Driving with Two Feet

November 21, 2014

You might have seen Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace study last year. In it, they published some relatively shocking statistics:

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In the US, the numbers are significantly better: a whopping 29% of employees are engaged! That means only 71% are not.

An article in Forbes suggests we don’t just want to engage people, we want them married (i.e. fully committed). It’s like a friction clutch when it is engaged – the driving part and the driven part are fully in contact. Conversely, when the clutch is disengaged, there is no contact at all. When there is no contact, the engine is turning, but no work (in the mechanical sense) is getting done. The wheels aren’t turning, and the car isn’t moving.

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People who are learning to drive standard transmission will often "ride the clutch" because they are nervous about shifting gears. My dad was an antique car dealer and he had to put up with a lot of lurching and a bit of gear grinding as we learned to drive a variety of vehicles. It seems like a lot of companies are “riding the clutch” on the engagement issue. They know that it’s important, but the initiatives are so small and so halfhearted that it’s like driving with both feet. This means it’s a noisy, rough ride and the parts wear out much faster.

There's a lot to read about the “what” of employee engagement: work that matters, paths for growth, fun, flexibility, autonomy, etc. But regardless of the initiative, is there a way to get smoothly into first gear?

  1. Start with your hands. A handshake is a type of clutch. Interacting with people throughout the organization personally is a great place to start changing the workplace. If you value people enough to actually spend time with them, listen to them, ask them questions - this is far more powerful a communication tool than any other media. Leaders at all levels should schedule this activity and follow through on it consistently.
  2. Then, use your eyes. The engagement of a clutch happens inside the mechanical system where the energy is actually being transferred. “Go and see” (go to gemba) – the principle of leaders actually walking the floor and seeing /solving problems where the work is happening – is a key principle of LEAN management. When leaders “walk the process” they are seeing the process through the eyes of those who actually have to execute it. This is the most direct way to transfer energy between leadership and personnel.
  3. Let it work. In a car, depressing the clutch pedal is an active decision to disengage. By default, the system is designed to be engaged– it’s more efficient and more reliable. This article has a great quote: “It is not the job of a [leader] to make employees listen to what you have to say; it is about setting up the system so that people want to listen.” Don't start with initiatives and tools that layer on top of existing management systems. Instead, think about how to build active engagement into the system.

Changing your systems takes leadership time and energy. But investing in engaging your workforce transfers that energy into the entire organization.

Topics: Management

Selene Crosby

Six Sigma Expert

Ms. Crosby has 20 years of experience developing, implementing and improving successful business processes and projects in both technical and non-technical environments. Her areas of expertise include process improvement methodologies, process mapping, business process automation, analysis, project management, audit and internal controls processes, technical writing and training design. She is a Certified Analytics Professional (CAP), holds a Six Sigma black belt, Lean Bronze certification and an Innovation Engineering black belt. Ms. Crosby has been the Program Manager for Analytics Transformation at Andeavor Corporation (formerly Tesoro), worked in the Process Engineering Section at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) as part of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC) program, assisting small to mid-sized manufacturers in becoming competitive in an increasingly global economy by becoming aware of and implementing process improvement and business strategies. Ms. Crosby held a variety of roles at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati OH from September 1998 to June 2012 and attained internal P&G certifications including Continuous Improvement, Business Process Transformation and High Impact Training. .
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