Just when you thought that your company had a renewed focus on productivity in these times of high unemployment, you get hit upside the head with that cruel master called Fact. First the bad news (don’t worry, there will be plenty of hope presented here): The 2009/2010 U.S. Strategic Rewards Survey conducted by Watson Wyatt and WorldatWork reports that employee-engagement levels for top performers dropped 25% since last year, and 9% for all workers. Recent studies from Gallup and Towers Perrin confirm that the fundamental issue vexing enterprise is the lack of employee engagement. These reports, and others, point to findings that over two-thirds of American workers are “not-engaged” or “disengaged” in their workplace. The good news? It turns out organizations that invest in employee development, and therefore have a higher ratio of fully engaged workers, outperform their competition, posting 2 to 3 times the earnings per share (EPS), according to the Gallup study of 650,000 workgroups.

Identifying engaged employees

You might be wondering what these esteemed research organizations mean by “engaged employees,” and how are they measuring the levels of such engagement? The common, accepted definitions divide the workforce as follows: Engaged employees are those who are motivated to go beyond their job assignment and whose goals and aspirations are aligned with those of the company. They are “enthused” and “in gear” using their talents and discretionary effort to make a difference in their employer’s quest for sustainable business success. “Not Engaged” employees are those who wait on the sidelines, non-committal in everything, blinders on. As for the “actively disengaged” worker, referred to as Cave Dwellers by Gallup, we all know who they are. They persistently go about tearing down everything that their engaged coworkers are building. Though small in numbers, they are an insidious and destructive force in the company, sometime outwardly sour and dour, often quietly hostile.

Researchers have developed detailed surveys, in varied formats and methodologies. Gallup has reviewed the responses of over 3 million employees who have participated in their comprehensive Q/12 survey. Their findings conclude that 71% of workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”. With U.S. industry operating on only one third of it’s capacity, and suffering a $350 billion loss of annual productivity, the time is prime to change the dialogue.

Safety suffers when most of the workers are apathetic at best, hostile at worse. A new focus on engagement, therefore, is far more critical to embark upon than a continued primary focus on behaviors. A workforce that is encouraged to innovate and give discretionary effort will be fully committed and motivated, their goals and aspirations fully aligned with the enterprise. To be sure, some of these activities should include the tried-and-true elements of behavior-based safety (BBS) as these are valuable ingredients in the stew we call culture. As Dr. Stephen Simon describes, “The safety culture is the context in which you carry out your safety programs. It is the broth that flavors the ingredients and determines if the whole is successful”. Surely, a rancid broth will destroy the ingredients. Create a culture of engaged and motivated employees, and your programs, like BBS, have a chance to prosper.

Creating controversy

Not surprisingly, this line of thought has caused a stir amongst the legions of BBS consultants and academics who have set up shop over the years. Since the early 1970’s, Behavior-Based Safety has been the most accepted set of approaches to eliminate injury. BBS, simply put, is the application of the science of behavior change to real world problems. At its core, BBS efforts include specifications of target behaviors, the collection of observation data, a process to decide on actionable items from the data and feedback and review.

So what’s the controversy? A growing number of experts in the field are recognizing that BBS efforts are ineffective if the corporate culture is unhealthy, it’s employees disengaged with management in the dark about how to intervene in productive ways. When relied upon as the only key motivator in an organization, it’s no wonder why unions have been so harsh in their criticism of management’s love affair with BBS. I’ve long been advocating that companies institute a robust Culture Management System, the best of which are Web-based, integrating reporting, incentives and e-learning. This is a system that records employee involvement and discretionary effort, reports on that engagement, and rewards for it as well.

The fact is that most companies have been so focused on observations, targets and policies and lagging indicators such as OSHA recordable rates and lost-time metrics that they’ve lost a handle on the very safety culture that keeps productivity high and workers alive and healthy. The engagement process in safety and health is best accomplished through a serious culture improvement initiative and navigated through a safety culture management system.

Middle management is the heart and soul of any sustainable culture change, and they need the tools to help drive performance through a combination of measurement, reporting, learning, action planning and strategic interventions. What goes in this toolbox? You’ll need to create an index of leading indicators, reward and recognize for the pro-active involvement of employees, give them an individual online account to a robust website that allows them to track points they earn and redeem those points for brand-name gifts of their own choosing. Nothing is more effective than the ability to earn an iPod, or fishing gear, or a new work jacket for extraordinary performance and discretionary effort. We humans are hard-wired for this motivation. It’s more effective than a pay raise, too. If structured properly, the awarding of tangible goods is non-taxable as well.

In addition to the incentive aspect of the system, you can integrate a multimedia e-learning platform that allows employees to earn even more points as they complete facility-customized OSHA and MSHA training courses. A growing body of research shows that the 24/7 aspect of online training is far superior to classroom training in material retention rates. If your facility already offers a strong online curriculum, consider supporting its use with incentives. Your system also needs to push out data that gives you real-time management reports and graphs showing bottom-up involvement, compliance and progress towards goals.

Ten "fuzzy essentials"

Of course, there are many things managers and leaders must do once they have a vibrant system in place. I like to refer to them as the Ten Fuzzy Essentials. They go a long way toward increasing employee engagement levels:
  1. Good Morning. Say it to the people on your team. Eye contact and a smile are more valuable than a barrage of questions first thing on shift.
  2. Broadcast Good News. Have you heard some positive feedback about someone on your team, maybe a complimentary email, or a good idea? Pass it on to everyone!
  3. Clarify Expectations. Your people work best when they know what you expect. Are there clear team goals? Am I showing interest in how they are getting the job done? Underscore that individual, discretionary effort will be recognized and rewarded.
  4. Represent Your Team. They need to know that you have their back, and that you know what they are working on. You’re going to bat for them, providing the materials and resources that fuel their success.
  5. Positive Reinforcement. It’s not enough to rejoice at the final goal line. Each successful step along the way is worthy of praise.
  6. RESPECT. Everyone has a point of view worth hearing. Spend some effort to listen to all who are willing to speak up.
  7. TRUST. Don’t micro-manage. Let leaders grow from the team energy and support them. Encourage systems thinking.
  8. Develop Your Players. Every good coach seeks to build his players’ capacity for mental focus, physical agility, emotional balance and spiritual alignment. If you don’t see this as your role, perhaps you’re not much of a coach. So promote education and training, health and fitness, patience and enjoyment, integrity and persistence. These are some supportive habits that build your team’s primary capacities, allowing them to better manage their energy and “perform in the storm”.
  9. Meaningful Dialogue. Stop using tired old bromides and start using new ways to say things. It will keep you and those around you sharp. Our ears perk up when we hear someone use language in creative and thought-provoking ways. Conversely, we tune out those we feel are just making noise.
  10. Good Night. At the end of the day, send them home with a great impression. Thank them for a strong effort in a spirit of encouragement. Find ways to end the day on a positive note.
Sustainable improvement in safety and health comes from a fully engaged organization. This is how you convert clock-punchers into systems thinkers, foremen into coaches, managers into leaders. This is how you go from “good-enough” to great.”