Back-to-school season is upon us, and those returning to work can learn just as much as students returning to school. Today’s lesson: how to build a wildly successful organization by tapping into the talents of your employees. 

Open any business magazine, and you can’t help but hear about the importance of “employee engagement.” It’s a trendy buzzword, and seems to be sold as the cure for all organizational ills. But what does it actually mean? 

What is employee engagement, anyway?  

Employee engagement means inspiring employees to go “above and beyond.” It results from building a workplace culture where people are free to unleash their passion and commitment to each other and to the organization as a whole. It means building a workplace culture that talented people want to be a part of—and want to stay a part of. 

You know in your gut when you’re in a company that’s getting it right; you can sense it. People treat each other well. They rally together around shared goals. There’s a sense of energy and excitement. The business is successful. 

You know even more clearly when a company is not getting it right. Management is secretive. Employees whisper around the water cooler. Turnover is high, and you have trouble getting new people to apply for or accept positions.

Yes, engagement matters—and is worth the effort 

We’ve all heard of the companies that are exceptionally good at appealing to top talent: Google, Southwest, Zappos. Can you guess what they have in common? You saw this one coming: they’re all known for strong company cultures of engagement. 

Applicants have better odds of getting into Harvard than getting a job at Google, which receives an average of 2 million job applicants each year. Imagine having a culture that attracts that much interest! It’s no coincidence that these are some of the most successful companies in the world. 

Research indicates that organizations with engaged workforces beat their competitors on many critical performance measures:

  • Gallup studied 1.4 million employees in 34 countries and found that the most highly engaged workforces are four times more successful than the least engaged.
  • Top performers have 25% lower turnover, 37% less absenteeism, and 22% higher profitability.[i]
  • The Harvard Business Review surveyed executives at top companies around the world and found that 71% of leaders rank employee engagement as a top factor contributing to their future business success.[ii] 

The news keeps telling us that we’re facing a “war for talent,” so these numbers should make every leader sit up and take notice. As the economy improves and talented professionals have more options, it will become harder to attract them to your company and then keep them around. 

3-point lesson plan for inspiring and energizing employees 

Those who work in your organization aren’t just employees, they’re people—and they find value in the same kinds of things that you do. Just as you want respect, control, and meaning—so do they. Keep that in mind as you make decisions, and you’re well on your way to engaging them. 

There is no magic bullet; no one secret thing you can do to motivate your staff overnight. Engagement comes from sustained effort over time, and success starts with treating people like more than cogs in a machine. All efforts should stem from that core principle. 

Here’s a simple framework you can use to guide your efforts: the ABCs of employee engagement. How you implement these strategies will depend upon your organization’s unique culture, direction, and priorities. 

A. Treat employees like adults. 

First and foremost, the assumption underlying your policies should be that most people are inherently good, mean well, and want to do good work. It may sound deceptively simple, but there are many ways that organizations are inadvertently sending the message that they don’t trust their employees—and in response, employees don’t trust the leadership or give them their best efforts. 

Here are a few quick ways to show that you value and respect employees as equals. 

Act with integrity. Culture starts at the top. The organization’s leadership must model the values they expect from others. If employees don’t trust management, they won’t be motivated or give their best selves. Integrity means doing what you say you will, treating people equally and fairly, and not tolerating bad behavior. Trust is a prerequisite to engagement.
  
Write policies aimed at the best employees, not the worst. It’s ineffective to craft policies aimed at the small percentage of employees who misbehave. You can’t anticipate and prevent every problem that may occur; and by trying to do so, you irritate the majority of your employees who don’t need to be told how to act. You’re better served aiming policies at the top performers, and handling performance issues as they arise. 
Let them manage their time. Even if you can’t allow employees to work from home, you can still allow them the flexibility to control their hours. In doing so, you remove the distraction of unmet personal demands and enable them to fully focus on their work. By giving them control of their work and their life, you demonstrate trust and foster goodwill that will come back to you in the form of increased productivity. 

B. Be all ears. 

Companies run into trouble when they assume they know what employees want. You can’t know unless you ask. Train your managers to ask good questions, to encourage their staff members to come to them with ideas, and to be attentive to the responses. 

What do they need? Ask about what obstacles prevent them from doing their work efficiently, and what tools would enable them to do their work better. The best suggestions for improving operational processes come from those working on the front line daily. 
How do they want to be recognized? Not every employee wants to be recognized in the same way. While Kelly may appreciate a certificate presented publicly, Juan may prefer a handwritten note presented privately. Recognition is much more meaningful when it feels personalized and sincere, and is something the employee actually values.
 
Where do they want to go? Find out about their long-term career goals and where they want to go within the organization. Work with them to determine what skill gaps exist and what training or professional development would help them reach their goals. Then provide them that training. 
Act on the responses. Simply by asking these questions, you establish the expectation that you will do something with the information. Managers know that the responses will lead to more work for them, and that is often the key deterrent to inquiring. But wouldn’t you rather know? Ignorance is only bliss until your best employee resigns. Follow-up is key to building trust. 

If knowledge is power, obtaining the answers to a few simple questions will put managers in a much stronger position to make informed decisions. Asking these questions is also a way for managers to demonstrate that they respect and value the people on their teams. 

C. Communicate, communicate, communicate. 

Communication should flow both ways. For maximum effectiveness, an organization needs to create a two-way dialogue and keep employees in the loop. You need to understand what employees think and value, and they need to understand the big picture and the rationale behind decisions. 

Provide context. Most people likely joined the organization because they believe in the mission. Keep that passion alive by continually making the connection of why their work matters. Also be clear on the direction of the organization, and how each individual’s goals are aligned to the broader strategy. Everyone in the organization will make smarter decisions if they understand how their actions impact their colleagues, customers, and vendors. 
Be up front about challenges. Be honest with employees about what’s going on, especially during tough times. They don’t necessarily need to know the gritty details, but they should be aware when there’s a problem and how they can help. If they know that the biggest client has been lost, they’ll be more motivated to bring in new clients and more forgiving of cutbacks. 
Include everyone in designing solutions. Front-line employees have essential insights into the business from working directly with customers, systems, and machines on a daily basis. The most effective solutions are created collaboratively by involving the whole organizational system. Including everyone in problem solving also builds buy-in for the solutions that are ultimately implemented. 

Employees are making decisions every day that affect your customers, vendors, and the achievement of the mission. If they don’t have current information, they can’t make wise choices. 

The bottom line: You’re never “done” engaging employees 

Engaging employees is at once an enormously complex concept and yet a profoundly simple one. It’s complicated because every aspect of a work environment can potentially engage or disengage the people who spend time there—and even the best executives cannot control all of these factors. Yet it’s elegantly straightforward in that a few small changes can have a big impact. 

Motivating employees isn’t about offering free food or building nap pods. It doesn’t come from quick actions you can check off a list—it’s about handling the fundamentals well. The ABCs of employee engagement are simple, but certainly not easy. Creating engagement has to be an ongoing organizational priority, and you have to work at it. These guidelines can get you started. 

About the Author -- Elisabeth Waltz is an employee engagement expert who specializes in creating win-win HR solutions: building company cultures where employees are empowered to do their best work, while developing employees who produce amazing results for the organization. Still a New Englander at heart, you can find her sampling all the cheese and cider available in her new home, San Diego. Say hi on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/elisabethgwaltz.


 

[i] Gallup, Inc. “State of the Global Workforce,” 2013, pg. 21. Available from gallup.com, accessed August 26, 2016.

[ii] Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. “The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance,” June 1, 2013, pg. 4. Available from hbr.org/hbr-analytic-services, accessed August 25, 2016.