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Employee Engagement Ideas Every Business Owner Needs to Take Seriously

May 18, 2020

Successful business presentation of a man at the officeIf employee engagement is so crucial to a company's success, why is it so rare? It doesn't have to be. These simple employee engagement ideas can transform your company culturefinancially, emotionally, and every other way. The question is, will you put these ideas to work? Or leave that to your competitors?

What is employee engagement?

Simply put, employee engagement refers to whether (and to what extent) your employees bring their best efforts to work. For example:

  • Do they know and buy into what the company stands for? 
  • Do they know how their work contributes to the bigger picture?
  • Do they care? Does it show in their work?
  • Does the company culture feel imposed from the outside—or is there a sense of ownership?
  • Are employees committed to the company's success?
  • Are they feeling the love in return? Specifically, respect and appreciation?

The more employees engage, the faster you can grow your company. Don't let the thrill of surging ahead cause you to leave your employees behind—or blind you to the fact that you're all on the same team.

Employee Engagement Idea #1

Servant leadership

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” — Max De Pree, former CEO and president, Herman Miller

Back before reality meant working from home, I would have said the most important employee engagement idea was leadership. Just plain leadership.

But now, being thrown into this crisis with little time to prepare, I think the world more than ever needs leaders who put their people first. This, by the way, is servant leadership's cornerstone. How can employees resist a leader who models strength, humility and transparency?

Incidentally, even when the news is bad, employees will respect a leader who levels with them. Though how you deliver bad news still matters a great deal (read: don't fire anyone by Zoom), transparency is another key to servant leadership. 

Beyond that, the most effective servant leaders are those who ...

  • model servant leadership not as a one-and-done but as a mindset—it shows up in everything they do because it's part of who they are
  • create more leaders, not simply more followers (if you're going to grow, you're going to have to delegate ... let me know how I can help)
  • put people ahead of profits, confident that doing so will benefit both

Anytime you receive outstanding customer service, you can bet that servant leadership is part of the company culture—even if the company doesn't use that phrase. Better to model the phrase and not say it than to say it and not model it.

But you'll do even better if you do both. 

Finally, servant leadership is not a weaker, wimpier form of leadership—it's one that requires courage and strength.

The payoffs: Employees who will gladly put their hearts and minds into doing their best work. Higher productivity. Lower turnover and hiring costs. 

Employee Engagement Idea #2

Giving employees the tools to succeed

"Set yourself up for success." —my dad's advice, circa 1992

In this brave new world we're in, I no longer think it's enough to set yourself up for success—or your team. You've got to set yourself up (and your team) so that neither one can fail. 

I don't mean that in a coddling way. And it is not a case for entitlement. But if you're going to expect great work from your employees, you've got to give them the tools and time they need. Few things are more frustrating, for example, than lackluster Internet speeds.

On the personal side, you're probably dealing with more distractions than ever before. That's why you must do what you reasonably can to make failure all but impossible—and encourage your team to do likewise.

And with that, I put away my phone so I could focus on finishing this post.  

Employee Engagement Idea #3

Trust and communication

One of the underrated benefits of servant leadership (or whatever else you prefer to call it): You get to be more selective about who you hire. Simply put: Hire people you trust—then trust them.

Here are some examples of what trust and communication look like in practice: 

  • Sending an email or text when there's been a change of plans—if it's the change is upsetting, it may be better to pick up the phone
  • Giving the other person time to respond
  • Communicating proactively instead of reactively ("So that you hear this news from me ..." vs. "Oh, I thought you knew ...")
  • Assuming the best about the other person, or making no assumptions 
  • Trading what my old professor Dr. J used to call "the dreaded Why? question," which provokes defensiveness, for "Help me understand ..."
  • Listening and asking good questions (e.g., "What do you need most from me this week?")

In addition to listening well, few things build trust like transparency and empathy. Last week, for example, I attended a free online event (sponsored by Inc.) with Rebecca Minkoff, who told how her company had come up with the most respectful, humane way possible to handle necessary layoffs in her company. 

The process included at least two calls to each employee, the promise of and follow-through on a letter of recommendation from Ms. Minkoff herself, and a great deal of honest empathy throughout. 

When I heard that, I thought again of that quote from Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

If you want your employees to engage and drive your company forward, make them feel respected, valued and visible. 

Employee Engagement Idea #4

Appreciation

If you saw my earlier post, What Work Teams Need Right Now From Managers, you may recall that one of the things work teams need is encouragement. They still do. Your people need to be reminded that you notice and appreciate their extraordinary efforts. 

In the words of a friend of mine (a manager but not a business owner): 

Continue to praise the work that is being done! Can't do this enough. Good to do in a group setting and also individually.

Every chance I get to speak to anyone about how this transition has been, I'm telling them what a great job our staff has done in letting go of "what we were going to do" and focusing on "what are we going to do to replace lost programming."

During this time they've come up with some creative ideas on short notice to keep us relevant. I've also asked them to keep track of all their new projects so when this crisis is done I can once again share what they've accomplished.

Appreciation doesn't have to be formal. And contrary to popular opinion, it does not always have to be public. In fact, some people prefer to receive praise in private. When in doubt, simply ask.  

Finally, give credit where credit is due. If one person did 90 percent of the work—even if that was their job—don't issue a thank you as though everyone contributed equally. I have seen this happen (not to me). It did not go over well. 

Better: Get the whole team to acknowledge the other person's efforts along with you. Here's what that might look like:

"Yesterday's event was a huge success! Though I know we all pitched in, I'd like you to join me in giving special recognition to Rose, who worked tirelessly for months to plan out every detail." 

Employee Engagement Idea #5

Connection

John C. Maxwell has a book called Everyone Communicates, Few Connect. The difference between the two has to do with levels of trust, openness, service and positivity between two or more people. 

You don't get there with trust falls and group outings, even if those were allowed right now.

But as a leader and business owner, you can look for ways not only to connect with your employees, but to create a culture where they connect well with each other.

As I look back on my own career, I can see bosses who created this sort of culture, probably without even realizing it—and others who wanted a culture of connection, but perhaps didn't realize their role in creating it or know how to go about it. 

One way to go about it: When you conduct one-on-one meetings, ask how the employee is going out of his or her way to ensure success of others (i.e., co-workers). The high-performing employee will welcome this dialogue and have plenty to contribute. 

It also sends the message that teamwork is a must.

On the other hand, if you've got an employee who everyone else in the office finds frustrating, it may be time for you to address the issue(s) privately. Find out if they're aware of the problems and what they're willing to do to improve.

Connection should not mean perpetual drama or perpetual friction.  

Conclusion (you'd never get this in a classroom)

"I have a club called the I.W.M.A.O. Club. It stands for the 'I Work My A*s Off' Club. And I make every one of my employees join." — Ed Lowe, Founder of Kitty Litter

Okay, so Ed Lowe might not have been the model of servant leadership. But when I interviewed him for an article during my senior year of college, I learned more about business from the philosophy he shared than anything else all semester.

Parents, while you're all home wondering what to do with your time, encourage your kids to interview folks who are (a) more accomplished than they are and (b) outside academia. Doesn't have to be for an article. 

I do think Ed Lowe was on to something. What if you took his philosophy and softened it a bit? Instead of "making" your employees work hard, what if you hired self-motivated people and inspired them to work hard? What would happen to your company if your entire team inspired each other—not sometimes but daily?

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