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As we get underway with the launch of our 2018 UK & European Employee Engagement Awards, we at the Engagement Zone will be interviewing judges for the upcoming event. Today, the Engagement Zone sits down with David Ducheyne – Founder at Otolith.

EZ: What does employee engagement mean to you?

DAVID: Employee Engagement is the willingness and ability of employees to go beyond what is described and prescribed. It means that people feel responsible for how the company is doing and they act upon it. There’s a lot you could relate to this: ownership, organizational citizenship, accountability, …

There’s a lot of confusion about the term. Academically the term is not so “pure” and some people insist we should be talking about work engagement. And some say that it’s not proven that an increase in employee engagement leads to higher results, profits, …

But for those, I would like to argue the other way around. Those who have worked with someone who is demotivated, cynical, against everything, know how difficult it is. So maybe we should say that if we work on employee engagement, we do everything to avoid disengagement. And in that context, building trust is important to all employees.

EZ: What are your three tips to companies looking to drive engagement in their organisations?

DAVID: First of all, I would never implement an engagement programme. The moment you do that, you separate the engagement theme from other aspects of organisation and leadership. I strongly believe engagement is the result of managing an organisation correctly. If you offer a decent job, with sufficient degrees of freedom, if you provide a context that is supportive, if you make sure there is meaningfulness, if you appreciate people, … all those things have a positive impact on the psychological state.

Secondly, be very careful with employee engagement surveys and targets. The moments a manager has engagement as a target, the very content of engagement changes. It becomes something you should solve. Very often leaders are tempted to put pressure on teams to achieve the target. And people often adapt their feedback to that pressure. Also, surveys create expectations. I feel your surveys have their value, but that value is minimal and evaporates the moment it’s clear nothing happens afterward.

Thirdly, don’t expect everybody to be engaged. That’s impossible. Leaders are often surrounded by people who are engaged. People get promoted because they are engaged. But many people in the organisation are not and will never be. And therefore we should work on the motivation of people: the motivation to do the job correctly, deal with customers appropriately, interact with colleagues as expected. Engagement levels overall are low and have been for a long time. SO why should we expect them to increase all of a sudden? Maybe we expect too much.

EZ: What do you feel are the biggest pitfalls that companies should look to avoid when executing their engagement strategy?

DAVID: Let’s say that organisations should have a people strategy. Engagement is part of that. A people strategy focuses on creating the context for people to be willing and able to perform sustainably. Engagement competence, well-being are three sisters in that strategy. Like I said, don’t isolate engagement.

But the biggest pitfall is to think that engagement levels and motivation is a given. Every day, the organisation must proof itself towards customers, but also towards employees and freelancers. And a core element in all of this is the trustworthiness.

If people do not experience trust, they will not be motivated, let alone engaged.

EZ: Why do employees fail to buy in when companies try to ramp up engagement?

DAVID: Haha. The word ramp up is significant. You cannot force people to be engaged. It does not work. If people see a genuine interest in providing the necessary conditions, they will be engaged. If leaders treat people with respect and dignity, they might be engaged. If they have a decent and meaningful job, they will be engaged. If they feel that leaders act also in their interest, they will feel engaged.

But imagine an organisation with low engagement levels that suddenly decides to ramp up the situation? Nobody will believe that. The organisations who have invested over the years in people strategy do not need an engagement programme, and they do not need to ramp up the figures. They are trustworthy.

EZ: What skills are most useful for everyone to have when trying to move towards a culture of engagement?

DAVID: What is often lacking is feedback and dialogue. Feedback and dialogue are important in building trust, in making people grow, in focussing on performance and results. It’s necessary to have a culture of accountability.

EZ: You’re a judge for the Employee Engagement awards. What will you be looking for in the entries?

DAVID: I will be looking at the sustainability of the engagement approach. How is it embedded in daily practice? How have leaders on all levels picked it up? And how has it impacted not alone the survey results but also other parameters like attrition, sickness, and performance?

EZ: How important do you think it is to connect Employee Experience to the Customer Experience and why?

DAVID: In Dutch, there are two translations for “experience”. On the one hand, it’s about what people go through, the events, the moments. The second is the emotional response, how they live it. The word is “beleving”. I believe the latter is more important for engagement than the former. But the latter is more difficult to influence as it is very situational and personal. Therefore we need to work on the former and make sure that what we offer is flexible enough to meet with a broad set of expectations.

In that respect, I often talk about personalization or customization of the work experience. I have written two books about that in 2013 and 2017.

SO yes, the experience companies offer is important to engagement. But we cannot exaggerate its importance either. Having the best context for people does not prevent them from leaving. Or from becoming demotivated. Experience to me is like the design of the context that supports many outcomes, amongst which engagement.

EZ: What’s the best EE idea you’ve seen a company roll out/attempt and wish you’d had that idea yourself?

DAVID: There are no miracles. And what works in one company does not necessarily work in another. And there shouldn’t be a quest of being original. But what individual leaders do, is important. So if leaders give the example and are as tough on themselves as they are on others, that works.

But if you’d ask me the big idea. I saw a leader changing the brand of the company she worked for overnight and releasing a lot of energy like that. She wanted to make a fresh start and people bought that. It was like they threw out all the negative legacy overnight. And even when this has happened, there was still a lot of legacy left behind. But it worked.

EZ: What’s the worst and glad that you didn’t?

DAVID: Everytime someone talks about the vibe in those start-up environments filled with bars and ping-pong tables I go sad. People can be engaged in a dump. And they can be disengaged in a palace. It’s too easy to focus on the physical context as the solution. We should focus on the psychological context.

An example is an organisation that got involved in a change process to implement a new IT platform. The project was out-of-scope, out-of-time, out-of-budget and worse, neither the employees nor the clients liked the platform. Nevertheless, the company went on and demotivated everyone.

Sometimes having the courage to stop something can increase engagement.

EZ: Since you entered the world of work, what’s the best experience you’ve had?

DAVID: A big question. I did a carve-out and merger of a business unit not so long ago. I was impressed by the serenity of the management and the people. They had to work a year before the transfer happened. But they managed to do so with a minimum loss of customers, quality etc. It made me proud to work with these colleagues.

EZ: What’s the worst?

DAVID: A situation where you suddenly discover that someone you trusted was not trustworthy.

EZ: Which person (dead or alive) would you love to be able to come in and speak to your workforce/colleagues?

DAVID: You did not mention the budget. I would want to welcome the late Hannah Ahrendt to talk about power and authority. We should understand this ancient theme better. It’s a big threat to engagement. And I would also invite Dan Cable from the London Business School to talk about his book Alive. And maybe they could have chat together.

EZ: Favourite song to crank up after a tough day at work?

DAVID: The song I love is “Going against the grain” by Garth Brooks. Mainly for the Lyrics.

EZ: Best place in the world you have visited?

DAVID: The Stubai Valley in Austria.

EZ: The place you’d most like to visit?

DAVID: Peru.

NOTE: Entries for the UK & European and ANZ  Employee Engagement Awards are now open. For your chance to be recognised as a great place to work, click the link here.