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What School Projects Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

Raise the topic of “school projects” at the next social gathering you attend, and chances are you’ll hear more than a few horror stories. Everyone, it seems, remembers what it was like dealing with bossy partners, having to share grades that didn’t reflect your personal effort and the all-out scurry to make a deadline while some classmates hadn’t lifted a finger, much less a pencil.

Although few of us would want to relive those days, our experiences with that World Civ group project that crashed and burned may actually be able teach us a few lessons about employee engagement and our lives at work.

Lesson #1: It Pays to Speak Up

What if instead of simmering in silence for most of the semester, you had asked your group partners early on for their thoughts about how the project workload could be divvied up in a way to take advantage of each person’s individual strengths? What if you had asked your teacher for help? Not in a whining way, but simply how you could manage the group’s dynamics?

While there’s no way to know for sure what would have happened back in junior high school, highly engaged workplaces only get better when employees feel empowered to ask questions and provide feedback to their managers and to colleagues at every level. In fact, a 2014 article by a New York University professor, indicates that when employees are not encouraged to share their feedback, culture and morale may suffer.

Speaking up effectively is certainly a learned skill, and might be beyond the maturity level of a 13-year-old. But it’s a skill that can be taught to employees of every generation – from Millennials to Baby Boomers. When they do speak up, employees are likely to see positive outcomes – new opportunities to join a multidisciplinary project or in the case of Toyota, long-term market success because employees are empowered to speak up when the notice a defect or spot a problem on the assembly line.

Even if your organization isn’t a global powerhouse like Toyota (my company has just over 200 people), speaking up makes a difference. Research conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation shows a correlation between inclusive leadership – where leaders acquire diversity by being open to the ideas and input of their employees – and innovation and market growth. The lesson here? When employees speak up and leaders listen, the business wins.

Lesson #2: The Parts Affect the Sum

Everyone can remember the frustration of having to work with someone who didn’t have the same approach or attitude about school that you did. You may have even been one of those who set out on an ill-fated journey to complete the project all by yourself, and ended up both exhausted and unhappy with your grade.

What you didn’t know then, but certainly realize now – teams and companies actually thrive when they embrace the individual “parts” that comprise their “sum.” It seems obvious that people at work should work together, but we all know differing styles (i.e., introverts vs. extroverts) and orientations (structural vs. conceptual) can create friction and distrust, and slow productivity.

What can companies do? First and foremost, fully commit to people working together. Again, it sounds simple on its face, but the implications are immense. A research study authored by two Stanford University professors found that simply using the word “together” increased feelings of engagement in teams. Teams given a puzzle to solve and who were told they were “working together” worked 48 percent longer, came up with more right answers, reported they were less tired and also said they were more interested in the puzzle. If one word can make that kind of impact in a research setting, think about the power you can unleash when you communicate to your entire workforce that “we’re working together to achieve key results.”

Another tactic that our organization and others use is to establish common metrics that everyone can strive toward no matter what role they play. Determining a set of values to guide interactions is essential, too. When these organizational “parts” build on the personal “parts” employees bring to work each day, they can make your company a powerful force in the marketplace.

Lesson #3: Accountability Is Always a Choice

Even though group projects were the bane of many of our formative school years (at least they were for me!), I believe my teachers, parents and professors had an ulterior motive. They knew from experience that success in life is heavily dependent on showing up and choosing to do your best, no matter what life may throw at you.

That, in a nutshell, is the definition of accountability. At CQuence Health Group, we define accountability as “the personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances” and own the outcomes that create our business success. We don’t just spout this as nice philosophy or leave it to chance, we actually teach what it means to be accountable. Every new employee who joins one of our companies participates in a formal educational presentation on accountability during their first week on the job. And every year, all of our employees, in every company and every department, undergo in-person accountability refresher training.

Even with all of our focus on accountability, we’re under no illusion that we can create the perfect workplace where everyone is completely happy and 100 percent productive every minute of every day. Instead, we expect that employees will experience challenges and feel pressure some of the time – and we hope that they’ll choose to grow, learn and develop new skills when they do.

Bruce Stec
About Bruce Stec

Bruce Stec is Vice President of Human Resources for CQuence Health Group and its partner companies. Bruce joined CQuence in 2013 with nearly 20 years of human resources management and consulting experience. Bruce graduated from the University of Nebraska at Kearney and has earned both his Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®) certification and his Society for Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) certification.

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