Communication, Strategic HR

For Best Workplace Results, Manage for Engagement

We know that managers need to make sure that employees are meeting their numbers or deadlines and keep track of their team’s performance.  But if managers spent more time engaging their employees, they’d get much better results. According to Wikipedia, “An ‘engaged employee’ is defined as one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and takes positive action to further the organization’s reputation and interests.” Better engagement means better productivity just like the old idiom “you get more with a carrot than a stick.”

engaged employeesCorporations whose employees are engaged perform better than companies whose employees are not by over 200%. When employees are engaged at work, they feel a connection with the company. They believe that the work they’re doing is important and therefore work harder.  But if engagement yields such great results, why don’t more managers work to increase engagement on their teams?  Because it takes time and hard work and needs to be a priority.

Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work for Dale Carnegie Training where I taught a course on how to enhance relationships, gain cooperation and be a leader. Reading Dale Carnegie’s best selling book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was a course requirement and it was based on 30 principles. Among them are these six: “Give honest and sincere appreciation; be genuinely interested in other people; make the other person feel important; begin with praise and honest appreciation; use encouragement; and praise the slightest improvement.”

The assignment each week was to pick a principle, apply it at work and report back on your progress the following week.  The results were amazing.  Every week I was fascinated by the strides managers made with their employees just by doing simple things like asking how their weekend was, thanking them for a job well done or offering words of encouragement. By the end of the 12 week course, managers were so thrilled with the results that they vowed to keep the streak going.

They felt so rewarded by the positive reactions they were receiving from their direct reports it made them want to keep doing it. The result?  Increased engagement. The managers made it a priority, took the time and did the work.

Leaders Can Establish a Clear Vision and Help Employees Take Action

 You need to know where you are going before you can get there. Great business leaders know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. Fueled by their passion to achieve their vision, they make it crystal clear what employees can do to get involved and emphasize how crucial each person’s role is. They need to speak about it in many venues over a period of time, whether it is at an annual meeting, leadership offsite meeting, quarterly town hall gathering or company outing. For employees to truly hear and remember the message, they need to be exposed to it several times.

A great way to expand on the vision statement and help employees take action is to encourage all managers to ask their employees, “How are you doing?” and add, “How can I help?” By asking how they can help, managers show their investment in that person’s success and their willingness to be a resource to help them get there. Once they hear the answer to how they can help, strong leaders follow through, which is critical to maintaining credibility and engagement.

Leaders Can Frame New Situations as Exciting

 Other Dale Carnegie’s principles I learned include these 3, “Talk in terms of the other person’s interests; make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest: and arouse in the other person an eager want” In other words, position the situation as an opportunity versus just extra work or more change. Get the other person excited about doing it.

I was recently at a neighborhood barbecue speaking with a special education teacher whose boss was leaving.  When I asked her what she would miss most about her manager, she quickly replied, “She had a way of making us feel like whatever we had to do was fun and a new opportunity to grow and develop.  She was always there cheering us on.” The teacher went on to say how she would have done anything for that manager.  If that isn’t engagement, I don’t know what is.

Change can be bad or good. It’s all in the presentation. In the outplacement business we deal with companies going through all sorts of changes including mergers, acquisitions, downsizings and restructurings. Rather than focus on these changes as negative, we recommend leaders look for ways to reframe these changes to focus on the positive impact to the organization and the employees.

When employees see decisions as necessary to protect the future success of the organization, it can help them forward more quickly. For example, if a firm is being acquired, rather than dwell on how the current culture will be lost, highlight the opportunities: for development, to work with other smart people, gain exposure to another line of business, or have access to better benefits.

Employees Pay Attention to Leadership’s Communication

 Communication is a soft skill but it is hard for many managers to develop. It’s not just what is said but also what is not said.  One of my former CEO’s (who was adored by all employees) believed in over communication.  He would rather say it and say it again so that everyone was clear than not say anything at all and leave us guessing.  He wanted his team to hear it from the source versus drawing conclusions that created a misinformed rumor mill.  It wasn’t that he delivered these messages with any kind of finesse; he made the time to let us know what was going on.

When leaders make a decision not to share important information about company direction or challenges, they miss an opportunity to connect with their employees, receive valuable feedback, and gather possible solutions. When leaders don’t communicate, the information they are hiding weighs on them – people pick up on non-verbal communication like how leaders carry themselves, their energy level, and whether their smile or humor has subsided. Then people draw their own conclusions and start discussing it with colleagues.

One of the most common comments we hear in the outplacement business, when an employee is terminated, is “I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.” No one should be completely surprised their position is eliminated if the manager has fully communicated with them over time giving them feedback on their performance, asking how they can help them along the way and continuing to provide feedback.  Likewise if the termination is due to a restructuring, whenever possible, it’s better to inform employees that there is a possibility given the demands on the organization rather than having it come out of the blue.

Fostering engagement takes time and dedication. By listening to what others have to say, understanding the issues direct reports are dealing with and finding out what motivates them (and doesn’t), leaders can learn a lot.  By being approachable, easy to talk to, showing they care and asking how they can help, leaders can make great strides.  It’s not a one-time thing, however—it takes commitment and it needs to be made a priority to yield results.

Kim Littlefield is Senior Vice President of Keystone Partners, a leading career transition and leadership development firm based in Boston, Mass. Kim consults with organizations and senior executives on complex career transition and workforce planning issues. Kim has over 15 years of experience in training and business development. Prior to joining Keystone, she was a senior trainer with Dale Carnegie Training. As a certified Dale Carnegie instructor, Kim has taught courses on human relations, communication, leadership, sales, public speaking and presentation skills to thousands of people from students to executives. At Keystone, she regularly trains groups on networking, “Your 30 Second Commercial” and “Navigating a Room” and “Networking for Career Success.”

Kim holds a Master of Science degree in Adult and Organizational Learning from Suffolk University and a Bachelor’s in Business Administration from Bryant University. She the Sponsorship Chair of the Human Resource Leadership Forum (HRLF) Kim frequently addresses client companies, professional associations and networking groups, including HRLF, NEHRA and Financial Executives International (FEI)