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How do you encourage employees to think like owners, to take initiative, to participate, to follow through, and contribute to the growth and success of your organization each and every day? This is the key to world-class performance; building a culture in which team members not only feel empowered but are motivated to act in the best interest of the organization. If leaders are to encourage engagement, they must be able to notice when it begins to emerge, nurture it, strengthen it, and embed it in the fabric of the culture.
As a leader, before you can increase engagement, you have to define what it looks like. It is one thing to say that you want to capture the hearts and minds of others, but it is quite another thing to define what you actually want employees to do and to say that represents engagement. The more clearly engagement is defined; the easier it is for you to attend to it when it happens and to support these efforts.
The first step is to articulate clear expectations and objective descriptions of the behaviors that you want others to do and say to demonstrate engagement. Leaders should focus not only on outcomes, but also on shaping behavior related to contributions to the mission and the team. Actions such as offering improvement and innovative ideas, volunteering to help and mentor others, making decisions consistent with company values, identifying and reporting hazards, and sticking with a customer issue until its final resolution, are often the actions we want from our workforce that, in turn, are referred to as engagement. Similarly, leadership engagement can help cement these practices by asking purposeful questions, providing actionable and timely feedback, delivering positive reinforcement, recognizing achievement, and maintaining sight of customer impact.
It is also helpful to understand the mechanisms that promote employee engagement. In other words, what is it about a person’s work experience that enhances or inhibits engagement? Fundamentally, engagement is about success and meaning. When people feel that they are making a difference, that their work is important and that their role is important, they become more invested in the mission. Accordingly, it is a leader's responsibility to help employees be successful and help them link their efforts to accomplishments and contributions to the cause; essentially, building meaning and value into the work and the culture.
The intention here is to help employees appreciate the impact of what they are doing and the value it is providing. Leaders must provide meaning and purpose rather than transactional relationships. John C. Maxwell wrote, “Every person has a longing to be significant; to make a contribution; to be a part of something noble and purposeful.” This we do, by putting others in a position to excel, providing the resources to accomplish the task, arranging feedback to gauge progress and highlight small steps and movement in the right direction, and acknowledgement of good efforts and a job well done. Simply put, success breeds success and reinforcement accelerates performance.
In practice, it is often helpful to create discrete opportunities to demonstrate engagement-related behaviors and experience success—focusing attention on a particular task or project to create opportunities for employees to solve problems, make improvements, and celebrate small wins. Then, move attention to the next opportunity and try to replicate the first success. This is a much more effective strategy than driving “overall engagement” and generally trying to get people “more involved.” Common strategies typically rely on motivational campaigns, team building, contests, and annual celebrations. Unfortunately, these often fail to translate into daily actions. It is a common misconception that cohesive teams are successful. It is true, however, that successful teams often become cohesive. Therefore, the strategy dictates deliberate and intentional efforts designed to achieve success through collaboration and dedication to the mission. It is indeed possible to promote engagement by doing and saying things that demonstrate trust and respect for all, and building a culture that celebrates excellence.
ADI has partnered with many organizations that have worked purposefully to build meaning into their culture. Scientists at NASA linked scientific discovery to advancing the human cause, a pharmacy connected their work to enhancing customers’ lives, a healthcare manufacturer emphasized improvement in customers’ health, a public education system strived to promote life-long student achievement, a real estate firm highlighted how their efforts helped customers put down roots and become part of the community, and Agile teams and Lean tiered meetings allowed people to be involved in continuous improvement and experience daily success.
Ultimately, the objective is to create an organization where employees want to work, look forward to coming in, and proudly refer others to work there as well. A workforce that is proud of their efforts and is recognized for their contributions to the success of the organization and the culture within it, is the foundation of employee engagement.
Follow these four steps to increase employee engagement, improve your impact and create a positive, proactive culture:
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