The more I work with companies to boost innovation, the more I realize that much of that work comes down to employee engagement. Just as there’s a high correlation between employee engagement and profitable growth, there’s a strong correlation between engagement and innovation (which of course contributes to profitable growth).
Employees who feel personally connected to business objectives are more likely to offer ideas on how to achieve those objectives. They understand what’s relevant. They’re motivated to reach shared goals. Getting employees engaged requires strong communications, which not surprisingly is another essential characteristic of an innovation culture. Communication helps people feel connected. It also equips them to make creative connections. To become engaged, people need to feel appreciated and trusted so they’re willing to make suggestions and take personal risks to advance the goals of the organization. When they sense that they’re being treated fairly, they tend to assume that what benefits the business will benefit them.
So how do you get folks more engaged? How do you go from describing what that’s like to making it happen? To put it bluntly: with leadership. When companies measure employee engagement, those findings are appropriately interpreted as a measure of management success. They provide feedback on the effectiveness of the organization’s leaders. If engagement is something you want to improve then leadership is something you need to address. Engagement is about how people respond to their environment, and if there’s one thing no one can control, it’s how other people respond to things. You can’t control anyone’s attitude but you can influence the environment that shapes that attitude. You can make it attractive and rewarding to become more engaged.
People who are engaged in their work make appropriate adjustments without being told to. They require less supervision and solve problems more quickly. In other words, engaged employees are easier to manage. Without engagement, the only levers available to managers are command and control, reward and punish. That may keep things afloat, but it’s not a path to innovation and growth.
Companies often implement idea management systems, creativity training and innovation metrics without addressing these larger issues of climate. What they discover is that positive results are difficult to sustain. In some cases, the benefits all but disappear when some high level advocate leaves the company. If you want sustained progress, you need to promote things like connections and communication and appreciation and trust. If you’re successful, you’ll have more engaged employees and a solid foundation for innovation.