A problem I hear frequently from business leaders is that they can’t get their employees interested in, or engaged with, their company’s business strategy. They say that their employees don’t seem to care. When I ask them why they feel this way, they cite lack of interest in participating in strategy information sessions and results sharing town halls, poor uptake of business update newsletters, and failure to look at balanced scorecard results reports as just some of the examples of low levels of employee engagement and interest in the strategy of the company.
Unfortunately, many business leaders take this apparent lack of employee engagement as a sign that their employees aren’t really committed to the company or that they don’t care about the company and what it takes to be successful. Sadly, this attitude about employees is common in many companies today - many executives have come to the conclusion that employees just don’t want to get engaged.
Armed with the assumption that low employee engagement is an employee attitude problem, the usual solution is to push more, and harder, from the top in the quest to “fix” employees/the employee problem. Not surprisingly, the actual result achieved by these actions is exactly the opposite of the desired outcome. That is, it causes erosion in real employee engagement levels and reduced employee loyalty to the company.
Have you ever considered that employees don’t engage with a company’s strategy because they aren’t given the opportunity to engage in, and with, the strategy in a meaningful way in the first place?
And that many employees only APPEAR not to care while they actually really do and management just isn’t giving them a fair chance to show it?
Most of the employees I have met in my career have truly wished to contribute to the success of their organization and, when asked, have been more than happy to participate in a dedicated way in their company’s strategy creation, execution, and management processes. In my experience, the barrier to making this a reality isn’t usually employees at all. In fact, the problem is often a systemic one with the organization, and business leaders themselves, putting significant obstacles in the way of employee engagement with the business strategy.
What are these systemic barriers? Let’s look at the four top reasons why companies have trouble getting their employees truly excited about, and involved with, business strategy.
Employees Don’t Know What the Business Strategy Is
You’ve heard this one before – only 5% of the workforce in the majority of organizations understands their company’s business strategy. This means that only a fraction of the employees in any given company understand what the business strategy is, what it really means, what it looks like in action, and why (and how) executing the strategy will drive business success - all despite the fact that many organizations hold splashy strategy launch events for their employees and produce beautiful materials that communicate their business strategy.
Despite these efforts, there’s still a disconnect. The primary disconnect for most employees is in the “what it really means” and “what it looks like in action” parts of the equation outlined above. The problem is that most strategies and strategic plans I’ve seen are written at a very high level. They include strategic direction statements like “Focus on Quality Operations” or “Excel at Innovation” and that’s it. While it sounds good and people nod their heads when they hear them, when employees go back to their front line work, you realize that what it means to “focus on quality operations” means different things to different people.
The problem is that a statement like “focus on quality operations” actually doesn’t tell you anything about what the company really means or hopes to achieve through a focus on a specific strategic direction and this leads to a lack of clarity about what it looks like in action. And while many strategic plans include lists of initiatives that support various strategic directions, these lists are actually not very effective in helping most employees see what “focusing on quality operations” looks like in action in their job. This leads us to the next barrier….
Employees Can’t See Themselves in the Strategy
If the only way your employees can see the strategy “in action” is through the initiatives that align with each strategic direction, they will only be able to “see themselves in the strategy” if their work includes completing one of the identified strategic initiatives.
In reality, the work of most employees involves completing business processes, not working on strategic initiatives. Actually, most of the work that will contribute to the successful execution of a company’s strategy occurs through business processes. If a company hasn’t mapped its business processes with its business strategy, it is missing an opportunity to demonstrate how to put the strategy into action, and how employees fit in and contribute.
An employee’s work is important to them and they see doing their work as their way of contributing to company success. If employees don’t see how their day to day work (via the business processes they work on/in) fits in with, and contributes to, the business strategy, they can’t see themselves in the strategy. When employees can’t see themselves in the business strategy, the strategy just doesn’t register with them and, as a result, they don’t feel like the strategy has a direct relationship to their work.
Employees see their work as important and when the business strategy doesn’t connect with the real work they do, employees conclude that the business strategy doesn’t relate to/doesn’t concern them.
Employees are Incented to Focus on Operations ONLY
Many business leaders and managers believe that employees should focus on their work alone - that is, they don’t need to understand the business and that the work of other departments is just a distraction. In fact, many organizations go so far as to use employee goal and incentive compensation plans to focus employees on operational performance exclusively. In the worst case scenario, this focus on operational results is misaligned with strategic goals and results, negatively impacting the achievement of strategic objectives.
Companies that focus their employees on operational matters only are placing significant limitations on the ability of their organization to achieve business success. For example, when employees don’t understand how the business works, as well as the strategic goals of the organization, they are at greater risk of making operational decisions that have a detrimental impact of the overall success of the company. In contrast, when employees understand the strategic priorities of the entire business and how all parts of the business need to work together to achieve success, they realize that operational decisions made in one part of the company have an impact in other business units and departments and they make these decisions accordingly.
Helping employees understand the relationship between operations and the strategic objectives of the organization allows employees to make more informed day to day business decisions and that always translates into better strategic performance overall.
No One Asks Employees Their Opinion or Gives Them the Chance to Participate in the Strategy Creation and Management Process
Why is strategy making and improvement so often considered to be the sole domain of executives and business leaders? Why does the strategic planning and execution process tend to rely on numbers and data almost to the exclusion of the insights and wisdom of the people who are close to the action and the customer (i.e. the employees)?
The unfortunate fact is that the traditional approach to strategic planning and strategy management used by so many companies almost always unfolds in exactly this way with limited involvement by, and input from, a broad range of employees
Many organizations don’t even bother to engage their employees in the strategy making process while others make the offer and then complain that their employees don’t take them up on it. Unfortunately, in many of these cases, organizations don’t take the necessary steps to help their employees participate in strategy making and management activities. Not releasing employees from front line work and not making time for participation in strategic discussions part of every employee’s job are just two examples of the real barriers that prevent employee engagement with a company’s business strategy.
Not tapping into the knowledge and wisdom of a company’s employees during the strategy creation process is short sighted and can be expensive. For example, most customer facing employees can tell executives exactly what the company’s customers need and expect and how the company is doing at fulfilling them. Want to know more about the competition and the trends in the industry? A crack sales force can tell business leaders everything they need to know. With this much inhouse knowledge at hand, why spend the time and money on customer focus groups and analysis by consultants? However, many companies insist of doing just this.
In addition, employees have unlimited ideas about how to actually execute and improve a company’s business strategy. Unfortunately, most companies don’t tap into this critical resource.
Given the potential associated with employee involvement, and the lack of it in most organizations, is it any wonder that employees chaff at executing a strategy that they didn’t have a part in defining and which may not make sense or be easy to implement given the business realities at the front line of the business?
In my experience, most employees want to engage with their company by getting involved in strategy creation and execution – they really do care about the work of their company and they want it to be successful. The problem is there are just too many obstacles getting in the way.
How can business leaders increase employee engagement with their company’s business strategy?
(1) Ensure that employees have the opportunity, and are actually able, to participate in meaningful ways in the creation, execution, and management of your business strategy,
(2) Translate your business strategy into action via a strategy map and use it to tell your strategy story and engage employees further with your strategy and what it really means, and
(3) Use your strategy map to help employees see how their work contributes both directly (via business processes and strategic initiatives), and indirectly, to strategy execution success.
In the end, it’s important to get your employees involved and engaged with your company and business strategy because, regardless of which business sector or industry you are in, high levels of employee engagement are good for your customers and stakeholders, your employees, and, ultimately, your business.