There is much said about employee engagement these days -- how it is essential to great business outcomes, and how it is often shockingly low. Gallup’s 2009 statistical analysis across multiple studies show pretty radical correlations between having engaged employees and corporate outcomes.

Comparing top-quartile to bottom-quartile engagement business units resulted in median percentage differences of:

  • 12 percent increase in customer loyalty/engagement
  • 16 percent increase in profitability
  • 18 percent increase in productivity
  • 25 percent reduction in turnover for high-turnover companies
  • 49 percent reduction in turnover for low-turnover companies
  • 49 percent reduction in safety incidents
  • 27 percent reduction in shrinkage
  • 37 percent reduction in absenteeism
  • 41 percent reduction in patient safety incidents
  • 60 percent increase in quality (defects)

There’s another avalanche of writing and advice on how to engage employees, and another slightly smaller pile that heckles some of that advice, with deservedly sharp humor.

A quick tour of the of the employee engagement issue, would begin with the research findings work of Tower Perrin and Gallup. From there, there are two fast and fantastic TED talks (these are among the most popular talks and they aren’t new, so you may have seen them already.) The first is Daniel Pink’s Drive, which talks about what motivates people at an individual level. The second thing to look at is Simon Sinek’s talk on how great leaders inspire action, which talks about how to align people with an idea.

What is employee engagement? There are several excellent definitions, but it amounts to whether an employee cares about their job enough to collect the energy and focus required to do it well.

So -- if engagement is roughly the equivalent of doing a good job (it is at least the attempt or desire to do a good job), then what does it take to do a good job? Badges? Employee recognition? Picnics? Yammer? I’m not knocking those as contributing to good environments, I’m just sayin'. Those are frosting, not cake.

Here’s one way to look at it: doing a good job requires the ability to do the job, a reason to do a good job, and (perhaps counterintuitively you’ll say) the permission to do a good job.

The Ability to do Good Work

This obviously has several components.

From the individual, it demands a fit of skills and thinking.

From management, it requires a clear understanding on what it means to do a good job, as well as the opportunity to ask and learn.

From the IT and Structure of the organization, it means providing the appropriate tools, colleagues and resources to do that job.

In this context, a socially oriented business both provides excellent communication and collaboration tools, as well as an environment of trust, transparency and a learning orientation.

A Reason to do Good Work

All the talent in the world, and all the effort, will do little to help you if there’s no focus or alignment. At best you’ll get random good work that doesn’t amount to much. At worst, you’ll just get half-hearted attempts that peter out quickly. In many ways, this is the true promise of social intention-driven, mission focused work. The vast majority of us want our work to matter, we want it to be great, we want to be recognized for our mastery (to paraphrase Dan Pink).

Permission to do Good Work

Many of you will squawk here and say the only permission you need is your own. And I am certainly a subscriber to the “do the right thing, take responsibility, work hard, and things will sort themselves out” philosophy. But in fact, in many organizations decision-making is opaque and uninformed by the organization, mission is poorly reasoned and expressed, and processes are somewhat arbitrary. Such organizations actively, if unintentionally, quash good work. The process doesn’t allow for it, or a lack of clarity around goals and decision making processes renders it irrelevant. After a few swings and misses (or dozens), your employees aren’t going to bother coming up to the plate anymore.

So maybe permission to do good work isn’t the best phrase here, maybe the phrase is value. Does your company value good work, understand how to identify it, promote and enable it? Your company may be promoting collaboration, and that helps, it may be providing a social intranet, and that helps. But if decision making happens in a board room, and when decisions are announced, they aren’t explained or aren’t authentically explained, and the work of your teams is therefore struggling to support somewhat mysterious goals. Or if when someone points out an obvious problem, and people blink and say it's unfixable -- for whatever reason then you are effectively withdrawing permission to do good work.

Employee Engagement and Social Business

If you are striving to be a social business, you may have any number of motivations, including shareholder value (another motivation is just making the world a better place, or some measure of pride). A social business is one where structure and processes exist to enable people to do great work in service of a vision or mission that is valuable to its customers. The other kind of company begrudgingly accepts employees as the cost of doing business and customers as a source of revenue.

A social business is constantly discussing, refining and finding opportunities in their mission. The best application of a social intranet is to ensure the transparency of reasoning and decisions, and to involve the organization in it as a trusted partner. A Social Business leader is giving context to their trusted team about the decisions that are being made, their constraints, and their multi-layered meaning and impact.

Shared mission, mutual respect, trust and commitment to continual improvement -- these happen to be the four hallmarks of a collaborative team. Perhaps they are also, and more deeply, the context, the permission, the oxygen we need to do great work.

The best is yet to come.

Editor's Note: To read more by Deb Lavoy:

-- Enterprise 2.0: This Week Through the 'Purpose' Filter