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  • Barry Wolfe

Is This the One Weird Trick to Creating Employee Engagement?

Suppose you have a good but eccentric friend (for an American; stick with me) who asks you to join him over the weekend for a game of cricket. “We’re going to be short a player,” he explains, “and I’d love to have you join us. It’s a great time.”


Let’s say you respond as a typical American. “It sounds like fun,” you reply tentatively, “but I don’t know the game.”


“No problem!” your friend replies. “Just show up, we’ll get you going. You’ll love it!”

You figure you’re baseball player enough to bridge to cricket; and like your friend, you like to play to win. So you say yes and show up, eager to do your best for your friend and his teammates.


They’re a great bunch of people, and they give you the equipment; but no one tells you how to play the game. You find yourself being called out for reasons God only knows, your golf swing doesn’t help you with batting, and the coaching about mid-wicket and leg gully is gibberish (full disclosure: I got those terms from watching an episode of Downton Abbey).

Before long, you’re tired of your teammates’ headshakes at another well-intentioned mistake, and you tell your friend you’ve decided to leave. “Come on, stick with us!” he pleads. “Tell you what – I’ve got a bottle of your favorite scotch in the car. Finish the game, and it’s yours.” You’ve lost any interest in actually trying to play this game, but a pricey scotch is worth another hour’s embarrassment. So you trot back over and endure the rest of the game.


With the inevitable defeat, you offer and receive half-hearted thanks for playing, collect your bottle and head home. He could have kept his scotch, you tell yourself as you pull out. All he had to do was help me play his game.


Most people want to win. They want to play on a winning team, and they want to contribute to the winning. Good leadership is ultimately about helping the team members contribute to success. But to be a successful contributor, people have to know what’s expected. Playing a game when you can’t help win is a terrible, demoralizing feeling. Perks may keep people in the game, but even costly bribery is no substitute for help to contribute to the win.


Maybe that little parable’s lesson is obvious to you as a leader. Then again, there’s about an even chance that your people don’t think it’s so obvious to you.


The coronavirus pandemic has upended the workplace in a lot of ways, but it hasn’t obviated the need for employees who are committed to helping the organization succeed. The Internet is flooded with research and anecdotal prescriptions for creating employee engagement, from consistent feedback, to job rotation, to incentive compensation plans, to ice cream on Fridays. But several decades of these management techniques haven’t moved survey results much beyond about 26% - 33% of employees who say they’re actually engaged.


However, a 2015 Gallup study of over 2 million employees in 550 companies worldwide yielded a remarkable finding: Only about half of all employees strongly say they know what is expected of them at work. Perhaps even more troubling, the managers of these employees are just as much in the dark about what’s expected of them as are their subordinates.

The solution is not to create job descriptions. Real clarity of expectations is not just about “essential duties” to perform; it’s about the results to be delivered, how to work with the rest of the team, and understanding the larger goals of the organization.


A well-designed performance appraisal can serve as a valuable roadmap for an employee’s success. Unfortunately, most of them are a kind of scorecard that assumes it’s for the employee’s boss to know how the score is kept, but not for the employee.


Clarifying expectations has been shown to contribute significantly to productivity, safety, customer perceptions of service quality, and employee retention - you know, all those things employers recognize as benefits of employee engagement.


So as you’re wrestling with how to keep your employees engaged, especially with so many working remotely, you can keep browsing the Internet articles on learning, and feedback, and incentive compensation, and ice cream on Fridays. But before you hang your hat on one of those, ask yourself if any of them are likely to really, meaningfully produce the engagement you seek better than truly clarifying your expectations for people. Which would really work for you?

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