It's Time to Engage Employees With Actions, Not Strategies

By Hawley Kane

It’s a well-known truth that engaged employees perform better than those who are not. But employee engagement isn’t the result of some inspirational decals on the walls, a product, or even a strategy—it’s an ultimate goal. You can create a workplace that supports and encourages employees to do great work and excel in their careers by giving them the time and attention they need to develop and grow. When employees shine, so do the organizations they work for.

According to research from Deloitte, five proven drivers of engagement are meaningful work, hands-on management, a positive work environment, growth opportunity, and trust in leadership. It’s easy to lay those elements out neatly, but it’s another to make them a reality. In fact, most organizations aren’t successful in moving the needle on employee engagement. According to Gallup, engagement among the U.S. working population is about 33 percent, and only 15 percent globally. What’s worse is that these numbers have hovered in this range for the past decade.

So, let’s look at this differently. Instead of making employee engagement the thing to solve, focus on the drivers instead. Let’s look at four individual aspects of the workplace and how we can improve them to move the needle on engagement.

Create a Culture Your People Can Be Proud Of

Start by looking at your culture and what it’s really like to work for your organization from all viewpoints. The only way to get these answers is to ask, and you can do this in a couple of ways. We know that people who have more face time with their managers are more connected to their work and are more productive. Encourage managers to meet regularly with employees. This will allow managers to get to know their reports better, communicate expectations, set timely goals, gather feedback, and build a general rapport. This type of open relationship helps build trust between leaders and other employees, and gives the hands-on guidance that people actually want.

Another way is to have an always-on feedback channel that lets employees provide confidential feedback about their feelings, opinions, and perceptions of the organization, and the company’s key initiatives. When leaders can get these real-time data, they give insight into what employees are thinking and feeling, which can then help make more informed decisions, and allows HR and other business leaders the ability to base their decisions and actions on data.

Act On Feedback

During these one-on-ones, or after feedback is collected from these always-on channels, you need to do more than just take notes. Take action. Nothing kills engagement more than unresponsive management. Action makes employees feel like they are part of something and that their opinions matter. Asking people for their thoughts and opinions can make employees feel connected to the organization and empower them, but lack of follow-through can do more damage than never getting the feedback in the first place.

The Conference Board of Canada’s report, Employee Engagement: Leveraging the Science to Inspire Great Performers, revealed that transparent and honest communications, regardless of the medium, are linked to a strong sense of trust in leaders among employees, which we know is an engagement driver.

Embrace Employee-Led Learning

I said earlier that having the ability to grow and develop influences engagement. It’s also a business driver. If employees aren’t learning, they aren’t developing their skills, or possibly even staying current with them. Your business can’t afford to have a stale workforce.

Offer learning opportunities to employees and managers, and spur them on to find their own. Classroom-style learning, industry conferences, online courses, articles and studies, and job shadowing—these are just a few ways that employees can gain valuable skills and insight that leaders should encourage.

That said, make sure the learning they are doing is meaningful. According to the CEB, for learning to be effective it must check the following boxes:

  • Solve real-world challenges.
  • Be designed for specific roles, as opposed to generic learning.
  • Be tailored to specific organizational needs.
  • Include application activities.
  • Have measurable results.

And when learning does take place, whether it’s an organizational initiative or one the employee undertakes on their own, be sure to formally record and recognize it, and give employees the time and space to put into practice what they’ve learned. There isn’t a great player in any sport who ever got better by sitting on the bench.

Take it a step further and encourage employees to share what they learned with other team members using collaboration tools so other can check it out when time permits. This will motivate employees to continue down the learning path and further develop their skills.

Support Coaching Skills for Managers

This point can’t be stressed enough: Managers can’t just be task checkers or clock watchers. Employees seek out continuous coaching and guidance. They want proactive and real-time feedback. People want to know what they can do now to be better tomorrow. More people want to be high performers and want managers to help them get there—it’s a “what’s next,” not a “what happened” mentality.

But for managers to be successful coaches, they have to have support. In some cases, they may need to learn the skills; in other cases, they might just need physical tools to help them organize and keep track of individual goals and training, or resources to reference. If these resources and tools can be digital and accessible on demand, it’s more likely that managers will use them and be able to be effective coaches.

Engagement Has a Real Impact on Business Outcomes

The Harvard Business Review confirms that “A highly engaged workforce not only maximizes a company’s investment in human capital and improves productivity, but it can also significantly reduce costs, such as turnover, that directly impact the bottom line.”

It’s clear that when employers can create an environment that allows employees to learn, talk with their managers regularly about performance, and feel as though their concerns and feedback are valued because they see progress instead of standstill, organizations will be rewarded with employees who are more productive and engaged.

It’s time to move away from retroactive thinking to real-time actions. Move the needle of engagement by making real changes in your organization in real time when they need to happen.

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