Wells Fargo's Kevin Cowden: Five Pillars of Truly Effective Employee Engagement

By Kevin Cowden, national practice consultant, Health and Productivity, Employee Engagement at Wells Fargo (No. 12 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list)

In today’s dynamic workplace environment, the need to make paradigm shifts seems to affect all aspects of our daily work. One of the biggest paradigm shifts for senior leaders in the past decade is the employee-employer relationship. What once was a “deal” based on mutual loyalty has evolved into a partnership.

For senior leaders, this paradigm shift has magnified the need to establish corporate cultures and work environments where employees are productive and engaged, and can thrive. But what does this mean And more importantly, how do you as a senior leader accomplish this goal in practical terms

Not surprisingly, the first step is to acknowledge and embrace this paradigm shift. Senior leaders must be conscious of and respect the needs of their workforce, and acknowledge that operant conditioning where rewards or punishment drive behavior change no longer works on its own to sustain behavior change among employees. In other words, you must embrace the fact that monetary rewards are no longer the sole motivator to maximize your workforce’s productivity.

You must also value your employees’ ambitions to generate engagement. Employees today desire opportunity, empowerment, clear goals, and objectives. They want to be informed and included. They covet honesty, trust, autonomy, and respect, along with the awareness that their contribution helps the organization win. To successfully unleash the discretionary output that your organization desires, it’s critical for you and all leaders to recognize these objectives.

Once you embrace the paradigm shift, the real work begins. To implement meaningful, measurable initiatives within your workforce — and subsequently maximize engagement and productivity — your second step is to diligently execute the following five pillars of engagement.

Engagement pillar one: Convey your vision and mission

Senior leaders define the mission, vision, values, and goals for their organization. These principles or standards define the core purpose of the organization and provide the foundation for its culture and work environment. To successfully engage employees, you must convey the strategic mission of your organization, illustrate how specific values and goals differentiate the group in the marketplace, and explain how each member of your workforce fits within your long-term plan.

When implementing new tactics or initiatives, be sure to demonstrate:

– How they align with your mission and vision

– Why they will help achieve key organizational goals

– What the workforce’s roles and responsibilities are to achieve shared success

Engagement pillar two: Establish bi-directional expectations

Once the strategic mission and vision (or the purpose of a new tactic or initiative) has been established and clearly communicated, you’ll need to define the measures of success and establish expectations. It’s important to understand, however, that expectations are bi-directional. You’ll want to provide supervisors and managers with thoughtful game plans (inclusive of long-term strategic goals) so that they may engage, educate, and lead their teams. In turn, ensure that your supervisors and managers understand and acknowledge their employees’ expectations to ensure a productive work environment.

To win in both cases, make sure expectations are clear, direct, and precise to avoid ambiguity. If effectively shared, employees will understand their roles and responsibilities, prioritize their tasks, and perform their work free from the risk of micromanagement. Moreover, because expectations facilitate the development of metrics, you’ll be able to establish your organization’s foundation for rewards and recognition.

Engagement pillar three: Develop a thorough communications strategy

The formation of a mission and vision with clearly defined expectations is a fundamental task of leadership. However, the most significant task you undertake may be the development of a communications strategy, which effectively communicates with a broad and diverse audience. For effective employee engagement, your communication must be targeted, proactive, clear, and consistent. Strategic communication from senior leaders not only helps to establish the importance of meaningful initiatives within the overall strategic mission, but it lends credibility to the leaders themselves. Honest and transparent internal communications from supervisors and managers can build trust and commitment with employees. A well-thought-out plan that is timely and creatively delivered can energize your workforce, keep them focused, and increase productivity.

Engagement pillar four: Constantly work to build and nurture trust

Without trust, a dynamic, engaged workforce is difficult to create. No matter the size or type of your organization, you must build and nurture trust across all individuals and teams to achieve success. In fact, empirical evidence suggests the level of trust inside an organization is a fundamental differentiator of employee engagement.

When your employees trust their supervisors, managers, and senior leaders, you may realize numerous benefits. For example, your employees may take greater initiative and display more creativity. Increased opportunities for open, honest sharing of ideas and resources may present themselves. You may see an improvement in team function, efficiency, and productivity. And, of critical importance in today’s fast-paced work environment, trusting environments are less resistant to change.

Engagement pillar five: Take personal ownership in the process

To inspire and empower your workforce, you and all senior leaders in your organization must model the desired behaviors you seek. Your behavior must support the culture and environment you wish to develop. True, your employees and teams need forcing functions (requiring them to do something in a certain way to ensure cooperation) to achieve goals and objectives. However, prior to implementing forcing functions, you must deconstruct and analyze the big picture, to provide the tools and resources necessary to succeed.

Ask yourself questions and answer them. What resources are necessary to achieve success What training or education do we need to provide for our employees and teams Do our policies and procedures support the culture and environment we are striving for By competently addressing these questions while communicating and providing the necessary tools, your leadership will demonstrate a commitment to employees that you are willing to take the necessary steps to achieve the mission.

Moving forward

The nature of work and the workforce is changing rapidly, and human capital as a competitive differentiator may be more important for your organization than ever before. As a senior leader, creating a culture that effectively drives employee engagement is no small challenge. However, if you and all senior leaders spend considerable time connecting employees to your organization’s mission and vision; provide information to employees so they understand expectations; support employees with the training and resources they need to win; and provide employees with the opportunities and autonomy they desire, then your organization will be well-poised for success.

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