Everything about the way we work is changing. Technology enables us to talk to more people in more locations across more time zones. We no longer have desks or, in some cases, offices. We’re accessible 24/7 through multiple channels. And we’re competing against global talent in a gig economy.
But one thing hasn’t changed and never will. Employees are still human beings (not human capital, not assets). And more than that, they’re critical drivers of business value. Perhaps the most critical. What is a business after all, without its people?
Which is why employee engagement is so critical. More so than customer centricity or digital strategy. With no one to serve your customers and no one to use your technology, you’re a falling tree that no one hears.
Why then, do so many companies get employee engagement wrong? Because it’s so much more than engagement. It’s about a story, a purpose and – most importantly – it’s about a hero.
Okay, let’s start with the basics: what is engagement?
In his book, The CEO: Chief Engagement Officer, John Smythe describes employee engagement as:
“A process by which people become personally implicated in the success of a strategy, change, transformation or everyday operational decision. To become personally implicated, people want to contribute to everyday decision making in their place of work and to bigger change or transformation affecting the organisation and ultimately their work.”
Engagement is about connection. Connecting people and peers, connecting leaders to their teams, connecting everyone to a common purpose or promised land. And story is by far the best way to connect. Not the small, disparate stories that we often associate with storytelling in business, but the big, long-term narrative that create a sense of journey over time, of future possibility and common purpose. Big story = big engagement.
Let’s look at why and how…
In strategic storytelling, we use Freytag’s story pyramid to provide a structure to everything we communicate, which looks a bit like this:
And (in an ideal world, with a happy ending) it relates to employee engagement like this:
- Exposition: We find out who the hero is; their hopes, dreams, flaws and strengths. Similarly, an employee engages with a company to advance their own career aspirations – their hopes and dreams. They can sense a promised land.
- Inciting incident: Something happens that changes the course of the hero’s life; they now need to do something differently. In starting a new role, the employee’s life has changed, and they now become an engaged employee whose values and goals are reflected in the purpose and culture of the company. They have a goal, whether it be a project success, KPIs or a promotion.
- Rising tension:The hero faces a series of challenges that test their resolve and reveal their character, much like an employee navigating the hurdles of ongoing company transformation.
- Climax: The hero [gets the girl/saves the world/conquers evil]. The employee achieves their goal: a successful performance review, a promotion, a completed project.
- Falling action: The outcome of the hero’s efforts. The satisfaction of their curiosity and the answer of their questions – it was worth it.
- Denouement (“the untying of the knot”): The release of tension. The falling away of cortisol so that only oxytocin remains. It feels good, this promised land. They’ve made a difference – to them individually, to the business or to their community. They have changed the world for the better, even just a little bit.
And once it’s over, it starts again, elevated from a new promised land. A new exposition aiming for a new climax. A new goal in mind or a new mindset towards a bigger goal. The story, after all, is ongoing. The hero must persevere beyond season one.
For employees to become heroes, they must first have a clear picture of their climax and importantly, the promised land (why we do what we do). There must be a sense of an ongoing journey in which they need to engage. Without this, their focus falls to a more immediate promised land, confined to the present tense of effort in return for financial reward (aka the work contract).
Employees are not bystanders in a company’s story. They are the living and breathing heroes at the centre of the journey. Their dreams and goals are at stake. They face challenges that will test (and reveal) their character. And it’s all to achieve a purpose, a climax, a promised land. The purpose of the company. They must believe that it’s worth it, that it’s achievable.
It’s the role of the employer to help their heroes articulate and navigate the journey, to know that it’s worth it and to recognise their heroic efforts when they reach the promised land. Only then will the hero be ready to take on the next journey, and only then can the story continue.
At Write the Talk we’ve mastered the science and craft of long-running narratives that change how people feel and behave, for the long term.