No Shortcuts to Engagement: Eleven Ways to Create Real Employee Engagement from the Ground Up

These days we hear plenty about employee engagement. We know disengaged employees are bad for business. We know an office full of innovative, collaborative employees who feel like “owners” is the key to surviving a brutal marketplace.

So, yes: We know. Why then is it so incredibly tough to move beyond the “buzzword” phase and truly transform enthusiasm fakers, paycheck collectors, and clock watchers into employees who truly feel like they have a stake in your company’s success?

Frankly, it’s because in many cases employees really don’t have a stake. Too many companies try to paste ‘engagement’ initiatives on a foundation that’s fundamentally flawed. It won’t work. True engagement is a natural, organic extension of a company’s culture, and people can’t be cajoled, tricked, or bribed into feeling it. There just aren’t any shortcuts.

Here are 11 tactics to help business owners create and increase employee engagement in their organizations. (Warning: They may require some major overhauling.)

First, ask yourself: Would I work for me? Before you can make much progress in increasing employee engagement, you need an accurate understanding of what it’s like to work at your company right now. Ask yourself the following questions and answering honestly—even if it’s uncomfortable:

• Do I treat my employees’ labor as a commodity? Do I try to figure out how little they will work for? Or do I see my people as an asset, rewarding them for performance and acknowledging their achievements?

• Do I acknowledge producers publicly, or am I afraid they will ask for a raise?

• Do I think that giving time off will cause me to increase or lose production?

• Do I see medical and retirement benefits as a cost or as an investment in long-term stability?

You need to make sure that you aren’t falsely blaming outside factors for low morale, low productivity, low enthusiasm, and high turnover if you’re really to blame. Take your temperature in this area on a regular basis.

Hire smart. Some job seekers are looking for just that: a job. A way to fill their days and pay their bills. Others are looking for something more: a career. Career seekers don’t just desire a paycheck; they’re looking for purpose, fulfillment, education, and advancement within your company. For that reason, they are much more likely to engage with your company (and stay engaged) as long as you provide them proper incentive.

Go overboard with orientation. After bringing new employees on board, don’t stop with job-specific orientation training and a quick tour of the office. Make sure that each person understands how the money gets into their paycheck, who the customer is, and the process by which those customers are provided with goods and services. Show employees how your various divisions of labor provide the specialties necessary to your company and how each person fits into the big picture.

Share the wealth (as long as people are helping create it, that is). No worker is going to turn down a generous paycheck. And yes, a higher-than-average salary will often prevent employees from jumping ship and going over to the competition. But employees who stay with you solely for the sake of money are merely mercenaries. To create true engagement, you must tie money, employees’ personal success, and the future of your company inextricably together.

Most compensation plans are based on an hourly rate, which is paying for attendance, not necessarily production. And production is what you really want, because that’s where profits come from. For that reason, Barefoot offered our employees bonuses for sales, cost reductions, customer retention, and more. If someone helped us grow our profits, he or she got to take home more of them. Sure, we were sometimes chastised for ‘overpaying’ salespeople (some made more money than we, the owners, did!), but when we looked at the efficiencies of scale, the value of stability, and the increase in sales, we knew we were doing the right thing.

Give more days off. For obvious reasons, employees feel very positively toward an employer who says, “Hey, you know what? Why don’t you take a day off? You deserve it. And it won’t come out of your vacation or sick days.” Not so obvious, but equally true, is that these unworked hours won’t mean a loss of productivity and revenue.

Be a mentoring matchmaker. King Arthur had Merlin. Harry Potter had Professor Dumbledore. And Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi. While your business operates in the real world instead of in the fictional realm, you can still learn a valuable lesson from these famous pairs: Mentoring works. When a new employee comes on board, try to match him up with a more experienced worker (preferably in the same department or division) who can advise, teach, challenge, and encourage him.

Say “thank you.” In a recent Gallup survey, 57 percent of disengaged employees said they felt ignored at work. Well, isn’t that what employees want—to not be micromanaged, and to be left alone to do their jobs in peace without commentary from management? you ask. Not exactly. While nobody wants to hear a constant stream of criticism or anxiously delivered “suggestions” from the boss, workers do want to know that they’re doing well.

Allow them to make mistakes. In many companies, employees avoid making mistakes at all costs. After all, who wants to be called into the boss’s office for a harsh lecture, or even worse, be chastised publicly in the middle of a staff meeting? Yes, responding harshly to employees’ mistakes might cause them to occur less frequently, but only because it stifles the spirit of creativity, innovation, and growth that inspires people to take the risks that can lead to mistakes. (Hint: That’s a bad thing.)

Employees who are afraid of doing something wrong will never live up to their full potentials or take any unnecessary risks—including the kind that pay off big. Your employees shouldn’t be afraid to make or report mistakes (unless, of course, they involve bad behavior or an inability to perform, which should not be overlooked).

Observe some simple office courtesies. For example, saying, “Have that report to me by the end of the day,” can have a very different effect on your employee than the similar, “Would you please have that report to me by the end of the day?” By using only three extra words, you have transformed an order to a subordinate into a request of a valued colleague—and your employee’s attitude about working for your company is likely to reflect the difference.

Tap into your values. According to Gallup, only 41 percent of employees say that they know what their companies stand for. If that’s the case in your organization, you’re missing a golden opportunity to add meaning to your employees’ work. While employees will (and often do) work solely for financial reasons, they’ll feel more motivated and more loyal to your company when they also have a social reason to do their jobs.

Have heart. Your attitude and outlook will affect those of your employees. If you come to work each day excited about what your company does, optimistic about its future, and happy to spend time with your team, there’s a good chance your employees will feel the same way. On the flip side, if you’re a grumbling, grouchy, pessimistic Scrooge, your employees probably won’t be able to jump ship soon enough.

The type of attitude that creates employee engagement—which Bonnie and I call ‘heart’—isn’t something you can fake. Instead, it’s something you have to find within yourself. Heart is what drives you. It’s the way you look at the world around you. Heart is about your belief in your own eventual success, regardless of the odds, the naysayers, or the time it takes. It’s the tenacity that keeps you going. Heart is having a sense of humor in the face of hardship and not taking yourself too seriously. It is about being true to your core values. In a nutshell, heart is what makes you feel good about what you do—and helps your employees to feel good about what they do, too.”

It’s about connecting them to your organization’s values, inspiring them to work toward its goals, giving them the tools they need, and treating them as valued team members. And, of course, recognizing them for a job well done.