It’s well understood that upbeat and highly motivated employees achieve more than their negative, disgruntled peers. Recognizing the link between attitude and job performance, human resources experts used to talk a lot about the need to enhance “employee morale” and build “job satisfaction.”
In recent years, however, the buzz has been all about increasing productivity and innovation by promoting “employee engagement.” Definitions vary, but the Gallup organization describes “engaged employees” as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”
Your engaged colleagues are the builders – the ones who are moving the organization forward. You probably enjoy working with these animated people. Folks who aren’t engaged may do the basics, but they won’t be passionate about tackling challenges or breaking new ground. And your actively disengaged coworkers can spread their unhappiness around and undermine the whole group’s progress.
According to Gallup Daily tracking, only about 32 percent of U.S. employees are engaged at work. And, despite a wave of engagement improvement programs, that number hasn’t fluctuated much since Gallup started its measurement in 2000.
Experience shows that there’s no one simple way for leaders to jumpstart a surge of workplace enthusiasm, but many small steps can help.
My client Heidi began reading about employee engagement as she started a new assignment. She had moved out of the busy headquarters office of a Federal agency to become director of a low performing regional office.
Heidi is talented, personable and deeply committed to the service mission of her agency. To date, her rise through the government ranks had been rapid and smooth, and she’d made many friends along the way.
When Heidi arrived at her Midwestern post in the dead of winter, the climate inside her office felt as cold and frightening as her icy commute to work. Three of the top ranking members of her team had applied for the directorship, and now all three made it clear that they resented having the position go to her, an outsider. And while the attitude of those senior staffers seemed to vacillate from sullen to openly hostile, most of the dozen other professionals just seemed tired and disinterested.
Heidi developed a set of principles for stimulating new energy and commitment from her team. After a year, she has seen a mood shift, and the office’s performance statistics are up.
These 8 strategies are helping Heidi to stimulate better work from her more fully engaged team members:
- Meet in person. Heidi’s predecessor, Jill, was described as a brilliant but reclusive workaholic. Jill spent long hours alone in her office, with the door closed, and she’d make her wishes known by shooting out frequent emails. Particularly during her early weeks on the job, Heidi elected to meet often and face to face with her team members. She shared news from around the agency but generally tried to listen more than she spoke. As Heidi concentrated on listening, she grew better at resisting the urge to feel defensive or disheartened from the flow of negativity.
- Empower the team. Jill had talked often about her own high standards, and had tried to control the workflow so that every project was done in exactly the way she would do it. Heidi looked for ways to delegate more responsibility, and make assignments that allowed professionals to show off their strengths and personal styles. She caught an early break when her embittered deputy left for another job, enabling her to distribute his responsibilities so that more people could share in team leadership.
- Reward good work. As a Federal manager, Heidi had limited control over bonuses and raises. But she found other means to express appreciation for excellent work. For example, she shared an insightful staff memo with high-ranking colleagues in Washington, she worked her network to snag a plum speaking invitation for one of her experts, and she asked her people to speak about their successes at meetings with sister agencies.
- Find learning opportunities. Heidi saw that many of her team members had been doing the same kind of work for years, and they were bored. She made training a top priority, and encouraged each person to commit to a professional development path. She also shuffled assignments so that most folks enjoyed more variety, and she came up with new projects that meant learning for everyone involved.
- Clean up. When she agreed to take the job, Heidi negotiated a budget to improve the office’s aging physical space and furniture. Early in her tenure she involved her team in planning the modest office redesign. And she designated certain days when everybody wore jeans to work and pitched masses of old documents and other clutter. When the renovations were done, the fresh new atmosphere gave most people a boost.
- Have fun. In an early meeting, one employee told to Heidi, “Once this was a fun place to work, but Jill didn’t believe in fun.” On the job, “fun” might mean that the tasks are stimulating and coworkers are good partners for brainstorming. But sometimes “fun” just means having a good time. Heidi found ways to vary the routine with surprise treats and entertaining meetings. She invited clever speakers to come to staff meetings, she encourages humor as long as it wasn’t mean-spirited and she created a committee to create events like surprise pizza parties.
- Remember the mission. Most members of the staff began working for the agency because they believed in public service. But they had become cynical and discouraged. Heidi invited reports about the full scope and value of the agency’s work, and she encouraged team members to join agency-wide or other professional committees. She regularly looks for ways to remind people of the value of their work together.
- Take care of yourself. Even though she had family members nearby, Heidi was a bit lonely in her new town. And after a week of struggling to be relentlessly positive, she often felt like spending the entire weekend in bed watching old movies. Heidi knew that negativity can be contagious, and in order to inspire her team she needed to remain optimistic and energetic. So a key element of Heidi’s leadership philosophy is to find stimulating activities and build supportive relationships when she’s away from the office. As part of her program of self-care, she decided to act on her lifelong dream of horseback riding. She rented a horse housed near an indoor riding arena, and she takes lessons every Saturday.
Engaged employees need strong relationships and lots of communication with their managers. To launch an effort to energize your colleagues, consider a round of meaningful conversations.
For more tips on how to engage your team or rediscover your own enthusiasm at work, check out my new book Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO