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Employee Engagement Hinges on a Handful of Influencers

Written by Ed Cook

With the Great Resignation causing distressing amounts of employee turnover and dismal employee retention numbers, Employee Engagement is front of mind for many leaders. What employee engagement is, however, can be elusive.  Some see it as activities associated with team building.  Some see it as an application of Positive Psychology.  Some as employee wellness.  All of these are part of Employee Engagement but not enough to fully describe it.  Seminars and workshops on Positive Psychology abound, yet surveys and research on employee morale and mental health show continued declines.  Many have experienced team-building activities like ropes courses. There can be a certain thrill to hanging upside down in a harness held by your teammates but mostly these activities provide engagement for the day, but, like a candy bar, the sugar rush rapidly fades and they are left empty.  Mental and physical health have declined in the nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Companies have tried many things to help with employee wellness but as helpful as those efforts are they won’t get anyone all the way to employee engagement.

Perhaps the most significant factor in Employee Engagement (more so than the manager or even the company as a whole) is the team in which the employee works. Within that team, the influencers are the ones that hold the key to making a cultural shift.  As a leader, it may be one of your most powerful moves to enlist the help of influencers to improve Employee Engagement. The first step is to identify them.

Identify the Influencers

One way to identify the influencers is to use the tools of Social Network Analysis. Fortunately, this is easier than it may sound. Before going there, let’s look at an even simpler way to get at identifying the influencers in a team. Answer this question, 

“When an announcement is made, who does everyone glance at to see their reaction?” 

Whether the reaction from that person is typically good or bad, that person is likely an influencer.  Just answering that question alone will go a long way toward identifying influencers, but with a bit more work, we can identify those less obvious influencers.  This is where Social Network Analysis comes in.  As an example of how to do this, every semester in the Analytics class that I teach at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, I ask the students to rate their connection to every other student in the class on a scale from 0 to 10.  Zero means that you do not know the student and ten means that you talk to each other every day.  I collect the data anonymously and then use a free Excel add-on called NodeXL (from a nonprofit, the Social Media Research Foundation) to quickly analyze the data.  It can produce a visualization. With that, I can identify the influencers in the class or at least the ones that are most connected to others in the class.  I’ve done this for change initiatives as well.  It’s pretty easy and often effective in pointing me to the influencers in a  group.  Here’s the short primer on NodeXL I give my classes.

Now that you have found the influencers, what can you do to enlist their help?  The short answer is to simply ask for it.  From there, it is a matter of taking them up a hierarchy to achieve employee engagement.  First, establish psychological safety then build emotional capital, and finally, grow Joy at Work.  Each of these is necessary to achieve Employee Engagement and together they are sufficient.

Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety is a culture that encourages ideas and concerns to be voiced without fear of negative consequences. 

This notion of Psychological Safety as a culture that allows for interpersonal risk-taking is critical.   It is based on the work that Amy Edmondson at Harvard University has done to define psychological safety and how to apply it in the workplace.  Working with influencers within a team can greatly increase the presence of psychological safety.  In particular, there are two things that can be done.

Talk about Psychological Safety

Leaders can start by talking about psychological safety with the influencers on the team.  They can define it and let them know that they need their help to spread the idea that psychological safety is important.  Leaders are often surprised to find that simply stating that they see something as important can encourage people on their team to focus on it.  Getting influencers to think about and even use the term is powerful.

Make Psychological Safety a process

Although talking about a concept can help bring it to life, turning it into a process makes it part of the culture.  There’s a big idea here.  

“People will look at what you say and match it to what you do to understand the culture. ” - Roxanne Brown  

An example is brainstorming possibilities. When you brainstorm, ask for the impossible and the outlandish to be included in the list.  By making it part of the process to state what is clearly beyond possible, it makes it safe for people to state what might be out of the comfort zone of the group.  It may make it safe to state that one insight that would drive the success of the group. 

Emotional Capital

Emotional Capital is the sum of feelings and beliefs that allow people to build trusting relationships with each other. 

A useful metaphor is a bank savings account.  Make enough emotional deposits and others will feel safe to create a trusting relationship.  This means it is possible to make emotional withdrawals that do not damage the relationship.  Flipped the other way, make enough emotional withdrawals so that the account is empty and trust is quickly lost.  Emotional Capital is different from other ideas about emotions such as Emotional Intelligence in that Emotional Capital is about the build-up of everyday actions between people (micro-level) into an overall feeling of trust (macro-level).  Again, influencers can play a powerful role in the creation of Emotional Capital by the example that they set.

Since the heart of this concept is Trust, understanding what creates Trust is core to the success of building emotional capital.  In contrast to the idea that Trust must be earned, there is growing evidence that Trust must be given.  A person cannot make another Trust them.  Trust has to be extended and then increased (if that Trust is rewarded) or rescinded (if that Trust is abused).  The extension of Trust is the first step in the process of building emotional capital.  Working with influencers to extend Trust is the key step for leaders to take on the way to increased employee engagement.

Joy at Work

Joy at Work exists when the company, leaders, and managers continually create the conditions and extend the invitation for employees to contribute in this way. And employees constantly accept the invitation.

Joy at Work can be measured through ten dimensions: Participation, Commitment, Accountability, Trust, Belonging, Cohesion, Adaptability, Growth, Respect, and Integrity.  It is through these ten dimensions that it is possible to measure if the culture has the conditions to invite Joy such that employees are willing to accept the invitation.  Joy at Work differs from Employee Engagement.  Employee Engagement is often defined as the employee’s emotional connection and commitment to the company, Employee Engagement is about what the company gets from the employee.  Joy at Work is a reciprocating relationship between company and employee where all get a benefit.  

Influencers are again key at this level.  By setting up the conditions in the culture such that influencers are willing to accept the invitation, others can see the example and also accept it.  The Guide to Joy at Work not only describes how to understand the ten dimensions but also provides practical collaboration tools on how to grow Joy at Work.  Part of one tool is to answer these questions:

  • What small thing could you do for a colleague today to contribute to their joy?
  • What would improve your willingness to contribute in this way? 
  • What’s at risk for you? How likely is that risk to occur?
  • How can you remind yourself to contribute to the joy of others?

There is another Big Idea here.

“People are not usually upset by what is changing. They get upset by how change is handled. That’s when you lose them.” - Roxanne Brown

Culture is about the match between what is said and what is done.  To grow Joy at Work is to match those.  That way Psychological Safety is created, Emotional Capital is developed, and then it is possible to grow Joy at Work.  By engaging the influencers you can take your organization well beyond Employee Engagement to a place where retention and recruitment are not problems.  Where productivity and quality are outcomes of a culture that grows Joy at Work.

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