Small Measures Can Liberate Employees to Contribute Their Best11 November, 2016 / Articles
Think about your first day of work at your job. If you’re like most people, you probably felt energized, motivated, and even inspired. You may have been anxious about joining a new group of colleagues, but you were ready for the challenge. Yet it’s likely that within just a few months the honeymoon period came to an end.
All too often, work is a source of frustration rather than fulfillment. This lack of engagement can hinder productivity and innovation.
How can companies improve employee engagement? In collaboration with HBR, as part of the “Rebel Talent” program, I recently conducted a six-week survey to test the effectiveness of a few small changes.
First, I recruited HBR subscribers for an online survey about their current job experiences. Respondents answered questions about their level of engagement at work, how often they take charge and innovate in their jobs, and how curious they feel. I also asked them questions about their performance. They indicated their agreement with various statements (e.g., “At work, I feel bursting with energy” and “I am immersed in my work”) on a seven-point scale, ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree.
Once a week for the next four weeks, respondents received one of four email messages asking them to engage in certain behaviors at work. According to a decade of my research, these behaviors are key ingredients for enhancing employee engagement.
The four messages were:
“In the next week, we’d like you to focus on the following. For many, work has become routine. It’s important to keep finding ways to improve current processes. Do not take established systems and procedures for granted: Frequently ask yourself why you are executing work the way you are and if there might be better ways of doing things.”
“In the next week, we’d like you to focus on the following. Find ways to let your true self shine through at work. It may be as simple as dressing the way you want, decorating your workspace so that it reflects your personality and makes you feel at ease, or communicating with colleagues and clients in ways that align with who you are. In short, try shaping your job in ways that allow you to feel more authentic and bring out your talents and skills more frequently.”
“In the next week, we’d like you to focus on the following. If you find yourself agreeing with colleagues or others in the organization to avoid confrontation or accelerate decision making, be sure to fight that tendency and voice your opinion instead. If you feel strongly that someone is wrong or that there’s a better way of doing or thinking about something, speak up and offer your different perspective.”
“In the next week, we’d like you to focus on the following. Ask yourself what your talents are and bring them out more frequently. Think of what makes you unique, and assure that your individuality comes through as you work. Also try to identify opportunities for learning and expanding your current set of skills and interests.”
In week six, respondents answered a final survey, which asked about their experiences at work and invited them to make some observations about the behaviors they engaged in. Almost 1,000 people completed the first survey, and 725 of them participated through the end of the study.
My goal was to examine whether encouraging people to behave in specific ways could lead them to approach their work differently and affect their engagement and performance. To be able to draw conclusions, I enlisted 500 working adults from a range of industries to serve as my control group. I recruited them through ClearVoice, a service that provides panels to academic institutions. They answered the online surveys in weeks one and six but did not receive any messages asking them to adopt new behaviors at work.
As I expected, in the first survey I found no difference in the levels of engagement, innovation, and self-reported performance between the respondents in the intervention group and those in the control group.
But then the results got interesting. When comparing the scores from weeks one and six, I found that they had barely changed for the people in the control group. The results were different for those I had asked to change behaviors — by questioning usual practices and expressing their individuality, for example. Based on their survey answers, after the six weeks they were 21% more engaged in their jobs, they were 18% more likely to take charge and innovate, their performance improved by 14%, and their level of curiosity was 12% higher. In other words, prodding them to behave in ways that constructively fight conformity had had all sorts of benefits.
I asked respondents in the intervention group to share a few stories about how they had put into practice the messages they’d received. Overall, the stories seem to suggest that participants experimented with the new behaviors and found them helpful. Here are a few of the replies:
“I had some pictures and postcards that I brought in from home and put up in my office. A couple of colleagues noticed and reacted positively to them.”
“I prioritized work and behaviors based on my strengths, thought about learning goals in every project I was currently working on, and asked myself if the work I am doing today is helping me get where I want to go.”
“After a lot of thinking, I’ve decided to do the following. I made a list of all duties and works of my department (including works that were carried out entirely by me) and redistributed them to all members of my team, having in mind the skills that each person should develop. In that way, I made a lot of free time for myself and I was able to get involved in more important issues that I was not able to until now, due to lack of time. People felt better, as they felt that they were trusted with duties that were carried out by their director, and higher management started to take a different look at me, as I have started participating in more complicated decision making.”
These behaviors reflect different ways of responding to the messages, but they point to a broader theme: To stay engaged, we need to fight the urge to conform to the expectations of others, the status quo, and even our own point of view. By finding ways to be more authentic at work, challenging common ways of acting, making sure our talents are reflected in our jobs, and taking the opportunity to let our voice and opinions be heard, we can become more engaged in the work we do — and not just to our personal benefit. This greater engagement will lead to the types of innovative behavior and high levels of performance that all organizations crave.