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The Black Box of Employee Engagement

About a month ago, I started working with a new client, helping them to create an employee engagement forum. They had put together a group of representatives and I went in to speak with them.

When I walked into the room, I could feel the tension, a tight feeling as if everyone were holding their breath. It didn’t take long for the upset to start spilling out: the lack of trust in management, the sense of powerlessness, and the hopelessness about whether a forum like this could actually work. The frustration and anger were palpable.

After a few hours, though, this all started to change. As an anthropologist, one of the things I’m really interested in is how people use symbolism, sometimes unknowingly. And on this particular day, one of the men who had been the most cynical put his glasses on. Simultaneously, the mood in the room changed: we had moved from the emotional outpouring of the morning to a group of people who were ready to work.

And they did work hard. By the end of the day, the representatives of the employee engagement forum seemed motivated and ready to get to work.

The space between the beginning of the day and the middle of the day are what I call the black box of employee engagement. What happened in that time period that changed the feeling in the room so much, and what had gotten the employees to this new outlook?

In my experience, there are a few things that happen in the black box:

  • The boundaries of discussion are clarified (what can and can’t be discussed; what ought and ought not to be discussed);

  • The roles of all involved are laid out;

  • Timelines are made clear;

  • Goals and measures of success are identified.

These guidelines can be used in every organisation, though the specifics of what they look like in each organisation might be different.

So, if you want to shine a light on what happens in that black box of employee engagement in your organisation, here are my tips:

  1. Of course, being a trainer, I would say this, but get in an external provider to help you – they will be neutral and unbiased, and not viewed as someone who’s just there to tow the party line.

  2. Manage expectations if you’re a manager or HR: be clear about what a forum like this can and can’t do (for example, it won’t be a union).

  3. Manage expectations if you’re a representative: make a case for what you would like to talk about (hint: the big stuff, like where the company is headed over the next few years, and how staff fit into that).

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