree more. There is often a deeper underlying root cause. And I think, for our needs, when we look at a disengaged workforce, the training approach we take would usually be much more challenging or different. We have to build that engagement up through the tools we have, through the training intervention.

JJ: In the most healthy scenario, the manager really owns it. And I think the other pieces support it—where new behaviors are going to be imprinted, for good or for bad.

I’d recommend to my clients to get rid of the term onboarding. It suggests something pretty threatening, in fact.

Why don’t you call it something like new beginnings? Focus on the opportunity piece, not the compliance piece. What I’d recommend, strategically, as you’re onboarding or you’re new beginning, first and foremost, get the person out of the gate engaged. That means, excited about their future, excited about their relationship with their boss, excited about their relationship with their co-workers, excited about the nature of the work they’re going to be doing. That’s where I’d say the primary focus is.

Then as far as the HR or compliance piece, I recognize that that’s part of the equation, but don’t bore people to death. With compliance pieces, thought and attention should go into it and it shouldn’t simply be a bored HR Generalist going down a checklist in monotonous voice. It should be something that’s efficient.

RZ: What I find fascinating about your comments is that it’s almost about redefining the objective of the onboarding. We find many of our clients really hit their employees with the proverbial firehose of information, out of concern that all of the boxes are checked and that we’re giving the employee all the competencies in a very short time.

I want to end with something I think you have some particular experience with. Many times managers get it wrong or are forced to address conflict. How can we coach managers to diffuse issues that can eventually impact a successful onboarding process or create disengagement?

JJ: In my new book, there’s an entire chapter devoted to that and there are various techniques. I’d start with the paradigm. For example, take the word conflict. Most people, if you do a word association with them, they’re going to associate negative words with conflict: fear, pain, suffering, fight, flight, avoidance, withdrawal. Whereas I say, change the paradigm.

Every employee, no matter what age, wants to feel engaged.

Define conflict as opportunity. I define conflict as any difference: difference of you, difference of opinions, difference of attitude, difference of whatever it is that is causing some friction. If you define it as opportunity and you approach it that way, then it becomes opportunity for growth, for development, for healing. And stories that I tell in the book are all examples of how people went from a paradigm of conflict as fight or flight, or avoidance, which is a huge problem, to opportunity.

RZ: Are there any other observations or recommendations you’d give a company like AllenComm that works in training?

JJ: Avoid making the mistake that a lot of companies that work in or around this space make, which is the assumption that because this is what we trade or immerse ourselves in, we do it better than other organizations. Don’t confuse that with or make the assumption that because we’re experts, we’re doing it the way we’d tell others to.

RZ: In closing I would leave with the thought that every employee, no matter what age, wants to feel engaged in what they do. I think every organization has a desire to ramp up employees to be successful. To take pride that their employees are champions of the organization and would promote and recommend that company, company’s product and its services to others.

So, anything we can do to support those functions has high criticality in our current work environment.

(This interview was edited for clarity and length.)