There are many statistics on the level of disengagement in organisations, and it’s low; really low. According to Gallup, 70% of American workers are not engaged. Disengaged staff cost organisations, but also impact in more subtle ways:

“78% of engaged employees would recommend their company’s products or services, against 13% of the disengaged.”

“70% of engaged employees indicate they have a good understanding of how to meet customer needs; only 17% of non-engaged employees say the same.”

disengagedemployeeThe impact of employee engagement is no longer questioned. Most large corporates run a regular survey to check the engagement temperature of their employees, with the intention of identifying the problems, overcoming them and hoping that the scores improve next time.

But why is it so low? Let’s take the example of a normal, successful company. A third of employees are looking for a new job, either internally or externally. Another tenth are on holiday or sick. And the remaining employees are incredibly busy covering, and fed up that nobody is noticing how busy they are. An extreme example, but it’s not too far away from the truth.

And then innovation is thrown into this mix. The CEO asks for ideas from employees to solve a problem; a strategic problem that must be solved. Employees don’t respond or participate as they “should” and the blame-game starts. “The process needs to improve”, “nobody understood the problem” or “people didn’t know it was happening.” So the methodology is changed, the topic is further explained and more desperate emails are sent asking for participation. But the process, topic or communication aren’t the problems.

The problem is employee engagement; actually employee disengagement. Innovation challenges demonstrate better than any survey the level of engagement. Low engagement means that people don’t care enough to do extra, and unfortunately, mentioning the word “innovation” doesn’t cause people to leap out of the seats with excitement.

I wish it did.

If people don’t care about the organisation, they are not going to care about solving the big hairy problems, because they don’t feel that the leaders care about them and their problems. If they don’t care about the organisation, why would they help to make it better?

futureInnovation is all about making the future better. It’s about people first and foremost. Therefore, if leaders want people in their organisations to have ideas and implement them, their people have to care about the result. They have to want better. They have to trust and believe that it is safe for them to make suggestions that are out of their comfort zone.

Is it all doom and gloom? Is there any hope? Well, yes, there are a number of steps that can be taken to improve the situation. There is not a short cut because ultimately it is a process of building trust. Trust takes a long time to build, and is very quickly lost.

Here are some steps to increase the innovation success and build stronger employee engagement:

1. Create quick ways for people to solve their gripes
The heart of innovation is people. Innovation is about looking beyond the now and making the future better. It’s about improving people’s lives, be that new products, removing waste, taking away frustrations, enabling new possibilities. However, if people are not helped or supported with their day-to-day problems, they will find it very hard to think about anything beyond their current view. Make it easy for people to improve their working environment, provide funds if it’s needed. It’s an investment, not a cost.

2. Think about why people will get involved
There are so many motivations at play when seeking ideas from people. However, the overriding question you must answer is “what’s in it for them?” Think carefully about what encourage people to get involved and ask others, as motivations are always varied (see an earlier post “Nine intrinsic motivators” for more detail). Make it worth people putting in extra time to help, never just expect it.

3. Make it real
If an innovation is not useful, then it is not innovation; it’s just an idea. Do not ever ask for ideas as an engagement exercise. Ideas are about solving problems, and so the problems must be understood and need to be solved. People are too busy to go through a fire drill. Either there is a fire or there isn’t; don’t waste the organisation’s energy on non-issues.

4. Make it fun
Making it fun makes it different. Fun is not a word or feeling often heard or experienced in an organisation, but fun will make a big impact on participation, because it’s different. It spreads through the company grapevine. Even if the task cannot be made fun, make the rewards fun (think the Apprentice if you win). And who doesn’t like seeing people having fun!

Leaders need their employees to be successful, but as Simon Sinek says in his latest book, Leaders Eat Last: “Customers will never love a company until employees love it first.” Innovation doesn’t just happen, it’s a leader’s role to create the right environment for innovation to flourish.