Employee Engagement: A Process for Improvement

By Bob Nelson

The best way to think about planning, executing, and improving engagement is a concept drawn from the work of W. Edwards Deming and the total quality management movement. It’s called the Shewhart Cycle, adopted it here as the PDRI cycle, which stands for “Plan, Do, Review, and Improve.” Read on to find out how it applies to improving your engagement culture.

Plan

When you think of planning, you likely envision something elaborate and well-documented, but a plan can also simply be a desire or intention to take a particular action. You might just ask yourself the question, “If we could do one thing to most improve our department’s or organization’s effectiveness, what would that be?” or “How can I best make a motivational impact on my employee or work group?” Obviously, the more complex the activity, the more important a formal plan will be, but regardless of the complexity, the greater the commitment to action you have, the more likely the plan will be implemented.

Start with the end in mind. What is the end-state that you want to create in your organization? Focus on desired behaviors and actions needed to move toward that end state. Create measures that will track progress toward your desired end state.

Until a skill or behavior is habitual, some planning is necessary. Although about 80 percent of our behaviors are habitual and require little or no thought, all new behaviors require at least some amount of advance thought, planning, and commitment to instill the behavior in individual practice.

Do

Doing turns intention into action. Many people have good intentions but never follow through on them. If intentions alone were sufficient, everybody would be successful! The best performers understand the difference between intention and performance; they are action-oriented. They know that without focused action everything is just theory. Although their actions at first might be ineffective, they know that it is important to get the learning-by-doing process started. As the famous Nike advertising slogan proclaims, “Just do it!” Systematically recognize and reinforce those behaviors and actions that you’ve identified could most impact the success of your goals.

Review

After you have engaged in a recognition activity, review it to see what kind of effect it is having. Gaining feedback through a program review is a critical step in the learning process. A review answers such questions as

  • How well was the recognition received by the recipient? How did it make him or her feel?

  • Was the objective of the recognition met?

  • Were there any unintended positive or negative consequences?

With an evaluation incorporating the metrics you established beforehand, access what worked well and what didn’t. This review can be elaborate or very simple. Sometimes you’ll do this review yourself, based on direct observation, and sometimes it can be a larger evaluation effort that a group takes on with input from employees, management, and any service providers that may be helping you.

After your review, you can do one of three things: Stop giving recognition (fortunately, most people will not choose this option), continue to give it exactly the same way going forward (this option means you felt your efforts were successful), or decide to learn from your experience and improve the way you give recognition to others (the most likely scenario).

Success is an opportunity for positive reinforcement, but we usually learn more from behaviors that fall short of the mark, so failure is an opportunity to learn and improve.

Improve

In this step, you implement the lessons you received during your review, making improvements in your own performance. The more you engage in an activity, review the results of your actions, and improve on them, the better you become at that behavior. Using the PDRI model and the additional recognition knowledge contained in this book, you will get better and better at giving recognition. As you recognize others more often, you’ll become more competent and confident in doing so, increasing your skill and effectiveness. The PDRI cycle helps you get better until recognition becomes an ingrained habit. Adjust your plan accordingly and repeat as necessary.

Routines are good, but they do have a downside. They can seem mechanical, insincere, or out-of-touch. Consider these examples:

  • The president of a large manufacturing company walks through his plant once a month to say hi to his people. This makes him feel like he’s a great manager. If you ask his people, however, they see this behavior as little more than a joke. Says one front-line worker, “Each month, Mr. Johnson asks me how my family is. And each month, I tell him ‘I’m still not married, Sir.’”

  • In another company, employees report that upper management tends to recognize them more as a show for the benefit of their peers rather than for the employees themselves. In their management team meetings, company managers will talk about the great job one of their employees is doing, but the comments rarely get back to the actual employee being acknowledged.

  • In another organization, employee-of-the-month awards are handed out in management meetings, at which the employees being recognized are seldom if ever present. The manager running the meeting traditionally concludes his congratulatory remarks with a comment along the lines of, “If someone runs into Larry, please tell him that he was named employee of the month.”