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Stop Over-Engineering and Start Connecting


Wed Jul 10 2019

Stop Over-Engineering and Start Connecting

Employee engagement is the precursor to outstanding performance. It’s easy to recognize when you’re around it or when you’re part of a team that feels it. When you walk into an office where people are happy to be there, the buzz of productivity is evident. But it’s a lot harder to know which levers to pull to make it happen. And because we don’t know how to do it, we over-engineer it.

Over-engineering—or assuming “more is more”—is a familiar concept in the product design world. When a product is over-engineered, whether it’s an app or an armchair, we usually end up with something that confuses, frustrates, and disappoints us.


A well-engineered product, though, has features that are so well designed that we don’t even notice them—we’re too busy enjoying a tool that is intuitive, engaging, and natural. Common sense, simplicity—these are traits of great design in a product.

While over-engineering is an unfamiliar topic in talent management and HR, the practice is common in our employee engagement efforts. Over-engineering activities and processes in the workplace remains problematic. HR often multiplies the effort and decreases the impact by mandating the wrong activities and focusing on the wrong audience. Many organizations try to solve their employee engagement problems with coerced, high-touch, top-down, complex solutions.

This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to impact engagement; rather, we should provide employees with intentionally organic, light-touch, simple tools to move the needle. We should focus on consistency and simplicity and rituals that are easily embedded into the real world of work. Just like a well-designed product, a well-designed engagement solution can have such a positive effect that an employee doesn’t even notice the jolt that it provided—they are too busy returning to work engaged.

Despite technology improvements and innovations, the resolutely human check-in continues to be one of the best ways to keep your employees engaged when done correctly. In an ADP-conducted study, we found that the secret to engagement is frequent attention from the people who matter most to us at work: our managers.

The data is clear. We researched what happens when managers have frequent, conversational check-ins with their team members about their most urgent priorities and found that doing so on a weekly basis amplified employee engagement by 60 percent in a retail organization, 57 percent in a tech organization, and 54 percent in a healthcare organization. These are not minor upticks; they are big gains.


But we’ve also found that while frequency is critical, one additional component to team leader--team member conversations differentiates this from this rest.

To be truly game-changing, check-ins must be held through a strength-based lens. Viewing the conversation through this lens means seeing your employees through their best qualities, which requires a positive mindset. It means asking someone what their most important work is right now and helping them use their strengths to get things done.

How do you promote this kind of conversation without over-engineering it? The key is to come up with a small set of powerful questions. These are the tried-and-true questions so durable that they get people through all kinds of tough situations and accelerate their best performances time and time again. A power question can be used anytime, anywhere and can be applied widely. For example: What does it look like when you’re at your best? What can I do to help you be at your best? What barriers can I break down for you immediately? What can I get out of your way today? It’s all about asking a few critical questions as opposed to a laundry list of secondary ones.

The main key to engagement is to sustain these regular, simple check-ins. It is easy to keep up a good habit for a couple weeks until it loses its luster and fades away. Employee engagement fades just as quickly as it grows. The most powerful engagement tool we can implement is embedding attention between managers and their employees into the everyday flow of work.

Employee engagement is all about creating an environment that sets people up to do extraordinary work. When team leaders truly pay attention to their employees, less becomes more and everybody wins.


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