Employee Engagement Needs a Little Clarity


Leaders have a lot on their plates, but nothing is more important than clarity. What’s important to your organization? Why? How are we getting the work done? When do we start? At each stage in the chain of decision making, ambiguity looms as the enemy of clarity; as leaders we’ve all experienced dis-engagement when things simply aren’t clear to our team. What can a leader do – especially in a world where hyper-connected employees can question and second-guess decisions instantly?

Leaders have to understand that decisions are like best-selling novels; the greater the ambiguity around a decision, the faster it moves up the New York Times best-seller list. People’s natural curiosities and ambiguity seem to feed on each other. In worst cases, ambiguity leads to conspiracy theories and people actually work against each other. In most cases, work simply slows down while people seek out answers.

What if you could eliminate ambiguity? A lot is at stake. There’s more than enough evidence to demonstrate that teams produce higher results when they can align their individual work to the greater mission and strategy of the organization. When all goes right, organizations can produce discretionary effort – that amazing, hard-to-bottle effort people give when ambiguity is replaced by a sense of shared purpose.

Here are three things you can do bring clarity to your organization – and increase the odds of producing discretionary effort on your team:

1. Define what success looks like with one single-source of truth – an organization-wide taxonomy

People laughed when I first said “taxonomy” inside Cisco, but taxonomy is the fundamental building block to any organization looking to speak a common operating language. Taxonomy classifies and defines things; in this case, what success looks like. Focus on defining your operating model metrics like profitability, revenue growth, share gains and productivity; emphasize the specific, written definition of success; and show the outcomes and sources of data used in your organization to gauge success.

Try as hard as you can to tie these metrics to the performance management and accountability system of your organization. Publish this taxonomy on your intranet and push it to your internal communities.

2. Scale how you communicate decisions with a common vocabulary

Here’s a simple question: does strategy mean the same thing to everyone in your organization? What if the answer is no? That’s highly likely, because we’ve all gone to different colleges and had diverse work experiences. A common vocabulary provides a single context for decision-making. In Cisco, our common vocabulary is called Vision-Strategy-Execution-Metrics. Each decision element is defined and includes guiding principles to give people guardrails. It’s mandatory for leaders to communicate their priorities – that is, the decisions they have made – to their teams using this vocabulary. You can achieve transparency when you tell people three things about a decision: who made it? Who’s accountable for it? What does the accountability system look like? It’s hard to sacrifice around one vocabulary; imagine, though, the power of a single decision language across a global organization.

3. Engage your team on the “story behind the decision”

Taxonomy and common vocabulary tell your team what’s important; engagement is more driven by the human need to understand why decisions matter and how it is expected to be executed – what I call the “story behind the decision”. When you engage your team on decisions you’ve made (hopefully using a taxonomy and common vocabulary!), you have to answer three questions to satisfy “why” something is important: First, what process was used to make the decision? Second, what facts or data were used to support the decision? Third, what trade-offs were considered? The more your team knows this “story,” the faster teams move to execution.

I’m convinced that most people don’t wake up in the morning trying to second-guess decisions. Ambiguity is your enemy as the leader of a team. You can transform your team’s natural curiosity into a powerful source of discretionary effort – all it takes is a little clarity.

P.S. There is one final thing you can do as a leader to increase clarity on your team – tell your team how you make decisions. We all naturally make decisions differently. By sharing our authentic style of communicating and making decisions, you can diffuse a lot of unnecessary friction and built trust faster.