The lost art of engaging employees

  • By Robert Gray
  • Published March 2016

What happens when we decouple work and sense of self? Our nation may be a great experiment on that topic just about now. Unemployment is over 10 percent (including underemployed), and of those with a job, 72 percent report that they are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work, according to Gallup. So it seems even when we're working, it's just not that fun.

The lost art of engaging employees

First, let's get something straight. No one hires employees to be disengaged. You hire star employees to come to work bursting with energy, firing on all cylinders. Still, for all the talk of meaning and purpose in our lives, many still phone it in as a means to a paycheck. And because employee discontent is not always perfectly obvious, nor are employees perfectly forthcoming, it's a challenge to figure it out in time to protect corporate culture, productivity, and brand. And whereas grandma would say, "it all comes out in the wash," today it all comes out on the Internet. And by that time, it's really late in the game and what may have began as small strife turns into a public brawl.

It will not get better on its own. Bad attitude is pervasive and when the tide turns, morale drops and individuals stop thinking big picture goals and begin to focus on themselves and self preservation.

I hate negativity. They act like the company owes them. Their work ethic is pathetic. It's a poor reflection of our company.

Are such employees hardwired this way? Is job dissatisfaction an innate characteristic, like height or hair color? No. In fact, data suggest that work environment has a much stronger influence over job engagement than personality. In the old nature vs. nurture debate, nurture-or work environment-wins.

What energizes a team and triggers engagement? In other words, where should an organization focus to maximize the number of committed loyalists and minimize, even convert, dissatisfied compromisers?

Throw money at it? Even after substantial pay raises engagement only briefly spikes. Pay does not drive engagement.

According to Survey of the American Workplace, a recent national survey by Insightlink of Palm Springs, Calif., employee engagement can be found by having at least 5 of 10 key indicators:

1. Make it fun
Seven out of ten U.S. employees surveyed find their work enjoyable, while one in four are passionate. Easy ways to spread the joy amongst your team:

  • Provide clearly defined job descriptions. Lack of clarity and stated expectation removes the goal post. Without a delineation of goals, there's no joy of knowing they've met or exceeded those goals. Conversely, a clear target means they can place their undivided energy into meeting those goals, and the personal gratification that lies therein.
  • Communicate company values. By understanding what drives the company culture, employees can unify on big picture goals, and ingratiate themselves with the common mission.
  • Encourage employees to be open-minded and flexible, as you are being inclusive. It's easy to get stuck in a rut when you're responsible for repetitive tasks day-in and day-out. Or maybe your team is uncomfortable with change. Don't make change for the sake of change, but when you do, include your team, when possible, in the process.
  • Recognition is essential to job enjoyment. Help employees stand out by encouraging skills that set them apart.
  • Encourage teamwork. Being part of a team builds self-esteem and morale, give employees a sense of camaraderie.
  • Invest in your employees' personal development. Feeling insecure leads to stress, but offering ways to improve their skills can help reduce anxiety, and garner loyalty.

2. Reciprocity
Match your commitment to employees with that that employees make to your organization. This is an area where U.S. organizations do not fare well-although six out of ten employees feel that they are committed to their employers, only half believe the organization is equally committed to them.

Do your employees feel that they are cogs in a wheel, easily replaced, or do you demonstrate that they are an integral part of your operation? Quite often, senior management will talk up the value of employees and claim that their contributions are essential but their actions-especially in difficult times-screams cogs.

Commitment is a two-way street. There are 4 Cs in the Insightlink model of employee engagement: commitment, communication, culture and compensation. The first of these, commitment, means that if employers want loyal employees, they need to be loyal employers.

Unfortunately, many view employees as free agents willing to jump ship for any better offer. Many employers long for the days when productive employees stuck around for their entire careers. Employees, on the other hand, believe that companies do not value loyalty and will sacrifice employees for the bottom line or as fall guy for management. Employees point to downsizing, rightsizing and re-engineering as evidence.

Clearly, there are employers who create appealing work environments, and are genuinely committed to helping employees stay, grow, and prosper as the organization succeeds. But it's a minority of U.S. organizations.

An employer's commitment is demonstrated by fairness, trust, and concern:
  • To foster fairness, pay competitive wages and benefits, create and implement policies in unbiased way, provide timely, accurate and meaningful performance appraisals, offer all employees opportunities for growth and promote those who are most qualified. It's alarming that so many employees complain that their organization runs on favoritism.
  • To nurture loyalty and commitment, create an environment of trust. This means stamping out territorial disputes, ensuring that management does what they say they will do, protecting employee confidences, modeling the behavior you want others to display, letting employees have control over how they do their work, allowing them to make mistakes without fear of ridicule, explaining the reasons behind every major decision and honestly acting on employee recommendations.
  • Concern for employees. Be open and honest with employees. Train and develop managers in people skills as well as job skills. Be flexible when issues come up, provide job security and allow them a life outside work.

3. Communication
Effective communication is an important part of a well-run organization; it's always a top indicator of workplace engagement.

Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of employees, this is an area most organizations do poorly. Only four in every 10 employees are satisfied with the level of communication where they work; extremely low for such a key driver of job satisfaction.

This includes messaging that is largely top down and one-way. Such messages tend to be sanitized, bland and non-committal summaries of recent events, often nothing but generalizations with no substance. Real information is protected as a state secret. The tone of such communications is cold and clinical, with little effort to assure people understand what is being said, and a lot of effort spent rationalizing failure or assigning blame. Does any of this sound familiar?

Successful communications operate differently. The goal is to share information, knowledge and understanding with those whose cooperation is required to achieve corporate goals. They engage in two-way communication, encourage and welcome feedback and react positively to hearing how employees feel and think.

Bad news is not hidden. Rather, problems are reported upward and addressed, and there is a genuine effort to match words with actions. In winning organizations, communication is regarded as an integral part of management. Employees trust and are often willing to put themselves out for the good of the organization. Many of their communications celebrate and sustain success.

4. Momentum
The Insightlink survey asked employees to what degree they felt that their organization was improving and moving in a positive direction. Organizational momentum is an important determinant of employee engagement. All things being equal, employees that they feel are moving forward are more likely engaged with their jobs than those working in an organization without a sense of momentum.

This is human nature. People like to associate with success. Interestingly, when employees are asked why or why not their organization is moving forward, they assign values based on their perceptions. That is, some see recent growth as a positive reinforcement, while others see growth as adding even more to their already-heavy workloads.

This is not something organizations can affect directly, but they might consider whether they are doing enough to promote achievement throughout the organization.

5. Reward and recognition
Nearly every employer blows recognition. Less than four-in-ten give employers high marks for reward and recognition.

Still, some employers understand the importance of awards and incentives that highlight, validate and value outstanding work. Such programs keep employees motivated and are effective methods of reinforcing corporate expectations and objectives. To this end, research suggests that formally recognizing between 5 percent and 8 percent of a workforce every week is the tipping point between a forgettable recognition program and one that becomes strategic to the organization. Effective programs include:
  • From an email-based thank you message that any employee can issue to another colleague up to and including high-value awards distributed by senior leadership
  • A peer-to-peer recognition program using prepaid gift cards. After an employee nominates a colleague for an award, an email notification is then sent to the appropriate manager for approval. Once approved, a prepaid card goes to the recipient. All awards must be for a specific action taken and nominators