Treating issues with employee engagement

In the last issue, I discussed some of the subtleties of diagnosing employee engagement issues. Now that you have a diagnosis, it’s time to develop a treatment plan. I’ll use this whitepaper, my last, to show you how to do just that.

Let me extend the medical analogy by cautioning you about some potential “malpractice.” You must fully diagnose your issues before you begin treatment. In other words, you shouldn’t just start any old treatment that was mentioned in some unsolicited email (even if it was from me!) without figuring out exactly what your current situation is—otherwise, how will you determine whether the proposed treatment will even be appropriate? As hard as it may be to imagine, we’ve seen clients (against our advice, of course) apply treatments willy-nilly, absent knowing exactly what is wrong.

Simply put, your treatment must be tuned to the specific issues that your organization faces. While there are often common themes or symptoms, no two diagnoses will be exactly the same—therefore, no two treatment plans should be, either. In this issue, I want to provide some guidance for tuning the treatment of your employee engagement and alignment issues.

Diagnostic results

As I discussed previously, your diagnostic efforts should generate some kind of report—we call it a scorecard. Your specific report (the content and the relative components) will of course be driven by the model of employee engagement and alignment upon which you’ve built your diagnostics. Here at Forma, our model is created from the three major areas that have been shown to affect employee engagement: Individual Motivation, Team Performance, and Organizational Culture.

Each area has many components, and there is overlap between the components across the three major areas. Once duplicates are eliminated, there’s a total of seven unique components. Our diagnostic report provides insight on how well (or poorly) an organization is performing on each of these:

  • Psychological Safety: feeling comfortable enough with a team to take a risk
  • Mastery: sense of competence & opportunity for new challenges
  • Autonomy: sense of self-control
  • Dependability: teammates are reliable in completing work
  • Structure & Clarity: understanding of job responsibilities and performance expectations
  • Meaning: sense of purpose in the work itself or the output
  • Impact: belief that one’s work is making a difference

The final report, or scorecard, can take many different forms. At Forma, we provide an executive summary, backed up by a detailed breakdown of the results. This can be broken out according to the respondents’ organizational function (e.g., sales, marketing, production, QA, etc.) as well as geographic location. Why? Well, different functions or locations can develop their own unique culture, and this must be taken into account during diagnosis and treatment.

Figure 1. A sample scorecard is shown here, showing the seven key components of the model used to drive employee engagement and alignment. The results are color-coded; red scores are poor and green scores are good. For more on this diagnostic scorecard, see here

Properly implemented, the diagnostic instruments and final scorecard will provide clarity about where the organization is doing well and poorly. Armed with this, it’s time to develop a treatment plan.

When building a treatment plan, start with wins

There’s a natural tendency to zero in on the areas of poor performance revealed by the scorecard. Call it Squeaky Wheel—or Cranky Patient—Syndrome. That’s a huge mistake.

Over the years, we’ve found that even scorecards with prominent red flags also contain good news; most organizations score well or very well in one or more areas. For example, it’s common that employees working in sectors related to human health have a clear sense of the impact of their work—that is, whether the work makes a difference to the organization and to the world. Research shows that a sense that each employee’s work contributes to the organization’s goals and benefits society is important for individuals, for teams, and for the entire organizational culture.

So part of your treatment plan should include some methods to celebrate these areas of strong performance. Even a simple reminder at an all-hands meeting can be very powerful: “Hey, one of the findings from our recent survey is that we all share a strong sense of purpose and impact. Let’s take a minute and think about how powerful it is that we all work with an organization that is making such a big difference in the world.” These celebrations of connection send powerful signals of belonging and trust, which in turn are crucial for reinforcing strong individual motivation, team performance, and organizational culture.
There are many ways to reinforce the good news; the example I just gave is only a small one. Make sure your treatment plan involves recognizing and celebrating the good news that your scorecard reveals. As we like to say at Forma, “Start with wins!”

Your treatments may need to be multi-faceted

As I mentioned above, there are seven components that are part of our diagnostic regimen. And treating even one component might require a multi-pronged approach. For this reason alone, your treatment plan will probably include a wide variety of solutions.

For example, the scorecard shown in Figure 1 depicts a low score in the category of Mastery. There are multiple approaches for addressing this; I’ll mention two here: HR and archetypes.

Low scores on Mastery imply that employees are not feeling that their employment will lead to opportunities to tackle and master new challenges or gain greater competence. This can be very demotivating, and means it’s time to examine and address professional growth opportunities within the organization. What is HR’s training plan? Do employees know this training is available? Are they encouraged to pursue available and appropriate training? Are employee development pathways clearly defined, and are employees aware of these? Obviously, any treatment plan will involve HR.

Archetypes are another powerful tool for treating low engagement scores, not only for the category of Mastery, but for every category. More on this in a bit.

Tune your treatment plan

Since it is rare that diagnostics reveal only a single major challenge, it is unlikely that your treatment plan can be narrowly focused. You’ll need to adjust your treatment plan to accommodate the breadth of the challenges revealed by your diagnostics.

There are large numbers of resources available to you for treating many of these challenges through traditional channels (such as employee recognition programs, training, mentoring, etc.). Since archetypes are underutilized as a treatment for many of these issues, I’ll spend the rest of this whitepaper focused on the use of archetypes to address your employee engagement and alignment issues.

Aligning employees using archetypes

As I’ve written about many times before, archetypes can be a powerful tool for aligning and engaging employees. To align employees using archetypes, two important steps are necessary: Customization and Implementation. First, you create a customized archetype for your organization—a one-time event that codifies the attributes all employees should align around. Then you focus on implementation, which must be ongoing.

One of the strengths of archetypes is that they can be tailored to many different challenges. Here is an outline of the process of using archetypes to address employee engagement and alignment issues.

Customize your archetype

  1. Determine the specific issues your organization is facing (see the last issue on diagnosing your issues). Determine what employee behaviors and/or attitudes are needed to address these issues; this typically begins with a process of considering many alternatives
  2. Select the final set of attributes for your archetype
  3. Define each attribute clearly
  4. Name the archetype
  5. Pressure-test your solution

Implement your archetype

  1. Prepare for training
  2. Conduct training
  3. Conduct ongoing coaching and reinforce ongoing usage.

Let’s go through these one-by-one.

Customize your archetype—1: Determine what issues you’re facing

For more on determining the issues you’re facing, refer to the previous whitepaper on diagnosing your employee engagement issues.

Customize your archetype—2: Consider possible attitudes and behaviors

Your archetype will be constructed from a carefully targeted set of desired attitudes and behaviors. There are many things to keep in mind as you consider alternatives and narrow your selection down to the final list. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Behaviors you want to encourage. For example, positive collaboration across departments.
  • Behaviors you want to suppress. For example, completing assignments late, or hiding bad news.
  • Differences between divisions of the company (geographic or functional). For example, one of our multinational clients had a European team that was very precise, while the North American team was more freewheeling. Defining an archetype that could accommodate these two different cultures required a thoughtful approach.
  • Where you’re starting from: Is there a native archetype already present? That is, are there existing values and behaviors that your organization already aligns around? Forma has a diagnostic test that determines the presence and strength of any existing archetype. In our experience, most organizations do not have a significant baseline here. Related to this, many organizations have Statements of Values, which can be a source of inspiration for your discussion about what attitudes and behaviors you want to include in your archetype. It’s worth pointing out that most organizations don’t actually refer to or reinforce these values very often. If your Statement of Values is hanging forgotten in a conference room somewhere, it might not need to play a serious role in your discussion. More on this below.
  • What is your culture like? What is going well; what needs improvement? For example, our diagnostic efforts often reveal that more communication is needed between leaders and employees. Building an attribute like “Clear communicator” into the set of attributes can help with this issue.

As you consider all these factors, you’ll be building a list of potential attitudes and behaviors to address the issues your diagnostics uncovered. This list can get quite long; that’s okay—you’ll shorten it in the next step.

A word of caution: It can be tempting to think about this as a process of defining an “ideal” employee. Don’t. There is simply no such thing. Successful teams require a variety of skills, abilities, attitudes, and behaviors. What your organization will need is a mix of attitudes and behaviors that employees can use as guides. If you choose these attitudes and behaviors carefully in the Customization phase, and then continue to reinforce these during the Implementation phase, you’ll find that just about every employee will find something to relate to, and over time, you will actually shift the culture of your organization for the better.

Customize your archetype—3: Select the final set of attributes for your archetype

Narrowing the list of attributes is best done in a meeting with the executive leadership team. As you do this, consider whether your final list should incorporate existing corporate values. Our experience shows that if an organization has such a list, it was and is typically:

  • Developed some time ago—that is, it’s old
  • Not referenced daily, weekly, or monthly by leadership or supervisors
  • Not significant to the average employee
  • Not remembered by the average employee
  • Not used during employee reviews

In cases like these, you’ve got some choices:

  • Try to include one or more of these corporate values into the attributes of your archetype
  • Ignore them as you introduce the new attributes
  • Actively tell your employees that these (old) corporate values are no longer relevant

Each of these sends its own message to employees, so we urge you to make your choice strategically. We’ve got some additional guidance on this topic, which is too detailed for this whitepaper; please reach out if you’d like to chat.

We’ve found that the narrowing and selection of attributes happens rather naturally. The only caution is to ensure that the final list is small and manageable when it comes to implementation. Experience shows that it’s best to have no more than 3 main attributes, and no more than 6 minor attributes, for a maximum of 9. (And we’ve worked with organizations that use less.) We’ve found that employees won’t be able to remember any more than this. If there are people who want to continue to add to the list beyond 8 or 9 attributes, the rule is that for any one they want to add, they have to remove one. This tactic usually helps people focus on those attributes that are most important.

Customize your archetype—4: Clearly define each attribute

Each attribute needs to have a specific definition of what it means within the organization—this is a key part of customizing the treatment plan to meet individual needs. For example, the organization shown in the scorecard in Figure 1 received low scores on Dependability. This might be addressed by choosing the appropriate archetype and including one or more attributes that directly address this issue. For example, archetypes that have as part of their makeup a focus on others often tend to be seen as reliable and dependable; examples include the Caregiver, the Advocate, or the Sovereign. Let’s say we choose the attributes and their definitional statements that embody Dependability, such as one of the following:

  • Trustworthy: I will be a teammate that others can count on to complete my work on time and at the agreed-upon level of quality.
  • Reliable: I will choose to keep my commitments.

We might then use the label of Guardian for the archetype.

In a case where the Autonomy score is low—or that is an existing attribute leadership wants to reinforce—attributes and definitions might include something like these examples:

  • Innovative: I will choose to look for new and better ways to do my job and meet our clients’ needs.
  • Proactive: I will take the initiative to explore promising ideas and bring new solutions to the table.

The intricacies of defining each attribute are too complex to cover in detail here. Just make sure that the definitions are clear.

Customize your archetype—5: Naming your archetype

Your archetype will be unique to your organization. If you choose The Detective, then your detective will be different than any other detective you see in stories, film, or books. And it will be different from any other organization’s detective. This makes sense if you think of your archetype as a customized solution that addresses the specific issues uncovered during your diagnostic process.

The name of your archetype will come to serve as a shorthand label, one that implies and embodies all the attributes you’ve chosen. There is some value in choosing a self-explanatory name—that is, a name with commonly held associations, such as Detective (Curious, Persistent, Looks-Below-The-Surface) or Athlete (Team-Oriented, Motivated-To-Win, Multi-Disciplinary). There are thousands of such existing archetypes. But these are not the only names that can be effective—made-up names could work. If you do choose a name with “built-in” associations, such as the Warrior, the Advocate, or the Explorer, for example, make sure the natural associations that already exist as part of this shared pattern align with the behaviors and attitudes you want to encourage.

In any case, the name should always be individualized by linking your organization’s name to the label of the archetype. If your organization’s name is Optyme (a made-up name with no intentional connections to any company, living or dead) and your archetype is the Athlete (Goal-Driven, Skillful, and Team-Oriented) then you should refer to your archetype not as the Athletes, but as the Optyme Athletes. This helps distinguish it from all other athletes out there.

Customize your archetype—6: Pressure-test your solution

It is important to ensure that your solution is clear, sustainable and has few, if any, negative connotations. To this end, we highly recommend pressure-testing your solutions by getting feedback from a range of employees. You’ll find that interesting nuances can come to light during these sessions. For example, Trailblazer might have fewer gender-specific connotations than Pioneer. We recommend that you uncover these types of nuances, including nuances on the definitions of each attribute before you introduce your new archetype to the entire team.

Implement your archetype

Now it’s time to implement your archetype. Of course, the reason we’re doing this is to create sustainable change throughout the organization, so remember to keep your eye on the desired goal: a self-sustaining culture that continues to reinforce specific employee attributes, attitudes, and behaviors.

Implementation of your archetype—1: Prepare for training

Training is where most employees will be introduced to all of the ideas, words, and actions that are part of your treatment plan. The people who’ve been working behind the scenes to develop all of those things will be very familiar with them by this point. For everyone else, it will be something brand new. So plan accordingly to ensure that training goes as smoothly as possible, and give your organization the best chance for a successful launch. Our experience teaches us that that means:

  • Supervisors are prepared ahead of time, so they are ready to begin reinforcing these concepts immediately
  • Sufficient time is allotted for the training
  • All employees are trained at once
  • HR is on board, and will begin adopting these concepts immediately
  • Employees are primed to understand the purpose and importance of the training

Not all organizations will be able to follow every one of these suggestions. For example, large, global organizations won’t be able to train all employees at once. That’s okay. Keep the end goals in mind: you want to introduce the concepts in ways that are engaging and will lead to the highest possible adoption.

Implementation of your archetype—2: Conduct training

Introducing attributes and an archetype label—and aligning employees around them—begins with training. I have written elsewhere about this because it’s both essential and logistically complex.

But training alone is not enough, because training is typically a “one-and-done” event. And alignment is very much not.

Implementation of your archetype—3: Keep coaching, and then coach some more

If implemented correctly, employees will encourage each other to exhibit the desired behaviors, without the need for constant reminders from the C-suite. We’ve worked with organizations where the data show that employees do just this. They remind, encourage, and coach each other more frequently than they are reminded, encouraged, or coached by either supervisors or executives.

Figure 2. These data were gathered months after the original training. We posed the question: “Since our original training, how frequently have various groups reminded you of the concepts of the (Archetype)?” The data reveal that employees (orange) remind each other more frequently than supervisors (dashed blue). Both employees and supervisors remind employees of the (Archetype) more frequently than do executives (dashed grey).

To coach employees, you have to have a consistent method. This starts with leadership and extends to supervisors.

Many organizations already have an employee recognition program in place. These programs allow one employee to recognize another, often with a small monetary bonus. Be sure to link this to your archetype It’s also helpful for leaders to highlight examples of exceptional performance. One great way to do this is by using stories that highlight these examples. I’ve talked before about the power of stories and how they can hijack our brains. We’ve seen stories become part of our clients’ cultures; they are a great way to highlight the attributes and behaviors you want to see more of.

To utilize the power of stories, find an exceptional example of the attribute or behavior you want to highlight. Since all stories contain adversity, it helps to look for examples where the adversity was quite difficult to overcome—in other words, where there were many reasons for the employee not to exhibit the desired behavior. Then use the three-part AND/BUT/THEREFORE story structure to communicate the message, as I’ve highlighted in the example here:

“Folks, I want to recognize Susan. Now, you all know that one of the attributes of Optyme Athletes is being Trustworthy. (Trustworthy: I will be a teammate that others can count on to complete my work on time and at the agreed-upon level of quality.) Well, Susan and her department were facing a backlog last week. They had many internal clients and three large external clients counting on their work being completed according to the schedule.
But then, one of our benchtop machines went off-line. This meant that there was no way that the deadlines would be met. Well, Susan took the initiative to meet with her coworkers and brainstorm some solutions. They got the manufacturer to get them a loaner. They qualified that machine and were able to continue their work. Now, interestingly, they didn’t meet their deadline, but we were only two days late.
And when we called the clients to explain the delay, they were actually quite impressed that the team was willing to go above and beyond to try and keep our commitments. I believe this incident actually helped our relationship with our clients. I know it has made me impressed by the Trustworthiness that Susan and her teammates demonstrated. Congratulations to Susan, a wonderful example of how Trustworthy an Optym Athlete can be.”

It is best if the example is recent, which means that you should constantly be on the lookout for fresh examples. If the leaders in your company recognize and praise others for the types of behavior you want to reinforce, others will as well.

Consistency is the key to treating your employee engagement issues

Let’s be honest: many employees have seen initiatives from leadership come and go. (Remember that Statement of Values gathering dust in a conference room somewhere?) They’ve learned that all they have to do is wait it out and soon the latest “initiative of the month” will be forgotten.

Which means: If you follow the steps in this whitepaper, you’ll set your organization up for success. But if you want to effect lasting change, you have to commit to consistent implementation. This means reinforcing the attitudes and behaviors you want to see—both in word and, as in the HR example I mentioned early on, in deed as well.

The easiest way to do this is to highlight the positive rather than focusing on the negative. “Oh, Tanya, in that meeting you kept highlighting how the decisions we were making were going to affect our clients. That’s a great example of being Client-focused. Thanks!” “Jorge, in preparing for your employee review, I couldn’t help but notice how your work the last quarter has really exemplified our core attributes of Communication and Flexibility. Great work.” The opportunities to reward and reinforce are endless.

Whichever paths you take, consistency is the key to long-term change.

A final word: Thank you.

This will be my last whitepaper. I’m focusing my attention on new challenges inside Forma, and I’m passing off the task of content creation to others. Whether you’ve been reading these whitepapers for just a few months or since I wrote the first one back in 2007, I hope you’ve noticed that they mention “we” and “the team.” I couldn’t create all this content without a large team of people behind me. I’d like to thank all the employees who’ve contributed in so many ways to the success of Forma, and to those who enabled the creation and promotion of these whitepapers. Thank you.

In addition to employees, there’s another group that deserves thanks: that large group of amazing clients who have allowed us to help them with their challenges since Forma was founded in 1987. We’ve been very fortunate that so many great clients have given us the opportunity to develop and hone the concepts that I’ve been sharing. I’d like to thank them for their trust in our abilities. Thank you.

And finally, I’d like to send a special shoutout to my editor, Josh, who has worked with me since the beginning. He has helped me in ways that go well beyond the standard editing stuff at which I’m not all that polished (punctuation, anyone?). In fact, many of the concepts I’ve focused on through the years have been improved, and in some cases, almost completely developed, by him. I could not have done this without you, Josh, and I am profoundly grateful for all the “red ink” you splash so liberally across my first drafts. You have made me a better writer and a better thinker. Literally, I couldn’t have done this without you. Thank you.

And, of course, I’d like to thank my readers. No matter what part of the life sciences you work in, I’ve always had a clear picture of you in my mind. I can see you at your desk, wrestling with your challenges, and I’ve written these whitepapers to help you. I hope they have. Again, thank you for joining me on the journey.

If you need help with your challenges in marketing, team alignment, or employee engagement, reach out to me or to one of the other team members at Forma. We’re here, making a difference for our clients, and we’d love to chat about how we can make a difference for you.