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Why engagement isn’t a suitable end goal for employers

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January 4 at 3:00 PM
The leader’s role in today’s work environment is becoming increasingly more complex.

Previously, leaders were challenged to achieve compliance with policy and practice. Performance was linked to rewards. Now, leaders must find a way to engage with their teams to achieve ever higher levels of performance with the same (or fewer) resources.

The conversation about what leaders need to do differently seems to be renewed every decade, and we are again at a pivot point. Ten years ago, conversations with leaders about improving performance typically focused on the topic of employee engagement, with the hopes of achieving more by capturing the hearts and minds of employees. Today, many no longer see engagement as a source of competitive advantage — not because it is irrelevant, but because employee engagement levels are already high. Instead, leaders are increasingly asking, “How can we drive to higher levels of performance when our engagement levels are already so high?”

It’s time to think about the performance challenge in a new way. Network performance, as we define it, is about how employees collaborate and work together to improve the performance of others. It’s easy to think of ways that this can happen, such as when employees share best practices and bounce ideas off of each other. When teams share ideas and build upon them together, the overall performance needle should move in the right direction.

This seems deceptively easy, but it’s not. If it were easy, there would be no competitive advantage because every company would follow the prescription, causing any one to lose the advantage. The key to this way of working is establishing a climate where new ideas are created and vetted in the midst of creative tension. Many have been fortunate to experience these moments, sometimes as simply as in a conversation with a colleague where a new, collectively formed idea is born. That “eureka” moment doesn’t belong to just one of the participants in the conversation, as it came through the dynamics of the moment as much as from one person’s creativity. When this form of problem solving and collaboration becomes the norm at an organization, the path is paved to achieve competitive advantage.

Such tension suggests risk, as individuals are usually naturally inclined to promote cohesion and team spirit. But this form of collaboration does not imply interpersonal conflict. Rather, it is a form of tension where ideas compete, rather than individuals. It requires resolution of different stakeholder interests, and in doing so, sets the stage for the buy-in needed for new solutions to be accepted and implemented.

These collaborative moments occur when people are unafraid of the consequences of sharing ideas and openly providing critical constructive feedback. That’s when the leader’s job becomes more important than ever. Effective leaders today lay the foundation for a different kind of work environment — one where fully engaged employees direct their efforts not only toward their individual responsibilities, but in pursuit of the shared goals and purpose of the enterprise. They accomplish this by creating a climate where employees can trust that their personal contributions aren’t lost, but become even more valuable as part of a bigger goal.

Leaders need to persistently energize their teams by encouraging and rewarding the behaviors that reflect the competition of ideas and solutions, not conflict between individuals. They then need to enable employees to implement ideas by removing roadblocks that stand in the way. With time, this becomes simply “the way things are done,” the surest reflection of the right kind of culture change — one that leads to real competitive advantage.

Brian Kropp is an executive director in CEB’s human resources practice. Jean Martin is CEB’s talent solutions architect.

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