This story originally appeared on Forbes.com on January 7, 2019.
It’s been six months now. I’m going to do it. Let’s talk about England and the World Cup. It was a long time coming, but the pride I shared with my compatriots when England made the semifinals was definitely worth the wait. So now, with the appropriate time for reflection over, I can finally talk about someone who deserves a good deal of the praise for England’s success: Gareth Southgate. I think he is showing us all a better way to lead.
You may have already read some great examples. A favorite of mine: during the tournament, star defender Fabian Delph had a new baby on the way. Southgate put him on a plane and sent him home to join his wife for the birth of their child. Being there for your wife and newborn baby, his actions said, is more important than winning the game.
Southgate’s players know that he cares about them, even more than he cares about winning. For England, simply caring more seems to have made a very big difference.
Engagement Is Not Enough
It’s no secret that even the most creative or innovative ideas can’t survive an apathetic, disengaged group of employees.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve witnessed the impact of cultural engagement, or lack of it, at more than 50 blue-chip brands. I’ve experienced employee engagement campaigns as an agency leader, client-side marketer and now founder of a change marketing consultancy that designs change programs around employees.
And while employee engagement does matter, I believe that focusing solely on engagement has two serious limitations: It doesn’t tell you what your employees actually care about. And it doesn’t show your employees that you really care. That lack of caring on both sides fuels the dysfunction we feel.
The problem is not that engagement tools like surveys and leadership town halls don’t work. It’s that they focus only on what the company knows or wants to ask. Questions usually boil down to how engaged employees are in what the company cares about. Presentations on company vision are rarely felt below the leadership floors.
It’s time to throw off the business blinders that block out the motivations, insights and experiences of employees. You’re missing out on all that your employees could tell you if you really listened. And you’re missing opportunities to show them you care.
The Costs Of Not Caring
Investment in employee engagement is growing. As reported by Harvard Business Review, “Companies spend over $720 million each year on employee engagement, and that’s projected to rise to over $1.5 billion.”
But companies invest much more in planning and implementing change. Boston Consulting Group reported that “companies around the world now spend close to a whopping $10 billion a year on change management consultancy.”
The ten times larger investment in change management can initiate operational changes that provide good short-term headlines, big savings, pumped-up productivity and new revenue streams. But when the change needs integration across the employee base to realize its full potential, it typically stalls.
According to a report by the International Data Corporation, “Businesses spent more than $1 trillion on digital transformation initiatives in 2017.” Yet a recent survey by Wipro Digital found that “only 50% of companies are successfully executing on their digital transformation strategies.” That’s a staggering waste of resources.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With mutual trust and understanding, leaders and employees can find their way through the hard parts of implementing change. Caring is the key.
Create A Culture Of Caring
A culture of caring begins with open conversation that is genuine, candid and mutually respectful. Leaders need to invest more of their time talking to their employees. It’s no longer enough to have a quarterly performance review, gather a one-off focus group or conduct one faceless engagement survey every year.
Leaders have to practice the lost art of listening more than they speak. Frequently. In groups and one on one. Formally and informally. Digitally and passing in the hallways. An ongoing dialog, sharing perspectives and insights, that becomes the bedrock of positive, collaborative culture.
But it obviously can’t stop with conversation. You have to take what you learn and use it to improve your plans for change. What’s the employee perspective? What problems do they foresee? What’s the impact on their lives?
Then, prove that you care about them even more than you care about winning. Prioritize their well-being over short-term revenue goals and stock prices. Modify your plans so they work better for your people.
Optimize Culture For Success
A culture of caring creates an environment of trust, and a culture optimized for success. When employees trust that you care about their experiences, they’ll more freely share their insights, leading to better plans for change. And when they trust that you care how your plan will impact their lives, they’ll be willing to do the hard work of change.
The benefits of trust sometimes make the headlines. Remember the story of Charlie Ward, the software engineer at Amazon who dropped the idea for Prime in a digital suggestion box?
More often we feel them in smaller ways. Great service, where problems are solved by the person in front of you. The gate agent who feels trusted enough to be human. The server who feels trusted enough to bring you a different meal. But the real power of trust is not felt directly. Its compound effect fuels the next great company you can’t live without and builds the next great brand you fall in love with.
So stop worrying so much about how engaged employees are with your priorities. Take care of your people. Watch out for their well-being. Show them you truly care. Revenue growth and stock prices will follow, sometimes well beyond your expectations.
Gareth Southgate didn’t measure his players’ engagement with the goal of winning games. He showed them that they were more important to him than winning. And in return, they played better than anyone dared hope.
Originally published at www.forbes.com on January 7, 2019.