Black box

The Black Box of employee engagement

8th Jun 2017

About a month ago, I started working with a new client, helping them to create an employee engagement forum. They had put together a group of representatives and I went in to speak with them.

When I walked into the room, I could feel the tension, a tight feeling as if everyone were holding their breath. It didn’t take long for the upset to start spilling out: the lack of trust in management, the sense of powerlessness, and the hopelessness about whether a forum like this could actually work. The frustration and anger were palpable.

After a few hours, though, this all started to change. As an anthropologist, one of the things I’m really interested in is how people use symbolism, sometimes unknowingly. And on this particular day, one of the men who had been the most cynical put his glasses on. Simultaneously, the mood in the room changed: we had moved from the emotional outpouring of the morning to a group of people who were ready to work.

And they did work hard. By the end of the day, the representatives of the employee engagement forum seemed motivated and ready to get to work.

The space between the beginning of the day and the middle of the day are what I call the black box of employee engagement. What happened in that time period that changed the feeling in the room so much, and what had gotten the employees to this new outlook?

In my experience, there are a few things that happen in the black box:

  • The boundaries of discussion are clarified (what can and can’t be discussed; what ought and ought not to be discussed);
  • The roles of all involved are laid out;
  • Timelines are made clear;
  • Goals and measures of success are identified.

These guidelines can be used in every organisation, though the specifics of what they look like in each organisation might be different.

So, if you want to shine a light on what happens in that black box of employee engagement in your organisation, here are my tips:

  1. Of course, being a trainer, I would say this, but get in an external provider to help you – they will be neutral and unbiased, and not viewed as someone who’s just there to tow the party line.
  2. Manage expectations if you’re a manager or HR: be clear about what a forum like this can and can’t do (for example, it won’t be a union).
  3. Manage expectations if you’re a representative: make a case for what you would like to talk about (hint: the big stuff, like where the company is headed over the next few years, and how staff fit into that).

The 2nd edition of my book is out now, with a foreword from HRZone’s own Jamie Lawrence. Pick up a copy here!

Replies (3)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By Rachel @ BuiltforTeams
09th Jun 2017 19:00

I think the item "Goals and measures of success are identified" is so important. I feel this can help employees so much to know where they are going and what they can expect. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks (1)
Replying to Rachel @ BuiltforTeams:
Image of Jasmine Gartner
By Jasmine Gartner
13th Jun 2017 20:36

Hi Rachel,

And it helps to dispel the subjective assumptions people make without them!

Thanks for commenting :-)

Thanks (0)
By jim_smith
21st Jun 2017 16:19

An observation from someone with a different opinion. I'm assuming from this article that the senior officers and CEO were not involved. If that's correct, my 20 years of EE work tells me that not much is going to happen. Skeptic, yes I am. When we do an EE engagement we only work with the CEO and we receive all the employee input and manage the execution of every worthwhile suggestion. There's no voting and anyone, including an officer who attempts to block a good suggestion, has the debate raised to the CEO. Our experience is that lower levels cannot suspend the culture, politics, and silos. They will try, thank goodness, but as you know, you cannot push a string up a hill. The true test in any EE initiative is providing empirical data that it worked. To that end we tie our EE fees to the client's income statement and the client determines our final fee based on the actual financial impact from employee engagement. If the effort doesn't include send a bully or two home, killing sacred cows, killing or altering dumb policies I don't see how the initiative can be successful. The employees know where every skeleton is hidden in every company, get the culture, politics, silos, and blockers out of the way and great success follows. Absent that, it's just another exercise in mediocre results. It's not the "what's wrong" that makes the difference, it's the "what gets accomplished" that changes people's mindset. How does training people who are not empowered to implement change make a difference? Not trying to be a smart-[***], but I've been doing this for 22 years and if the results aren't obvious at the end of ten weeks, we don't get paid.

Thanks (0)