Employee engagement today: The hard work of tough questions

Leaders have always had plenty to worry about, and each era’s leaders tend to feel that “today’s pressing questions” are more pressing than those of times past. Still, there’s good reason to feel compassion for today’s leaders: their 21st-century worries include skills, talent, diversity, artificial intelligence, trade, class, climate, trust—in addition to the enduring stressors of product strength, market share and profit.

These challenge-opportunity items are far from academic, because they involve the organization’s humans—each person a striving-worrying multiplier of scale and complexity.

How can a leader know she’s giving those humans what they need to thrive, for the organization and for themselves? Every single day, she can do or say something that helps them:

  • believe in the organization’s mission and strategy
  • feel that they belong to a community of people helping one another soar
  • know that they matter to the team’s success

This believe/belong/matter framework can focus and energize any employee engagement model, leadership philosophy or organizational health mission. When a leader is constantly asking “How can I help our employees believe, belong and matter?” the answers deliver all kinds of guidance about decisions, actions and messages. 

The answers don’t have to be pleasant ones. Life and work are full of difficult decisions with tough actions that aren’t comfortable. The believe/belong/matter framework isn’t about happy talk or false paradises. It’s about recognizing that organizational strength and business momentum depend on employees who understand and commit to the company’s goals, trust their leaders and colleagues, and know how their contribution makes a difference. 

It’s less about mission statements than the missions themselves.

For example, if the organization is about to enter a new market segment to pursue more growth, create a new product line, or purchase another company, the leaders should ask themselves:

  • Will this move be easy or hard to understand in terms of our goals?
  • Are we asking employees to do new things, or simply to direct their current skills in new directions?
  • Will this step make employees instinctively prouder of the company, or less proud?
  • After the transition, will the organization be different?
  • Is the company making this move from strength, or to protect against a current weakness?
  • Are leaders and managers prepared to help every single employee understand how her role will help the new approach succeed?

Each answer will affect how employees—the organization’s humans—will believe in the organization’s purpose, feel they belong to a mutually supportive community, and matter to the successful outcome.

It’s important to recognize that “belief” isn’t only about business strategy, “belong” isn’t just about trust and familiarity, and “matter” isn’t just about job role. To believe in a company I also have to feel it treats employees fairly. To feel I belong here, I have to believe in the company’s strategy. To matter, I have to trust my manager as she guides and recognizes my work.

Know also that the believe/belong/matter framework isn’t a “messaging house.” Just as declaring that you’re a “trustworthy” person doesn’t inspire confidence, in my experience talking with employees explicitly about “believe, belong and matter” isn’t the best approach, (It can be done but it requires really careful navigation not to come off as preachy.) The “believe, belong, matter” framework works best as a set of prompting questions to inform strategy, policy, action and messaging.

These will always be tough questions. Doing the hard work of asking and answering them will help leaders lead, help managers guide, and help employees thrive.

This post is adapted from the book “Aiming Higher: Helping Employees Believe, Belong & Matter in Your Organization.” 

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