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Employee Engagement: Getting It and Keeping It

By Holly G. Green

Bumpy economy makes employee engagement a critical approach these days

Every great and commanding movement in the annals of the world is the triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it.

                                                                        -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our current recession is good for one thing. Many companies are focusing on employee engagement, an approach to more consciously value and act on connecting with passionate employees who truly care about the company. With businesses failing at a record rate, who doesn't want to convince nervous workers to remain calm and hang on through the tough times? At a minimum, engaging with the ground troops is the most direct way to combat the 24-hour news cycles of business despair that can distract employees and send business off course.

Stuff Happens: Employee engagement is important regardless of the economic situation. It's not something that you turn on or off easily like a new corporate health plan benefit. So, while the economic situation is bringing employee engagement into focus right now, consider some facts from a recent Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study:

  • Four out of 10 workers are disenchanted or disengaged today. One-third of employees are looking for greener pastures even in this economy where jobs are scarce.

  • Only about 20 percent feel they have full discretion on how to handle their job. In other words, employee empowerment is still a distant dream for most.

  • Overall perception of leadership effectiveness is down significantly, yet a strong display of leadership is one of the most critical pieces of keeping a company viable.

Ironically, dozens of major studies over the last few decades point to similar trends during all types of economic conditions. In one respect, nothing has changed since Henry Ford realized his new-fangled industrial workforce was his advantage. "Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success," the automaker proclaimed.

On the other hand, everything has changed. Businesses now suffer at a much faster rate when employees are not engaged because of powerful outside influences and the speed of change:

  • Employee loyalty is harder to create when venerable companies like General Motors are constantly in the news for eliminating tens-of-thousands of jobs.

  • Self confidence is battered when career skills become obsolete quickly with the unrelenting technological advancements.

  • Market opportunities come and go so quickly that keeping employees completely informed about business changes is a daunting task.

Employee Engagement Is No Longer A Nice To Have: Add in the fact that we have four generations in the workforce simultaneously. Each generation has its own attitudes and behaviors that impact fundamental issues like the best way to communicate or how to relate to core employee motivations.

As an example, younger employees are more entrepreneurial by nature, and believe they have options beyond a 40-year career at one company. They also aren't shy to demand a full life beyond work. Meanwhile, many of us Baby Boomers may have similar desires, but grew up with a "hunker down and do what's expected" work ethic.

Companies like Zappos, an online mega shoe store, have learned how to tap into the desires of the younger crowd. The result is Zappos continues to grow even during these rocky times selling products that, for the most part, are not a necessity. In 10 short years, Zappos has bootstrapped itself up to $1 billion in sales by creating service-obsessed employees.

The Zappos staff actually makes less-than-market rate salaries and receive fewer perks compared to many high-flying midsize companies. But Zappos employees get something bigger in return. They get access and complete engagement in the business at all levels. CEO Tony Hsieh's cubicle is in the sea of other work spaces where he's available to listen to ideas and/or explain where the business is heading. The entire team is in shouting distance of invites to frequent impromptu after-work drinks or dinner.

Annually, all 1,300 Zappos employees are asked to contribute to an essay book to describe the meaning of their job... now a 480-page tome that the company willingly shares with the outside world. Those essays guide Hsieh to focus on what it takes to keep his crew engaged.

Few established companies can turn themselves inside out to radically change their culture to be a Zappos clone. Nor would it make sense to try... every company should be true to itself.  However, each company must also realize this employee-obsessed thinking will drive competition for the best people in the future and drive productivity and focus today.

Engagement:  Creating It and Keeping It: When I work with companies to define an engaging work environment, employees universally tell me they're looking for five simple (and mostly free) things:

  • A challenge. The vast majority of people want to make a difference; very few have a desire to show up and do a bad job. Knowing they can personally impact the business, even in a relatively small way, is extremely intoxicating.

  • A little appreciation. Employee-of-the-month awards and recognition dinners are wonderful. But it's the small, sincere gestures that drive motivation. Receiving praise for a job well done every week or so is among Gallup's famous 12 Elements of Great Managing. The power of a simple "thank you" can't be under estimated.

  • Accountability:  Most people want to be in charge of something. It doesn't have to be major program. A priority project or task with real responsibility to make decisions is an empowering force.

  • Being included:  Human nature fuels most people's desire to be involved in something greater than themselves. Creating this atmosphere, however, is more of an art than a science because each person has a different threshold for inclusion. Some employees might be future managers who hunger for every detail. Others may simply want to know how their role fits into the big picture. In either case, they need to know they're a valuable part of the team.

  • The right work and fair outcomes. Setting people up for success is Management 101, but it's an often forgotten principle. Leaders and managers have to pause long enough to define excellence up front so that you stage others for success versus catching them doing it wrong a week from now. Employees want to apply their strongest skills on the most appropriate work; they truly want to do a great job. This alignment also is the base from which a leader can get employees engaged so they voluntarily want to stretch outside their comfort zones to make an even bigger impact over time.

Six Levels of Engagement: The key to employee engagement comes down to understanding basic human needs. Psychologists, philosophers and leadership management research have articulated these needs in many ways. I find you can boil them all down to six levels when focusing on employee engagement.

  • Spirit:  Understand and respect the motivations of an individual.

  • Identity:  Discover one's self-identify and how others see you.

  • Values and beliefs: Know what is most treasured so work tasks are not unconsciously designed to go against one's natural instincts.

  • Capabilities:  Align an individual's personal idea of his strengths and weaknesses with the perceptions that managers and co-workers may have about those characteristics.

  • Behaviors: Give feedback on the habits and processes, good and bad, that intuitively guide each person to make sure actions align.

  • Environment:  Create a context for excellence by considering the external surroundings, tools, and culture that create an effective atmosphere for one to excel.

The bottom line is, engaged employees contribute significantly to an organization's focus. Focus creates energy. Energy creates more engagement. Employee engagement contributes to a perpetually fueled winning culture that is impacted less significantly by the economic conditions outside.

Where to begin? Leaders, of course, get the ball rolling to create a culture of engaged employees.

Read other articles and learn more about Holly G. Green.

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