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How to Engage Employees

Some organizations go to great lengths to engage employees, including creating a great place to work and offering a wider range of employee benefits. But there are some simple techniques to help managers be more engaging:

  1. Ask employees "What do you think?" more often.
  2.  Start all meetings by asking what went well since the last meeting.
  3.  Delegate more - not just more work, but greater responsibility.

According to Gallup, employees are turned off when managers:

  • Don't care about them as individuals.
  • Don't respect them enough to hear their input.
  • Focus on employee weaknesses, not strengths.

The underlying problem here is not feeling valued. While employees are motivated by widely different things, everyone wants to be appreciated. A pat on the back helps but it can be as superficial as a store cashier telling you to have a nice day. More elaborate forms of recognition shine a light on exceptional actions but leave too many employees in the shade.

1. Asking "What do you Think?"

What better way to show people how much you value them than asking for their advice? Acting on employee suggestions creates shared ownership in the outcome. Such actions speak louder than words. By comparison praise is just talk.

Variations on "What do you think? include:

  • What is the issue in your view?
  • What options do you see for dealing with it?
  • What is your preferred option and its pros and cons?
  • What are the benefits, costs, risks associated with your solution?
  • What impact will your plan have on X, Y and Z?
  • How can we implement your solution?

Unfortunately too many managers can't ask for input. One manager who was coached to be more engaging objected that drawing solutions out of others wouldn't feel like making a real contribution. He didn't see it as "real work."

"Real work" for most managers means using their analytical abilities to solve problems to come up with better answers than their colleagues. Upon starting a new job, a senior executive with a very engaging style asked direct reports for suggestions to address what they saw as major issues in the business. One old timer asked him: "Do you want me to tell you how to do your job?" This proves that managers are expected to have the answers, to know what to do. Asking for input is a sign of weakness.

To explain why they say little in meetings managers claim no knowledge of the content. Or they say others made the points they might have made. The truth, however, is that they recognize only one form of contribution: making statements about content. They can't see beyond their self-imposed identity as solution generators or goal scorers.

The idea of asking engaging questions to stimulate others to think smarter is just not on their radar screens. They only think of asking questions for information, but even these they severely limit for fear of looking stupid.

To be more engaging, managers should see that their role is to get the best out of employees. In the industrial age this meant delegation. Now, there is mental work: thinking creatively, making tough decisions and solving complex problems. To engage employees and get mental work done, managers need to do more asking and less telling.

Engagement needs to start at the top. If a CEO expects direct reports to have the answers, they will come to meetings prepared to score goals. A CEO  determined to foster an engaging culture asks direct reports to brainstorm solutions with their teams, not simply fire off their own answers.

If you work in a traditional organizational culture where your team members expect you to be the key solution generator and decision making authority, then you can't just change your style without managing expectations. It should help to tell them that you want to place more emphasis on developing them, engaging them and fostering more shared ownership or teamwork. Hence, you are going to start asking them what they think more often rather than just giving them your solutions, which is effectively doing the thinking that they should be doing. Giving team members your solutions is not generally recognized as a very disempowering, disengaging way to operate. Time to move away from that style.

2. What Went Well Since the Last Meeting?

The gospel on recognition isn't working. Yes, catching someone doing something great and offering an immediate pat on the back can give an employee a big boost. But, it's not possible for busy managers to catch enough employees doing good things. A better solution is a simple discipline for all meetings with both individuals and teams.

Meetings that start with the manager asking employees what went well since the last meeting or what they are pleased about, creates a positive atmosphere. Now, employees get to tell their manager a few good things they did (however small). Not only is this a great opportunity for providing recognition, employees may well do some extra good things before the next meeting so they have something interesting to report.

As it is, management meetings focus on problems: thus creating a climate of fear and blame. Everyone shows up feeling guilty, ready to defend themselves for not getting something done. By creating a better balance between positive and negative, employees should feel less defensive about owning up to mistakes.

Reviewing even small accomplishments can also create a sense of forward momentum while a one-sided focus on problems sends the message that we are stuck, stupid or failures which is obviously deflating. Everyone needs a sense of making progress, however slight, to feel like exerting extra effort.

But why would managers want to destroy employee motivation by jumping on every  mistake? The truth is that most managers don't want to bother with managing. They got to where they are by being goal scorers, coming up with great solutions to problems and they want to keep themselves free to continue in this mode.

So, they manage by exception, thus paying attention to employees only when they make mistakes. Second, managers recognize that they are in the hot seat: produce or get out! Mistakes, they feel, make them look bad so they jump on them with self-defeating annoyance. By thus killing employee motivation, they unwittingly make it harder to achieve their targets.

Managing by exception works for non-human resources, but people need regular feedback. Reviewing what went well in every  meeting before discussing problems has a two-fold impact on employee engagement. First, employees get regular recognition. Second, they have to come up with actions worth reporting thus encouraging them to do more positive things.

This idea is not as easy to implement as it sounds because asking team members what they are pleased about since the last meeting will be hard at first. Like you, they are more focused on their mistakes and omissions. Also, they think that the stuff that went well was mainly routine, just part of the ongoing job, nothing special. So, it takes an extra effort to get them talking about small positive steps, minor achievements, obstacles overcome etc.

3. Delegate more Responsibility

Too many managers delegate tasks rather than significant responsibility. It's because we are still stuck with the metaphor of the organization-as-person which means that the "head" thinks and the "hands" do. It is no coincidence that employees were once called "hired hands."

As a result, managers regard delegation as a tool to free up their time for strategic thinking. They then delegate menial tasks. This is a double whammy for employees: first, menial tasks are boring; second, delegation is used to make strategic thinking off limits to employees.

The solution is for managers to strike a better balance between operating as solution generators and facilitators. Delegation should be seen as a means of developing, engaging and stimulating employees. This means identifying their strengths, what they want to learn and do more of in future, then delegating projects that are challenging but not outside their capabilities.

Practical Steps

Managers need to be trained on how to be more engaging. But they also must be rewarded for being engaging, placing less emphasis on shining by promoting their own answers to difficult problems. There is no point encouraging managers to operate as facilitators, coaches and catalysts as long as their ability to generate great solutions is what gets rewarded.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Executives climb the ladder by being decisive, by showing that they know what they are talking about, not by being great facilitators. This is why deep employee engagement is so difficult. But as the importance of innovation and engagement increases, managers who do all the thinking (as "heads") will leave employees feeling like "hands." Organizations that retain such cultures risk going the way of the dinosaurs.

This article was published in Management Issues, June, 25, 2010. 

See alsoCultures of Disengagement, How To Be An Engaging Manager, and Four Levels of Employee Engagement.

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