Disengaged employees are bad for business: less productive, less innovative, less collaborative…less everything that leads to successful organizations. Yet, despite all the hand wringing, no one seems to know what to do about it.
But true employee engagement needn’t be expensive or difficult to implement. Engagement is really just another word for on-the-job happiness…and we intuitively know that happiness is connected to the simple things in life. So why not apply that principle to the workplace?
“Over the years, I’ve found that simple things like gratitude, respect and autonomy make people far more happy than, say, big salaries and corner offices,” says Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011). “Best of all, these things are free and usually easy to provide.
“Sure, you might have to put some work into changing the bad leadership habits that might be keeping your employees beaten down and resentful,” he adds. “But doing that work is worth it. It’s the cornerstone of a cultural change that will naturally and organically lead to better employee engagement.”
Here, Patkin shares eight inexpensive (or free) strategies that you can use to start transforming your workplace environment:
1. Catch people doing things right.
Everyone knows how embarrassing and stressful it is when the boss catches you doing something wrong. And for most employees, those negative feelings can linger (and impact performance) for hours, days, or longer. That’s why, if you don’t want your team to dread your presence in their workspace, you need to start each day with the intention of catching as many people as possible doing well. Not only can praise improve your employees’ perception of you, it’s also an incredible morale and motivation booster.
“People love to hear positive feedback about themselves, and in most cases, they’ll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments coming,” notes Patkin. “Why? Because praise, especially when it comes from an authority figure, is incredibly fulfilling. (And sadly, it’s also rare.) Phrases like, ‘Bob, I’ve noticed that you always double-check your reports for errors, and I want to thank you for your commitment to quality,’ or, ‘Sue, you always take such care to keep the file room neat. Thank you so much!’ take about five seconds to say, but they can pay long-lasting dividends for your company.”
2. Praise them publicly (and then praise them some more).
Even if they brush off praise or downplay their achievements, everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don’t stop with a “mere” compliment when you catch an employee doing something right—tell the rest of the team, too! Whether correctly or incorrectly, many employees feel that their leaders take them for granted and point out only their mistakes in front of the group, so make it your daily mission to prove that perception wrong.
3. Handle mistakes with care.
In business, mistakes are going to happen. You don’t have a choice about that. What you can choose is how you as a leader handle them—and by extension, what kind of impact they have on your company. Sure, lambasting an employee who has dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it’ll negatively impact that employee’s self-confidence, relationship with you, and feelings for your company for much longer.
“Don’t get me wrong: You shouldn’t take mistakes, especially those involving negligence, incompetence, or dishonesty, lightly,” says Patkin. “But when your employees have made an honest mistake, try to be as understanding with them as you would be with your own family members. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the employee feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. Did the employee (or the company as a whole) learn something? Should a process or procedure be tweaked going forward to reduce the chances of something similar reoccurring?
Help your employees grow
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4. Don’t be the sole decision maker.
Maybe you’ve never put much emphasis on the thoughts and opinions of your employees. After all, you pay them a fair wage to come to work each day and perform specific tasks. As a leader, it’s your job to decide what those tasks should be and how they should be carried out, right? Well, yes—strictly speaking. But Patkin says, this unilateral approach to leading your team sends the impression that you’re superior (even if that’s not your intent) and also contributes to disengagement.
“Employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine,” he points out. “Yes, you might get the results you want, but never more than that—and often, your team’s performance will be grudging and uninspired. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by seeking out their opinions, ideas, and preferences. They’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it. And here’s some good news that may surprise you: Your employees probably won’t care as much as you think they will if their suggestion doesn’t become reality. Mostly, they just want to know that their voice was heard by the people in charge.”
5. Help your employees grow.
As a leader, there’s a lot you have to deal with on a daily basis: meeting quotas, making sure procedures are followed, dealing with vendors, putting out fires. The list goes on (and on, and on). But no matter how full of “stuff” your plate may be, don’t lose sight of the fact that a crucial part of leadership is developing your people.
“Ultimately, the success or failure of your business depends on the people who show up each day to do the work,” reminds Patkin. “So place a strong emphasis on developing them. Get to know each member of your team and give each person progressively more autonomy, authority, and responsibility when they show they can handle it. When they feel challenged and know that their talents are being utilized, your employees will be more engaged. And whatever you do, avoid micromanaging, which can give employees the impression that you don’t trust them or have faith in them.”
6. Remember that business is personal.
The truth is, people don’t care how much you know (or how good you are at your job) until they know how much you care. Your employees will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions. For instance, if you know that one of your servers has a daughter who’s applying to college, ask him which schools she’s considering. Or if the chef just came back from vacation, ask to see a few pictures.
“Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know,” confirms Patkin. “When you dare to ‘get personal,’ your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket. That’s why, when I was leading my family’s company, I took advantage of every opportunity I could think of to let my people know I was thinking about them. I recommended books I thought they might enjoy. I sent motivational quotes to employees who might appreciate them. I attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations I was invited to. And you know what? Not only did I fuel my employees’ engagement…I also formed a lot of meaningful relationships that continue to this day.”
Re-recruit your best people
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7. Make it a family affair.
Whenever possible, engage your employees’ families in a positive way. In addition to holding contests with family prizes and inviting loved ones to company celebrations, make sure that your team members’ families know how much they’re appreciated by your company. Having a leader validate all the hours each employee spends at work will be remembered far longer than a bonus (really!). Plus, when spouses and kids know what Mom or Dad does at work and are “on board” with it, your employee’s performance will be buoyed by support from the ones he or she loves the most.
8. Re-recruit your best people.
Since the buck stops with you, it can be tempting to focus the bulk of your help and encouragement on your lower performers. While it is your duty to help your weak links move up in (or out of) your organization, don’t allow them to distract you from your most valuable players.
“Actually, your efforts are best spent with your top people,” Patkin asserts. “Just think of how much more impressive their already-great work could be with some more encouragement and guidance. Also, think of how far back your team would slide if these MVPs decided to hand in their notice and work for the competition. You should go as all-out in ‘re-recruiting’ your top people as you would in attracting new talent. At Autopart International, I regularly thanked my top performers and gave them tickets to concerts and sporting events, gift certificates to restaurants, etc. in order to show the depth of my appreciation. And considering what it would have cost in turnover to attract and train suitable replacements, well, I never considered those expenses to be anything other than money well spent.”
“If there is one thing I would like to tell all leaders at all levels and in all industries, it’s that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain—including an improved bottom line—by making your organization as happy a place to work as possible,” concludes Patkin. “While a lack of employee engagement is certainly a costly problem, its solution doesn’t have to be.”