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When on Task, Employees Come Out in Force

Organizational task forces have taken on myriad names and aims. They’ve been called advisory groups, project teams or steering committees. Some organizations also use social technologies to tap into front-line employees’ perspectives.

However, these groups often fail to accomplish whatever goals organizers have in mind. On the other hand, other task forces easily develop programs or processes that make positive contributions to the organization, whether the group works over an extended period of time or was assembled to tackle a specific issue.

Task forces are increasingly taking on new roles in organizations as learning leaders leverage them to address concerns revealed in employee engagement or culture surveys. Action plans are no longer solely built within the security of the C-suite; organizations are looking to employee task forces to uncover why employees feel the way they do about work and help identify what they can do to effect positive change.

These employee engagement task forces — or action-planning teams — are uniquely challenged. While they are meant to identify the why of survey results, they do not often implement the how. When used well, task forces generate greater buy-in across the organization, provide cross-generational and cross-functional appeal and act as a direct line for leaders to listen to the employee voice.

However, task forces may not be the ideal solution for leaders with short action timelines, who face obstacles freeing people up to participate in meetings or won’t listen to or use the task forces’ suggestions. To ensure success, learning leaders should consider some critical components of task team engagement.

Anatomy of a Functional Task Force
To determine if creating a task force is the right move for leaders to take when tackling a problem, they may want to ask how well they support and engage the members of their task team. Figure 1 offers a questionnaire for task force leaders to see how well they handle this role. A score below six on any component means there is work to do. To improve, ask the team for suggestions.

The list in Figure 1 is not exhaustive. For every task force, there may be additional areas to consider. Learning leaders may decide to use this as an opening exercise to ask the team what those additional factors are or to define what each factor means to them. This also can be an excellent way to check in as work continues.

Establishing a task force to analyze engagement via survey is a commitment on behalf of the team members. Without that commitment, little headway will be made. The commitment may last over an extended period of time and a series of additional focus groups to uncover what’s behind the survey results. Then learning leaders may assemble a task force of key thought leaders to work though and strategize possible solutions to employee concerns in a day-long brainstorming event.

No matter the duration of the task force’s charter, commitment is more than what the team members are willing to give. It’s what the organization or leader is willing to invest in the team as well. Learning leaders must ask:

How prepared is the task force for the job?

Can their meetings and requests be supported?

How responsive can other senior leaders be to the team’s needs?

Are key leaders investing as much time and effort in the team’s success as the team is investing in making recommendations?

Not matching the task force’s investment will have an adverse effect on engagement and motivation and on other critical components needed to engage the group.

Open to New Ideas
Employee engagement and culture surveys seldom reveal that employees are entirely happy with the status quo. At the end of 2011, Gallup’s Employee Engagement Index found that 71 percent of workers in the United States are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” Even in the most productive work environments, surveys uncover opportunities to do something different to leverage the best from talent.

Once employees are asked to take part in a task force, the door is opened to new ideas and new thinking. The creativity of the task force members will be tapped as they explore the survey results, ask questions and develop ideas to improve what’s already working and suggest changes to improve what isn’t.

Learning leaders must embrace and celebrate the team’s creativity by being open to the task force’s ideas, encouraging questions, eliminating “it will never work” from the vocabulary and embracing “outside of the box” thinking.

Any time a task force looks the same, thinks the same, believes the same or has the same talents, its output is unlikely to improve the overall engagement of the workforce. As organizations establish task forces, it’s important to not only consider but make a concerted effort to have every constituency represented. Diversity of ideas should be encouraged. While doing so will add to the richness of the team’s conversations and ideas, it also will engage people outside the team to support their recommendations.

Great ideas are rarely born out of quests for mediocrity. In fact, data from talent management organization Career Systems International (Editor’s note: The authors work for this organization) and coaching company the Jordan Evans Group found 58 percent of workers consider exciting and challenging work the top reason they stay and remain engaged. Task forces, especially those making recommendations on how to improve employee engagement, are no exception. The best ideas and thinking comes when team members are excited about what they are doing and challenged to push the limits. Commitment works hand-in-hand with creativity, and the learning leader plays a huge role in generating excitement on the task force.

Consider the following scenario: Front-line managers were tasked with assembling task forces to evaluate their department’s employee engagement scores and make recommendations for key improvement areas. Manager A sent out an email asking for team volunteers: “Our employee survey is out and I need volunteers for the task force. We have to recommend some actions to our director by the end of the week. I need a few of you to whip up some ideas so I can pass them along. Let me know if you are interested.”

Manager B in another department approached employees a bit differently. In a staff meeting, Manager B shared the results of the survey with all employees and led a conversation around their reactions to the results.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to contribute our ideas on how we can best address some of our challenge areas,” Manager B said. “No one is better equipped to do it than you. I would like to form a task force that will be responsible for generating creative ideas and challenging some old thinking around here. I have in mind some people I would like to be on the team to assure we are all represented, but please let me know if you are interested as well.”

Manager A checked the box, but Manager B engaged the team and challenged them to take things to the next level.

Task forces focusing on employee engagement and organizational culture will outdo themselves when they know and believe their contribution is expected, respected and accepted. Nothing demotivates a team faster than thinking their ideas will not be implemented.

When task forces put forth their best effort and best thinking, they want to know it matters. Hear them out and:

Challenge team members to push the limits, be creative and communicate the expectation that all must contribute.

Champion and support their ideas and recommendations.

Explain any barriers and encourage the team to rethink the idea with new information if necessary.

Nothing disengages a team faster than the feeling of not being in the know. Consider, many questions on employee engagement or culture surveys are designed to understand how employees feel about communications from the organization, their leaders and their peers. If being in the know is an important factor in diagnosing an organization’s engagement index, communication is important in engaging task forces, too.

Finally, don’t let the communication end when the task force has submitted its final report and recommendations. Keep them updated on next steps, impact and success. After all, surveys are often annual events with a lengthy and recurring schedule of deployment, analysis and action. The better the communication, the more likely it is that leaders will be able to engage the team long after the initial work is done.

Once the task force has met its goal and made recommendations, celebrate. Further, don’t wait to celebrate at the end of process. Celebrate teams along the way with a thank you for the task force’s commitment to creating a more engaging work environment. Promote their creativity by communicating the team’s ideas to the rest of the organization, and value the contribution of everyone on the team.

Beverly Kaye is the co-CEO and founder, and Beverly Crowell is the vice president of strategic client services for talent management consultant Career Systems International. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.