Building Employee Engagement Through Challenging Work

This post originally appears in the Big Wigs and New Gigs newsletter from Inside Indiana Business on September 6, 2011.

As the economy slowly heals and begins to grow again, the workforce will undergo a shift in expectations and needs. Since the recession started in 2008, high unemployment has kept many people from aggressively seeking new opportunities, trading in the need for challenging work for the relative security of having a position. There is evidence that trend is now changing, especially among the highest performing members of our organizations. Even among senior executives, turnover is accelerating with CEO turnover running at 13 percent according to a study by Crist/Kolder Associates. The question many people are asking is how to keep an organization’s best performers from jumping ship. One key is building the level of engagement between your high performers and the organization

A fundamental aspect to get people engaged with an organization is ensuring that they are challenged to do what they can do best. During a session at the close of the 2011 HR Indiana conference in late August, Marcus Buckingham shared that in the research done by both the Gallup Organization and his own company, people who can state that they are challenged to do what they do best every day have the highest levels of engagement. By building on the strengths that people bring to the organization, all involved can benefit and thrive in accomplishing goals, whether they are big or small.

When identifying an appropriate challenge to have someone take on, it is essential that the high performer be involved so that the challenge isn’t merely viewed as “more work” or some kind of test that is to be mastered. Whether we like it or not, how people feel about what is expected matters and also plays a key role in building higher levels of engagement. We can call this the “know me” portion of engagement. It is taking what is unique about someone and making it useful.

The second segment of engagement through challenge involves getting people focused on what matters. Clear delineations of what is expected and a glimpse at the big picture are essential at the beginning of the process. This may require taking time to explain why the project matters and even what the anticipated next steps may be so that even if this portion has definitive end point, the work will matter to the person doing it. I know in interviews I conduct, I hear about the importance of meaning and making a difference in greater frequency today than I did 5 or 6 years ago. Building the structure around the larger meaning will help give the challenge a greater good. This “focus me” segment is an excellent time to expose high performers to other segments and leaders of the organization that they may not normally interact with on a regular basis. It also signals a willingness by the organization to invest in the person building their own view of self-worth.

The third segment of building engagement through challenge is the most difficult. Your high performers want to associate and be associated with other high performers. Building a culture of high performers takes time and effort but can lead to gains in efficiency and effectiveness. This may mean parting with lower level performers. One mantra I always provide to those I support is that we should always strive to replace departing employees with one who is stronger. By doing that, the organization gains strength over time, even when the number of people leaving may be higher than wanted. A focus on attracting stronger talent and in viewing people for their strengths yields a workforce that is not only engaged, but empowered and supported. The care and feeding of an organization’s high performers can take time and resources, but the results from them can be four or five times greater than your average employees. As the job market slowly recovers in the months ahead, do you really want to be without these top notch people?

As we approach the last quarter of the year, take a few minutes to identify your high performers (if you haven’t already!) determine their strengths, and challenge them to use those strengths to benefit the organization and themselves. Show faith in their ability to do their best work and be sure to show appreciation as milestones are reached!

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