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To engage staff, create sense of ownership

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Gallup estimates the cost of disengaged employees globally to be about $500 billion per year.

The scramble for a quick fix is ongoing. On the frontline, employee engagement has proven elusive. What motivates millennials, who change jobs every three months? What engages career hourly workers who have been scrubbing the same floors for 15 years? These are the questions that haunt managers everywhere.

Some of the “straws” that have arisen: Starbucks gift cards. Pulse surveys. Receipt-based sales challenges. The problem is, frontline employees are not inspired by the prospect of a Venti Caramel Macchiato. A simple “how are you feeling today?” text is not going to unlock the keys to employee contentment. And nobody wants to waste time keeping track of ten sales receipts to prove that they sold more t-shirts than everybody else.

Not only are these “best practices” stagnating — they are actively preventing progress. Why? Because when a $20 gift card is dangled in front of an employee like a carrot in front of a donkey, the only thing created is disillusionment. It’s synthetic, inorganic and impersonal; it illustrates how employees’ priorities and feelings are completely opaque to their managers.

In the rush to determine why typical efforts aren’t working, businesses have forgotten to consider the most obvious answer: that frontline workers want exactly what any corporate employee does, which is to feel pride in their work.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks framed it, “There is no income level at which people are not desperate for meaning.”

It’s easy for white collar workers to self-audit. Professionals can look at sales metrics, analytics, bonuses and other tangible reinforcesrs.

But what about service workers? They typically don’t get bonuses. They aren’t considered important enough individually to justify analytics. And although sales challenges exist in the best environments, they are sparse and poorly managed. Instead, they rely on intangible feedback that is easily misconstrued by management and disenchants as much as it corrects.

Simply put, line employees do not “own” their performance in the same way that a corporate worker does. Often there is less brand identity, less pride and less feeling of personal responsibility for business results.

That ownership is the missing piece of engagement, and owners have the power to encourage it in two ways: 

1. Transparency. If your organization tracks performance data, make them public and accessible. Encourage managers to foster a culture surrounding these data, whether they’re sales numbers, guest satisfaction ratings or even social listening tool evaluations. Weekly leaderboards are an easy way to facilitate this. If your restaurant is not tracking any data now, start with the basics. POS tracking is an easy place to begin, and lends itself well to ranking. Some data stream, though, is critical to foster ownership.

2. Recognition. Knowing how one is doing is powerful, yet it also places expectations on leadership: namely, to acknowledge excellent performance with the kudos it deserves. Failure to do so will only disenchant workers. This recognition doesn’t have to have dollar signs attached; earnest celebration of accomplishment will always have more impact that external rewards like gift cards, because it is personal and organic. It is this sort of manager engagement that binds workers to a brand and instills pride.

It’s that easy. We care about what we own. When workers own their performance in a public forum, they care about that performance, and about the enterprise their performance is helping to support. With the right transparency and recognition, owners and managers can extend a sense of ownership throughout the ranks.

Ashish Gambhir is president and cofounder of MomentSnap, a mobile-based employee engagement platform.

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