Digital Transformation Ace Cards: Engagement

This post is part of a series on the ACES for digital transformation. The introduction and links to other posts is available here.

With research showing that employee engagement sits somewhere between 1% and 35% then it quickly becomes apparent why having employee engagement is one area where you can make a difference to your digital transformation.

Since these levels of engagement are the norms across the world, then it is useful to consider why engagement matters. At the basic level, the more engaged an employee is, the more enthusiastic they will be and as a result, it commits them to achieving success.

Having engaged employees is undoubtedly a good thing, but you need to consider the consequences of those who are passive or actively disengaged. If you have large numbers of people who are passive participants, then you’re paying a wage but not creating the environment for those people to be successful. At a financial level, this is poor business, at a human level, it’s a waste of ability. For those who actively disengaged the same applies, but it’s worse because they will undermine the contribution of others and creating barriers to success.

With that perspective and understanding of the current state of the workforce, you can see why engagement is one of the powerful ace cards you can hold as you undertake digital transformation.

The focus of this article is on engagement with your digital transformation. The likelihood of achieving that is substantially increased if you have high levels of workplace engagement. If that isn’t the case then I’d suggest you look there before thinking about specific engagement with digital transformation.

Here are some specific things that you should consider to build engagement with the change project:

Connect to your ambition — this is the first of the ace cards that we sought to put in our hand. If people can see what the future state is and the reasons for this, then they are in a place to decide about their role to deliver this. Therefore, it is important that ambition is stretching but believable. Individuals will engage with your ambition when they can understand what we need of them and that they will have the resources they need to do their job. People are looking for something that will challenge them, but that if they are successful, is recognised and is important to the organisation.

Finally, as you share your ambition, remember that you’ve talked about it and been immersed in it. When people hear it for the first time, they will not understand your workings out and will take time to get on board. Give space for that to happen, seek questions and be prepared to be challenged. If you block challenge at this point, then people will disconnect and struggle to re-engage even if they come to a point of understanding the ambition in the future.

Show Empathy — there is plenty of research to show how people respond to change and considering the change management before you launch your start is a vital activity. Changing behaviour is at the heart of digital transformation and people will see that. You must understand the reaction to hearing about the change and the emotions attached to that. People will expect jobs to be changing and the ways they work being different. Intentionally treating employees as people, as individuals, and not as resources with skills to be moved into fresh teams will bring the team with you on this journey.

Training and Development — Richard Branson said: “Train people well enough they can leave, treat them well enough they don’t want to.” Regardless of your views on Branson, then there is truth in this statement. One reason people don’t engage in their workplace is because we do not equip them to do the job. We know we can’t hire our way out of the skills crisis and therefore training and developing the team we have will be critical. If people see you investing in them and preparing them not just to deliver the ambition but to be part of the future state, then they will be more likely to engage with the challenge.

Empowering individuals — one of the key things needed for digital transformation to be successful is to shift from ‘doing’ digital to ‘being’ digital. An aspect of this is thinking about how we lead and how work is directed. People will be more engaged with the work that needs to be delivered if they can tackle problems and be supported in doing that. When you micromanage or set out specific plans and tasks that take choice away from people, then engagement will fall away. One of the bold moves you can make to empower individuals is to fund teams, not projects and give them the autonomy to deliver.

Recognise contributions — one of the key contributors to successful change is when reinforcement happens. In my experience, technology teams can easily fall into one of two traps. The first is to praise the hero who fixed the crisis (that probably shouldn’t have occurred), and the second is to blame the individual who made a human error and not look at the systems that left them exposed. By shifting the focus to recognise the contributions that people and teams are making builds a culture that values how people do things, not just what they do.

There is one further dimension that sits beyond some normal conversations around engagement and that is the relationship with trust. In my experience, those who haven’t been in managerial positions (and so escaped the endless meetings!) have a perception that more gets talked about and discussed than is ever the reality. If employees don’t have trust in their managers (I make the distinction between leaders and managers) then engagement is likely to stay low. The trap is that people believe they can build trust, and therefore engagement, by increasing transparency.

Rachel Botsman on her book on trust and technology argues that trust is a value and we cannot build it through transparency. The argument continues that if you believe you need to be transparent, then you have given up on trust. Transparency has the opposite result — it says you can’t trust us so we’re showing you what we’re doing. Not that transparency is bad, just that it is independent of trust. Trust is earned by being trustworthy all the time. Vulnerability, the willingness to not have all the answers and saying “I don’t know” is a key part of being a trustworthy leader.

As you seek to build engagements with your team, you’re asking them to place their trust in you even when you don’t have all the answers. This is difficult to do, that’s why engagement is so low, but the flip side is that when you have an engaged employee, you will together achieve more.

Trust builds engagement, and that’s where the ace card forms in your hand.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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