How OKRs Fuel Employee Engagement

There have been literally millions of words written on how to engage and motivate employees. And that’s not surprising given how critical employee engagement is to organisational success. Businesses can no longer rely on access to capital, proprietary knowledge or market dominance to maintain a competitive advantage. With barriers to entry now so low in many sectors (and getting lower as AI becomes ubiquitous), the ability to attract, retain, and motivate employees is becoming the critical factor in business success.

So what drives motivation and engagement?

Frederick Herzberg’s groundbreaking work from the 1950s and 60s was a pretty good start, but for my money, Dan Pink’s exploration of employee motivation in his 2009 book Drive provides the most useful framework to date for thinking about employee motivation. Put simply, Pink identifies three factors that drive our motivation and engagement at work:

  1. Autonomy – the ability to work in a self-directed manner and choose how we accomplish our tasks. Autonomy can have multiple dimensions: how we organise our time at work; the techniques we use to undertake our work; the teams we work with to accomplish tasks; and even the tasks we choose to undertake at work.

  2. Mastery – the ability to use our expertise in our work, and the associated desire to continually improve at something that matters. We all derive satisfaction from participating in challenges that stretch us but do not overwhelm us, and where we build new skills and knowledge as we progress.

  3. Purpose – the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves, and to know that what we do makes a difference by contributing to some higher organisational objectives.

So where do OKRs fit into this?

Properly implemented, the adoption of OKRs in your organisation ticks a lot of the employee engagement boxes:

  1. OKRs and Autonomy: OKRs devolve a high level of autonomy to individuals and teams within an organisation. Individuals and teams should be intimately involved in setting, monitoring, and reporting on OKRs even if the process is mediated by management to ensure alignment with wider organisational goals. Furthermore, once OKRs are established, the teams and individuals charged with achieving them must have the resources and authority (autonomy) to pursue them, including solving problems and unblocking blockages they encounter on the way.

  2. OKRs and Mastery: related to the above, OKRs enable employees to exercise mastery at work by encouraging them to set challenging (but not unachievable) goals and then to use their expertise and creativity to achieve their objectives. This process inherently results in employee development and feelings of mastery in their jobs.

  3. OKRs and Purpose: As shown below, an OKR framework enables employees to clearly see how their objectives and initiatives contribute to an organisation’s wider mission, vision, and strategic goals. Employees are also able to measure progress towards their goals, providing them with regular feedback and a tangible sense of achievement. Periodic (typically quarterly or four-monthly) OKR reviews enable employees to reset objectives and renew their sense of purpose.

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