Published on 2017/08/28
The EvoLLLution | What Can Educators Learn From Industry About “Engaging” People?
While there’s a lot that differentiates for-profit business organizations from higher education institutions, postsecondary leaders could draw some key lessons from that sector when it comes to employee engagement and its impact on the student experience.

Employee engagement currently is an important topic in the for-profit business world for two primary reasons. One is that organizations that have been effective in developing employees who are engaged—“emotionally invested in and focused on creating value for their organizations every day,” as the Gallup organization defines it—comprise people who believe they have a great workplace. Great places to work are associated with high levels of productivity, satisfied and loyal customers, and generally higher profitability.

The second reason is that organizations around the globe are doing a poor job of engaging their employees. According to extensive survey data from Gallup, the numbers of “actively disengaged” employees far exceed those who are engaged. And the numbers aren’t improving. Even so, efforts among for-profit organizations to engage their employees may contain some lessons for those of us in higher education.

We know quite a bit about what engages employees. The organization’s mission, statement of values, and information about “how we do things around here,” can help engage those who buy into and identify with them. It’s an advantage that many non-profits have over commercial organizations. A mission to “change the lives of others” can be pretty inspiring. I didn’t need much more than that to engage me in the task of changing the lives of sixth-graders early in my teaching career.

My experience has been that “engagement” is not a major issue with most educators early in their careers. Most start out highly engaged in their profession, full of energy, and enthusiastic about the opportunity to interact with their colleagues and students. But burn out can set in too quickly in some cases. The best organizations in the business world combat this with such things as sensitive leadership, constant feedback, collaboration, and outstanding support systems. All can be accomplished under even a modest budget.

Beyond mission statements, values, and behaviors, employees in the for-profit world have provided us with a “manual” for engaging people over the long-term. They tell us that “great places to work” are associated with leaders who are fair, transparent and wise in their staffing and other decisions. These are leaders who know who to hire, recognize and fire. Further, they are predictable; they set and meet expectations for their employees or provide explanations why they sometimes can’t do it.

Judging from what employees tell us, engagement is also associated with opportunity for development, starting with frequent feedback (not an annual performance review) from superiors who take the time to understand them and their hopes and needs. They know what the next potential rung on the ladder of advancement is for them and how they can work toward it.

High-quality team members foster high levels of engagement when the job calls for collaboration or when the effectiveness of one employee affects that of another. Finally, the delegation of authority to deliver results to customers or others—when coupled with accountability, recognition and rewards—characterizes great places to work in the minds of people on the frontlines of for-profit organizations.

I haven’t mentioned the relationship between compensation and engagement. While it’s not zero, it doesn’t seem to be very important, and certainly not as important as what is described above. While this is true of the absolute level of compensation, periodic increases, regardless of size, do appear to provide useful validation and support for other efforts to engage employees.

We have learned in our research that competitive success in for-profit service industries is associated with such things as: a mission that goes far beyond making money; hiring for attitude, training for skills; providing outstanding support systems; delegating authority, providing latitude to deliver results to customers or others, and holding people accountable for their performance.

That’s a lot to absorb in a few minutes. How much of it translates to an educational setting? Are there lessons here for us to consider?

First, hiring for attitude is critical. For-profit organizations have found that they can’t afford the time and money required to correct hiring mistakes by “changing” a person’s attitude. It means sorting out the “bad egg” from others before that person poisons the culture of an organization. In a practical sense, that means hiring people who buy into the mission of the organization as well as its values and “the way we do things around here.” Because of the nature of an educational organization, it means looking for people, both administrators and instructors, who are genuinely interested in others and their individual needs, able to set and meet expectations in ways that build trust through “no surprises” leadership, generous, and good at sharing and collaborating. Often the best judges of these qualities are those who are going to be working with the new hire. But how often are educators hired with little or no involvement of those with whom the candidate will be interacting on the job?

Too often, the skills training has to take place on the job. In a non-educational setting, this is not a problem. Business organizations are typically good at training new hires. In an educational setting, students have to share the price of on-the-job training. There are ways of reducing that price. In my organization, the Harvard Business School, it is everyone’s responsibility to help colleagues improve their teaching skills. Expert visitation is frequent. Feedback from those visitors is expected. Instructors teaching the same course meet daily to prep and later to compare notes about what did or didn’t work. Course as well as individual evaluations are commonplace. These activities compete with time in the classroom. But with the appropriate support systems, that time can be made available.

The end objective in business is to deliver results to customers. In the service sector, many of those customers participate in creating that result. While I don’t wish to equate students with customers, I believe that same spirit of collaboration will characterize an increasing number of situations in higher education in which students will share the instructional task. They are natural informal educators. They can also become an integral part of the formal education system. In our classrooms at the HBS, we ensure that students understand that they are responsible, along with the instructor, for a good share of the learning. It depends on the quality of their preparation, their willingness to share ideas, and their help in maintaining the educational relevance of what goes on in the classroom. A good part of what they are judged on has little to do with content knowledge; rather, it has to do with their ability and willingness to teach, which is in itself a great way to learn.

When I was responsible some years ago for the MBA program at our school, I searched for a motto that might guide us in our work. It encompassed just eight words, which we posted in classrooms and faculty offices: “We all teach; we all learn—for life.” In a sense, this characterizes a philosophy that can produce high levels of engagement among teachers and students alike.

While the for-profit business organization may not be a perfect model for higher education, it may nevertheless hold some lessons—hiring for attitude, training for skills, collaborating with “customers” in producing results, dealing with burn out—that help us ensure long-term success in the critical task of engaging those responsible for preparing students for roles as responsible and productive members of society.

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