Recently, Aon Hewitt published their 2013 Trends In Global Employee Engagement report. One of the most striking things were the questions they asked to gain their data. Most companies ask, “What should we do to engage employees?” On the surface that sounds like a brilliant question that should be asked. The reality, is this question becomes secondary to an even more important question – “What do employees need in order to be engaged?”

A particular question asked, in the development of this report, was equally important – “What behaviors are we asking our employees to engage in?”

right_questionsSo many organizational leaders seem to be more focused on what needs to be done and instead should be a little more focused on whether or not what is being done is really needed. Companies see that people are disengaged in certain areas from their surveys, or whatever tools they use, and so they decide what will work for engagement. A new rewards program is developed. A new social event is to become part of the cultural fabric of the organization. Meanwhile, the needs of the employees have gone unnoticed. The lack of engagement was a symptom and the response was as if it was the problem.

Employee engagement is not, can not and should not be about the organization. The fact that the word “employee” is in the actual name is a bit of a clue. Learning where engagement suffers in your organization is of extreme value; however, it is only a first step. The people who know best about what engages them, are the actual employees.

Asking the right questions are paramount to actually meeting the engagement needs of your employees, as well as developing a more open dialogue with them.

Here are some simple and effective questions to facilitate this:

  • Why? – Ask them why are they disengaged in a particular area. Don’t be defensive. Don’t try to explain it away to “help them understand”. Close your pie hole and just listen. Being heard can do wonders for engagement, but make sure it is followed up with some form of action. If you are truly unable to change it, give them an honest answer without any HR/PR spin on it. They may still hate it, but they will respect you more for it and it will most likely have less impact on their engagement levels.
  • What? – Don’t try to pull your hair out at some crazy meeting where no one agrees on the best path forward. Talk with your people to discover what will improve their engagement in a particular area. This is a great opportunity to coach people, have a discussion and simply get to know them. You may find untapped creativity on your team and orchestrate a real win for engagement at the same time. People have ideas. Give them the opportunity to talk through them.
  • How? – Once you have uncovered what can be done, ask a few more focused questions to piece together the best way to accomplish it. No sense in driving yourself dippy to figure out a new way to do something when you have a complete team of amazing human potential sitting right in front of you. Not all the ideas will be great, but not all of them will suck either.
  • When? – Some things need to be done on a daily basis, but some things can be done once or twice a year. Most employees know when things become intrusive to them simply doing their job. The proverbial bureaucracy that interrupts them doing what they get paid to do so a committee can be formed to decide the new color of coffee mugs for the break room shouldn’t be a part of their day….ever.
  • Who? – If anything is to be done about engagement, who is to be responsible for making sure it happens? So many times I have seen leaders decide it is their responsibility to make it all work and they just feel like crap and do a mediocre job. Ask the employees who they think can and should be responsible. Ask them if they think the employee should be responsible for some things as well. Everyone is responsible for their own engagement, so asking this question is a great place to start.

No magic bullets. No packaged schemes. Just good, old-fashioned dialogue to help understand people and lead them better.