You know what I love most about engaging the diversity of thought, expertise and experience in your organisation? It not only makes your business nimbler and more adaptive, but it also creates a bridge that meaningfully connects a business to its people.

And it’s not just any bridge because valuing that diversity creates a ‘two-way bridge’.

A bridge that connects strategic intent with operational action and activity, but also uses operational insights to inform strategic thought.

It’s a bridge that builds shared purpose where your people’s daily work is an expression of your business purpose and your people are motivated by the knowledge that they’re making a meaningful contribution to that purpose.

And it’s a bridge that links performance benefits for the company with the psychological benefits that create a fully engaged workplace.

The research is in – engagement is a business differentiator

Engagement research over the last 15 years has consistently shown that there is a direct link between an engaged workforce and business performance. Organisations with high levels of employee engagement out-grow, out-perform and outlast other businesses.

For example, Aon Hewitt’s 2014 Engagement Report found some dramatic business performance differences between companies in the top and bottom quartiles for engagement.  Sales growth was 4% above the average compared with the bottom quartile which was 1% below. Operating margins were 2% higher than average versus 3% below average performance for the low engagement organisations. And shareholder returns saw a 4% uplift from high levels of engagement as opposed to the 8% below-average performance when engagement was poor.

Similarly, Gallup’s 2015 Employee Engagement Assessment found that companies in the top quartile in engagement out-performed companies in the bottom quartile by 10% on customer ratings, 21% in productivity and 22% in profitability.

This begs the question: Does engagement drive better business performance or do high-performing businesses elicit more engagement from their employees? The answer is a resounding YES!

Engagement is more than fulfilling a social contract with your people – it takes more than bean bag chairs, foosball tables and trendy in-house cafes. Successfully engaging and motivating your employees requires you to give them a workplace that they want to be engaged in and a shared purpose to be motivated by. Above all, it requires you to recognise the contribution that they have to make and their contribution when they make it.

Engagement happens at a human level

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, co-authors of Nine Lies About Work – A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, share some fascinating research by the ADP Research Institute on employee engagement – a study that digs deeper than the headline numbers. They highlight how the secret to fully engaging your people is making them a part of cross-functional, interdisciplinary teams – teams that aren’t on the org chart. In fact, employees that are members of ad hoc, special purpose teams are twice as likely to be fully engaged as those that aren’t. Beyond that, the number of fully engaged employees more than doubles again – from 18 to 45% – when they are on a team where they ‘have deep trust in their leader’.

What is perhaps more telling is the data around what makes for the best teams – those with the highest levels of full engagement. They’re teams where there is a shared sense of purpose, a human connection within the team, a sense of autonomy in shaping outcomes and, perhaps most importantly, where the team members felt valued and trusted. Or, in Buckingham and Goodall’s words, “my leader knows me for my best, and then focuses my work around that”.

I believe this makes for a powerful argument that the highest levels of engagement occur when a leader trusts his people enough to give them work to be meaningfully engaged in. That, in turn, makes them trust their leader more – trust begets trust.

Buckingham and Goodall speak to the very humanness of a fully-engaged workplace when discussing the core purpose of teams:

“They are the best method we humans have ever devised to make each person’s uniqueness useful. High-functioning teams are essential to a high-functioning organization because they create more opportunities for each person to use his or her strengths by enabling the tasks at hand to be divided according to the strengths on offer. They are a mechanism for integrating the needs of the individual and the needs of the organization.”

What their findings tell us is that engagement comes when we value the diversity in the workplace. When we create a working environment where people are seen for their unique strengths – for who they are – and they’re given the opportunity to use those strengths to make themselves a valuable member of the organisation.

“I am seen for all that I am, therefore I exist to give the best of me”

In the Zulu language there is a traditional greeting – ‘sawabona’. There is conflicting lore about how and when it is used and varying English translations, but at its essence it means, ‘I see you’. Not just visually…not simply as an act of sight. But I see you for who you are, for your strengths, for your weaknesses, for your ‘uniqueness’, for what you’ve done or haven’t done and, beyond that, for
what you mean to the tribe.

In the call and response tradition of many African languages, the traditional response to this greeting is ‘Shikoba’. The English translation is ‘therefore, I am seen’ or ‘therefore, I exist’. Once again, not in an “oh, I’m fine” kind of way. But as acknowledgement that they are part of the whole…that they are valued and that gives them a home.

This greeting and response are a ritual that constantly reaffirms the individual’s value to the tribe and the importance to the individual’s very existence that they are contributing to something larger than themselves. It’s a centuries-old recognition that these things are inextricably intertwined. That the individual’s need to be valued for who they really are and what they have to contribute – perhaps in spite of their physical traits or their weaknesses – is essential to the survival of the tribe as a whole. Because this deeper human acknowledgement and recognition creates a synergy between being valued as an individual and each individual contributing their best self.

In today’s business world that is filled with noise and busyness – data and automation – it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that now, more than at any time in the last 150 years or so, humanising the workplace is the secret to building a thriving business – one that can adapt and evolve at the lightning speed of technological and communication advancements. Because it is our humanness that engages us. And it is the engagement of diverse thinking, experiences and perspectives that drives creativity, innovation and, ultimately, performance.

Are you bringing your people’s diverse knowledge, experience and ideas together in teams that shape the future of your organisation? Do you trust them to use that diversity of thought to deliver outcomes that will serve your business purpose? Do you take the time to acknowledge the value that they have to offer and the value of their contribution?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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