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Scaling a Culture of High Employee Engagement

Santiago Jaramillo
Santiago Jaramillo
This article first appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence. That’s a nice-looking set of values for any organization. What if I told you those were Enron’s corporate values back in the early 2000s? Right around the time they were pulling a massive accounting fraud scheme and their executives were pocketing millions of off-the-books dollars. Acting with integrity isn’t quite how I would describe their behavior.

My reason for sharing the Enron example is this: simply stating a corporate “core value” or mission statement doesn’t make it authentic—no matter how many onboarding packets or polo shirts it’s printed on. In this world of heightened scrutiny and open connectivity, the culture we present to our employees—and to the world—must reflect the values that we’re truly living.

In my first article, I discussed talent scarcity and the pressure it’s putting on leaders to adapt our business models and cultures. In my second piece, I talked about the difference between satisfaction and engagement (and why snacks are not an engagement strategy). Those topics touched on the what and the why of employee engagement, so now I want to get into the how.

We manage what we measure

As leaders, we may care deeply about employee engagement, but we can’t operationalize a culture of engagement by ourselves. Without a strategy for scaling it across the business, it’s tough to move the needle. I’ve learned this as my own organization has grown. Back when we were a team of five, I could hold myself personally accountable for each employee’s experience and cater the culture to suit individual needs. But as our numbers grew and more organizational layers were added, I realized the best thing we could do for our employees was to focus on the top two or three actions that would have the greatest impact for everyone—and hold our team leaders or “trusted lieutenants” accountable as owners of those initiatives.

Determining what areas to focus on requires more than relying on gut feelings. Measuring engagement and getting real data provides a baseline to measure progress against. As Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates writes, “In my experience, the management slogan ‘What gets measured gets done’ holds true. The mere act of tracking key indicators makes it much more likely that changes in those indicators will be positive.”

I’ve talked to many leaders who’ve tried to do anything and everything to improve engagement. And while some have improved engagement with the “10 darts thrown blindly at the wall to see what sticks” approach, the problem becomes knowing which actions and initiatives led to the change (and should be protected and enhanced) and which actions were ineffective (and should be scrapped or iterated). Making incremental changes based on data-sourced, strategic problem areas and measuring them over time is much more effective.

Let me simplify this employee engagement continuous-improvement process in five basic steps:

1. Measure employee sentiment and get baseline (quantitative) engagement data for the organization.

2. Follow up by collecting specific (qualitative) feedback from employees around areas of concern or specific engagement blockers they’re experiencing.

3. Pick 2-3 initiatives to focus on for one full quarter. (Sometimes it’s best to focus on low-hanging fruit first to get some early wins and momentum.)

4. Hold leadership and management teams accountable for executing on those initiatives and communicating them with their teams.

5. Measure employee engagement again—using the exact same method—at the end of the quarter to see how those actions affected engagement levels.

Repeating this process every quarter (or every six months if you’re just getting started) allows you to continuously and strategically chip away at the larger goal of creating a culture of high employee engagement. And each time action is taken on employee feedback, employees are increasingly seeing that their leaders are actually listening to them, and will be more likely to provide useful feedback in the future. When data-driven insights turn into well-communicated actions, it’s highly possible for an organization to experience sustained, high participation from employees—upwards of 90% participation and above.

Business success through people success is the new leadership frontier

Using an employee engagement metric as one of the KPIs by which manager performance will be evaluated can be a great motivator. Consider tying bonuses or incentives to marked improvements in engagement, or even giving out a “Most Improved Engagement” award to the leader of the team that makes the biggest improvement each quarter. Any investments made into building a more engaged culture will almost certainly pay back in spades. At the end of the day, we’re all in the people business (at least until the robots take over).

Other than inherently caring about employees’ wellbeing, every company has a specific business reason for wanting to create an engaging work culture. For a fast-growing B2B company like mine, employee engagement is critical to providing relentless innovation and impeccable customer experience. For a hospital or nursing home, the reason for an engaged culture may be to improve patient care and outcomes; for a construction company it could be to improve safety and recruit enough skilled talent to perform skilled work. Whatever the motivations are for each leader in each business, every real step taken toward a more engaged workforce makes a difference—and should be measured and celebrated.

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