There is an old fable about a tree that men would come from all around to try to cut down. For every swing the men took with an ax, the tree would only repair itself … and grow a little bit larger. Trying to fix employee engagement without fixing the institutional problems that cause it can have the same effect as attacking the tree with the ax rather than pulling it out by the roots; rather than a larger tree, however, the end result of your efforts will be more disgruntled employees and higher turnover.
To avoid an ever-renewing and ever-evolving employee engagement issue at your company - a problem that can turn into a time- and money-draining productivity shortfall - it's worth taking the time to analyze and treat the causes at the roots. We've identified five common factors that many organizations have had to come to grips with in kicking employee engagement up a notch. Could any of these factors be holding your team back?
Is your team structured? Do people know their roles, their reporting structure, their assignments? Or is everything more of a free-for-all?
"Keeping it loose" may seem like it would be more fun for all involved, but this kind of atmosphere leads to low productivity, infighting, and sometimes worse. Keep in mind that the lack of clearly defined and communicated goals and expectations is a top frustration of many employees. A study found that your employees feel more engaged when they have a clear understanding of what's expected of them, from whom, and the time parameters associated with their deliverables.
One easy way to remedy organizational disorder? Regular status meetings - both team and one-to-one - to check in on departmental and interpersonal goals. You say you don't like meetings? They don't have to be long; just long enough to stay on track - and maintain order.
Lack of Trust in Management
No matter how you look at it, employee engagement begins at the top. Organizational psychologist and employee engagement expert Dr. Bruce Katcher illustrates this principle by pointing to eroding trust in senior management as a leading cause of the overall decline in employee engagement. In fact, if you're in the top levels of your company, a survey revealed that 52 percent of the workers you manage simply don't believe a word you say.
The truly disturbing thing about this environment of distrust is that it's a Catch-22: Once your employees don't trust you, you tend to become less trusting of them, and the cycle self-perpetuates. Additionally, even if this sentiment is initially isolated, it can spread like wildfire from one cubicle to the next or one department to the next, until your entire operation is engulfed. And once trust has been eroded, it's very difficult to recapture.
How do you short circuit this terminal loop? Katcher advises that senior personnel must continually demonstrate their trust in employees until such time that employees feel they can reciprocate. Plus, it's imperative to be forthcoming with information. Nothing lowers morale faster than a rumor about earnings, mergers, downsizing, et cetera. Unless there's a very good reason not to communicate the information - say, one that involves attorneys - bring your employees into the circle and share both the successes and the failures with them. In the good times, you're reveling in the company's good fortune together; in the bad, you're deputizing them as fellow solutions-finders, on the trail of turning the tide. And whatever the case, share the news in person - nothing breeds distrust like a manager who hides behind a closed office door or a late-night email.
No Feedback Mechanisms
What do your employees really think about their jobs? No, really. Because if you don't know, experts suggest you should put mechanisms in place so they can let you know - and then you should listen to what they have to say and use their comments to improve employee engagement.
Look at it this way: It's physically impossible, especially as a senior leader, to be out on the front lines or functioning in every department of your company at one time. Those who are need to have a voice, whether that's funneled in confidentially or not (though that's generally most effective). Be prepared to set your assumptions and biases aside and take account of the insights you receive with regard to the issues your employees see with your company culture. See where the feedback you get validates your data and your feelings and where it doesn't, then be prepared to take action toward change.
Lack of Unity Among Workers and Teams
Too often, managers think that improving employee engagement just means throwing an office picnic, but that's not actually what we're talking about here. Lack of unity doesn't just mean an absence of bonding opportunities; in this context, it's more like each department has its own way of handling the same task, there's a lot of territorialism and no commonality, and the company is lacking in a common sense of purpose.
Sure, bowling night and bagels in the break room are good ways to break the ice, but they're not the best ways to build unity. Better strategies to build unity include investing in wellness programs and continuing education, having regular team and individual status meetings (see above), and scheduling programmed team activities outside of work.
Actively Disengaged Employees Dragging the Team Down
By now, you've gotten your middle-of-the-road stragglers back onto the bandwagon, reinvigorated and reinvolved with your company and your brand. What to make of the 16 percent of American workers who are actively disengaged?
First, according to Gallup, who has the definitive research on the subject, you should keep in mind that many employees who are not engaged want a reason to be inspired. If you've tried all the above tactics, ask yourself if the employee is doing what he or she does best, and if he or she has all the tools needed to do the job. Then, ask the employee. See if the two of you can come to a discussion on this subject that has positive action items that will excite the employee - action items that are motivational rather than punitive.
Attach a discrete time frame to these action items and see how your employee performs against these milestones. Be sure to check in frequently during this period to monitor his or her progress. If this effort works out, great - you've earned an engaged employee. If it doesn't, you've demonstrated to your other employees that you're willing to go the extra mile for their happiness, which is an invaluable lesson.
No one ever said that chopping down a tree by pulling out its roots would be easy, and as you can see, the fight to win the hearts and minds of your employees can be quite a challenge. The good news is that it doesn't necessarily require a huge budget, nor does it require a PhD in organizational psychology. What do you need? A heart for your team and their well-being, a pair of listening ears, an open mind, and a lot of patience. With all that on your side, you'll have no problem nurturing engaged employees - and they'll chop the tree down for you.