Insights By Jamie January 2022

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 01-24-22

Insights by Jamie


January 2022


Rethinking Employee Engagement in 2022


Employee engagement, at all levels, has always been an important topic for organizations. Now, the topic has climbed to the very topic of critical business variables, as I stated in IndustryWeek’s Outlook 2022. For many, engagement isn’t about building a strong organization but given recent retention challenges, just staying open for business. Despite the current Covid case surge, 2022 is still bringing about an increase in underlying stability, but only in relative terms. New trend lines are set and are worrying. Employee engagement must become a long-term strategic imperative now. 


Don’t just avoid exits


Pay is certainly a factor, but it is still well known that people don’t leave companies, but leave bad bosses and bad cultures. Bad cultures and bad bosses give people a reason to look elsewhere and make it easier to take a risk in leaving. However, when most companies look at this issue, they create a minimum threshold culture to prevent people from leaving. I believe this is the wrong standard, and the wrong mentality. 


Recently I was at a Board of Directors meeting for Robinson Fans, a family-held business that has survived over 125 years. Recently, five former employees who had left returned to the company because they missed what it offered, in particular the people and the culture. This is the standard that we should be building toward. Build a culture that when people do decide to leave, they want to return. 


This might seem counterintuitive. After all, you don’t really want people to leave and then return. However, when your culture is so strong, and so distinct, that you’ve met this higher threshold, then employees will recognize what they’re giving up even as they start looking. Subtle changes in your mindset to reach this higher standard can have significant long term impact.


Break down the problem


“Staffing” is a vague problem statement, and it is often what I hear. Even reframed as a gap, such as not enough people, or 100 fewer people than we need, it’s not a very effective problem statement. That’s because it’s an aggregate problem statement, and tries to roll too many distinct problems into one. When that happens, we start looking for THE solution, which doesn’t exist. 


In People Solve Problems, I write about the capability of breaking problems down into smaller and better defined problems. For starters, the “hiring” gap is distinct from the “retention” gap. Leveraging the hours that your employees are engaged is a different gap than maximizing the energy and effort they put into their work. The key is exploring the “staffing gap” as many, many different and smaller problems. And there are gaps that are going unaddressed, as is evidenced by every organization that is concerned about staffing that hasn’t even performed waste walks to eliminate the waste that consumes our human capacity. 


Bring the right problem solving behaviors to the challenge


Many efforts to solve “staffing” problem statements involve static problem solving, searching for a solution in a random walk of benchmarking and brainstorming. Consider bringing some of the capabilities and behaviors I write about in People Solve Problems that I do not witness in the pursuit of this challenge. 


First, focus on creativity over capital. Everyone can throw capital at the problem. Of course, wages are headed up and that’s going to be part of the dynamic. But if that is the only solution you bring to the challenge, you’re missing the one advantage that may be uniquely yours…your creativity. Be bold, think beyond the box. Don’t be afraid of coming up with bold ideas that won’t work (we’ll come back to that) because one bold idea may generate another one that is a breakthrough.


Next, focus on broadening your set of ideas during ideation. The first sets of solutions are generally the obvious ones. We need to stay with it longer, generate a wider array of potential ideas, and then start to combine some of the creative with the more obvious solutions. 


Continuing on, the rules of the game have changed. That means our knowledge of what will and will not work is largely invalid. We should learn deliberately, especially through experimentation. Test-to-learn isn’t a strategy people like to utilize when it comes to employee issues because the risk of failure is a real concern. In case you didn’t notice, what we’re doing today isn’t working either. The cost of failure has now dropped. Don’t test carelessly, but test deliberately to learn and improve. 


And finally, make all of these efforts transparent. Employee retention is as much about momentum as anything. Where are we heading? Are things getting better? Transparency helps people evaluate where we are heading, instead of only judging where we are today. 


Don’t sacrifice the long-term 


Many organizations have lowered their hiring standards in order to get bodies in the door. Some of those standards may have been arbitrarily high, or just arbitrary, and perhaps you are now more open to true talent in new places. 


In the often desperate effort to get people into the organization, it is important not to sacrifice your long-term strategy or culture. While this isn’t true in all jobs, when you hire the wrong people with the wrong mindset, it can affect the people around them, and now two people will be less effective and productive than one will. Protect the long-term. 


2022 is the year to operationalize employee engagement and move it to the top of the priority list, thinking of it not just as a defensive mechanism but as an investment in the future of your organization. 

Thank you, and be well!

Jamie Flinchbaugh