How to Boost Employee Engagement: Part 1

We all know that employee engagement matters. Yet again and again, studies point to a pervasive lack of it (for instance, a recent Gallup report indicates that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged), as well as the incredible costs of this problem. No one can deny that disengaged employees are less productive, less innovative, less collaborative…less everything that leads to successful organizations. Yet, despite all the handwringing, no one seems to know what to do about it.

That’s not particularly surprising. After all, it’s not like companies have the money to spend on lavish perks or formal “engagement” initiatives these days, nor do busy leaders have the time to obsess over such matters. Everyone’s just trying to survive.

Well, here’s some good news. I know for a fact that 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?

I first tested this theory out when I was leading (along with my father and brother) Autopart International. (It was sold to Advance Auto Parts in 2005.) I knew that the key to our company’s growth and success was to have motivated, fulfilled, and inspired employees. I wanted everyone who worked for us to have great attitudes about their jobs. And after testing out a few “motivation plans,” I realized that—believe it or not—simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy day-to-day than big salaries and corner offices. Best of all, these things are free and usually easy to provide.

If you’re wondering what the catch is, it’s that you might have to put some work into changing the leadership habits that might be keeping your employees beaten down and resentful. 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 are three employee engagement strategies to help you get started. In my next blog post, I’ll describe five more.

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.

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. That’s 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.

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.

When I was at Autopart International and I saw that one of my people did something noteworthy, I made sure that everyone else knew about it by emailing the story to the entire chain. I could literally see the glow on the highlighted employee’s face for weeks, and I also noticed that many of the other team members began to work even harder in order to earn a write-up themselves. Other successful recognition strategies included writing thank-you notes to my employees and publishing a company-wide monthly newsletter highlighting our “stars.” During our best months, it might include everyone from upper management to drivers to floor and road salespeople, and was often over 30 pages long!

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. 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?

Also, never forget that mistakes are an essential part of growth. The innovation and creativity it takes to grow a business will be accompanied by setbacks and slip-ups. You don’t want to create an environment where people don’t take potentially productive risks because they’re afraid you’ll get mad if they screw up.

Be sure to check back for my next blog post, in which I’ll share five more employee engagement strategies that really work—and that won’t blow your budget.

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