With historically low engagement levels and employees leaving in droves, there is much for company leaders to be concerned about. Plus, three tips on treating your team as grown-ups.

Do your people believe you any more?

I recently spent some time reading Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2021 report, to get some very useful data on the levels of stress and anxiety felt by workers globally as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some of the pandemic-specific data was perhaps predictable, based on personal experience and what we’ve heard from clients, what really struck me was seeing just how shockingly poor companies still are at employee engagement:

Following a steady rise over the last decade, employee engagement decreased globally by two percentage points, from 22% in 2019 to 20% in 2020. Leaders will need to address this decrease and the business impact on workplace culture, employee retention and performance.

Indeed. To put this “steady rise” in context, Gallup’s own data shows the same metric as being 12% in 2009 – meaning a measly 1% annual improvement in the decade from 2009-2019, followed by a 2% slump in 2020. Things are apparently even worse in Europe, where employee engagement levels languish at 11%, the lowest regional percentage of engaged employees.

Where have all your people gone?

While COVID-specific stress is a likely contributing factor over the past 2 years, it is the behaviour of employers towards their workers in pandemic times, and the pre-existing mismatch of mutual expectations amplified by poor management practices, which are more likely to be driving these numbers, rather than a generalised pandemic-induced workplace anxiety.

This level of employee dissatisfaction is one of the major drivers of what economists have dubbed The Great Resignation (see this great BBC overview of the main issues):

Workers who, pre-pandemic, may already been teetering on the edge of quitting companies with existing poor company culture saw themselves pushed to a breaking point. That’s because, as evidenced by a recent Stanford study, many of these companies with bad environments doubled-down on decisions that didn’t support workers, such as layoffs (while, conversely, companies that had good culture tended to treat employees well). This drove out already disgruntled workers who survived the layoffs, but could plainly see they were working in unsupportive environments.

With companies already struggling to fill vacancies in key areas, and as more enforced home working looms large, I am once reminded again of the urgent need for employers to prioritise ways to humanise the workplace and urgently address some of the structural and leadership issues which are exacerbating these problems.

How to involve your team in decision-making

Recently, I was involved in trying to get a widely-distributed remote team created from a merger to trust each other by communicating better, sharing knowledge by default, reducing bureaucratic controls and applying some online self-management and resilience techniques. What struck me about this group was how willing everyone was to improve, managers included, if given the chance to discuss the issues and come to decisions together, in a psychologically-safe environment.

Changing the workplace for the better and building the trust of already-disengaged employees takes time, experimentation, patience and – above all – a strong will to succeed among all parties. There is no ready-baked universal solution to these engagement challenges, but here are three ideas to better involve employees in decision-making and creating inclusive business environments that maximise staff retention and improve overall results:

  • Circle of Safety is a type of organisational culture in which everyone is trusted and feels like they belong. Leaders should strive to create a Circle of Safety because it significantly improves cooperation in organisations when everyone feels that they are more secure in their job and that they are capable of completing tasks and contributing to organisational goals. Many corporate cultures have components that are counter-productive to collaboration. Employees can feel isolated, useless or that their ideas are not valued, which are all conditions that need to be addressed by leadership. To develop a Circle of Safety, leaders must develop a culture based on human-centred values by offering trust and empathy by default. You can learn more about this idea in this short but very engaging TED lecture from Simon Sinek, who came up with the concept.
  • Appreciative Inquiry is a model for analysis, decision-making and the creation of strategic change, but in particular for decision-making among larger groups. It is a technique developed for collective exploration of a problem state and potential solutions, with an emphasis on what works in an organisation rather than what is broken. Some people refer to it as the opposite of problem-solving as it builds on strengths, not weaknesses. Compared to other group decision techniques, AI differs by appreciating the strengths of the current state and steering the collaboration by carefully designing the questions raised in the decision process. If you want to explore this approach for your team(s), this very clear overview from the Center for Appreciative Inquiry is a great starting point.
  • The Advice Process entitles anyone to make decisions, but they are obliged to first seek advice and consider integrating the input they receive. The bigger the decision, the wider the net must be cast for advice, including reaching out to leadership. As such, there is no prescribed format for how employees should seek advice. Depending on who they choose engage, they can ask colleagues in one-on-one discussion or gather relevant people for a meeting. However, the best way to do this is using digital workplace platform, especially if seeking advice from a larger group. This Medium post from Mark Eddleston is a neat summary of the approach.

Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss any of these topics in more depth!