Enablement: The Critical Partner of Engagement

September 10, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

Is it possible to have great engagement and still fall disappointingly short of your business goals? Yes, says Hay Group senior principal Mark Royal. In fact, without employee enablement, even your most engaged employees might be frustrated and held back, and eventually disengage. Learn more about how important enablement is for your organization in our recent interview with Mark.

Enemy of Engagement

Mark Royal is the co-author of The Enemy of Engagement: Put an End to Workplace Frustration–and Get the Most from Your Employees. A Hay Group senior principal based in Chicago, Mark’s client consulting work focuses on helping organizations structure work environments both to increase employee engagement and to translate high levels of employee motivation into improved results. Mark also plays a leading role in directing Hay Group’s annual research with Fortune magazine to identify the World’s Most Admired Companies and uncover the business practices that make these companies both highly regarded and highly successful. Mark holds Ph.D. and MA degrees in sociology from Stanford University and a BA in sociology from Yale University.


Q. Mark, in your book you say that companies can have great engagement but still fall short of goals because of a lack of enablement. Can you explain what that means?

Our clients have had a long-standing focus on employee engagement, for some very good reasons. They need to get the most out of every resource, including human capital, which has put extra emphasis on tapping into the discretionary or extra efforts of employees.

However, in talking with leaders, managers and individual employees in those organizations, we’ve very often heard concerns about that engagement not coming through in performance and higher levels of productivity. After making statements affirming their engagement levels, managers and employees would say things like:

  • “But… it’s hard to get things done here”
  • “But… our parent company is too involved in our decision making and that slows us down”
  • “But… I don’t know where to go any longer for resources or information following a reorganization”
  • “But… I don’t understand where my decision making begins and ends”

And that led us to the conclusion that if organizations want to get the most out of the engagement and motivation that they are working so hard to build, they also need to think about enabling employees, or putting them in a better position to succeed.

From our standpoint, enabling employees involves two key considerations: One is making sure that people are in the right roles. The other is creating a supportive work environment—one where people have the resources of various sorts to get things done. Not just financial resources, but tools, equipment, information, and collaborative support from coworkers. Organizations also need to avoid introducing barriers to performance—making sure that employees are not tripping over red tape, procedural restrictions, and other things that get in the way of getting things done.

Over and over, our research has indicated that when organizations can get these two things right—the “want to” combined with the “can do”—they see the best outcomes.

Q. Is enablement something that companies are aware of and working at?

Well, it’s something that more and more organizations are beginning to see as an important focus area.  I think historically organizations have had a tendency to define engagement in motivational terms: your performance is a function of your motivation, and therefore to enhance your performance we need to get you more motivated. But I think more and more organizations are recognizing that while motivation is certainly part of the solution, they need to look more broadly at other aspects of the work environment that impact the extent to which motivation translates into performance.

Q. How are these companies measuring enablement?

Many companies are broadening the focus of employee survey efforts. One of the reasons why a lack of enablement—and the frustration it can create for motivated people—has gone overlooked in many organizations is because they haven’t been asking the right questions.

With performance defined in motivational terms, employee surveys and other diagnostic activities have typically gone searching for solutions in the area around motivation. But with an awareness that there are a broader range of work environment factors that are part of the overall performance equation, our clients have begun to reposition their employee surveys as effective tools to monitor not only engagement but also enablement.

Q. What is the relationship between engagement and enablement?

The two concepts tend to be mutually reinforcing. That is, a lack of enablement can undermine engagement and a lack of engagement can undermine enablement.  And we do tend to see that over time these two outcomes tend to come into alignment for people, whether at a high or low level. Highly motivated people who can’t seem to get things done may at some point stop trying.

Q. Is there a tipping point where a frustrated employee becomes a detached and disengaged employee?

We’ve done some research looking at what happens to people in less than ideal conditions over time—with a particular emphasis on what happens to frustrated employees.

There are a lot of these people in today’s organizations. Our research would suggest that about 20% of a typical workforce can be expected to fit the “engaged but not enabled”—or frustrated—profile. They are highly motivated but feeling held back. They represent a real lost opportunity, because they are right where the organization wants them from a motivational perspective—anxious to contribute and do the right thing—but not feeling able to be as productive as they can be.

That tension tends to resolve itself in one of three ways:

  • Some frustrated employees will problem solve their way out of the situation. Individually or working with their managers or others in the organization, they will find ways to resolve any barriers or constraints that they may encounter in the workplace and raise their level of enablement to match their high level of engagement.
  • Other frustrated employees, if their initial problem solving efforts are not successful, will over time break down.  Weary of beating their heads against the wall, these employees will dial down their engagement level to match their limited ability to contribute.
  • Still other frustrated employees will break away, or break free. That is, they will vote with their feet and leave the organization in search of greener pastures or more supportive work environments.

And our research would suggest that one of these three things: the break through, the break down, or the break away—that is, problem-solving, disengagement or departure from the organization—can be expected to happen within 12-24 months for most frustrated employees.  That leaves managers with limited time to act.

Q. Are there any typical problems to look for, which cause low enablement?

Resources and collaboration can be pain points. Another relates to training, since part of creating an enabling environment is making sure employees have the skills they need to get the job done and be effective in their roles. Where it once might have been possible to treat training as an event—a point of focus only when an employee enters the organization or takes on a new role—more and more companies are being challenged to treat training as an ongoing process.  With goals and objectives rapidly evolving, the skills that may have once made an employee successful may no longer be the ones he or she needs for the future. So we see more organizations focusing on making sure employees’ skills stay current with changing work demands.

Q. Is there a correlation between recognition and enablement?

Well, we definitely think of recognition as an engagement factor. It’s one of the ways in which organizations can signal to employees that their extra contributions are valued. And that, of course, is important to sustaining those extra contributions over time. If I go above and beyond and no one notices, then maybe it’s not worth my time to do or deliver more. So recognition plays a critical role, I think, in helping to reinforce engagement. But I am preaching to the choir on that.

From an enablement standpoint, I also think there is a tie in. We often encourage organizations to think about recognition as a positive form of performance feedback. In addition to an expression of appreciation for an employee’s contributions, it’s one of the ways we can signal to employees the level of priority we place on certain tasks. Because when we stop to recognize and appreciate particular efforts, we’re calling them out as important activities for employees to focus on.

Why is that so important from an enablement perspective? Well, leaders and managers tend to be very good at putting things on employees’ plates. They are not so good at taking things off or helping employees to prioritize what’s there. So an enablement struggle for many busy employees today is trying to sort through the many things that they’re being asked to do

One of the ways individual managers can enable their teams in that context is by providing clarity on the ‘must-win battles’.  An effective recognition program that ties into the broader objectives of the organization can be a very effective tool for helping to highlight what’s really important, not only for the employees who receive recognition but also for others who observe the types of accomplishments or activities that are being recognized among their co-workers. It can be a great way of helping to clarify for employees what some of those must-win battles are.  And that that can go a long way toward creating an enabling environment.

Q. Are companies with established recognition programs also better at enablement?

Yes and no. The “no” would be that a recognition program that is not connected to organizational objectives may not be particularly effective as an enabling resource. It may still help from an engagement perspective, signaling that employees are valued and their contributions are appreciated. But it may not help to provide the kind of clarity regarding what’s important and what’s not that can really enable people.

But the answer is “yes” where recognition programs are more focused and more closely tied into individual, team, and broader organizational goals. That’s where we see the power of recognition to help enable people. So does every recognition program enhance enablement? No. But those that are strategically aligned? Definitely.

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