Talent Management

Increasing Employee Engagement: Empower Them to Make a Difference

Empowerment

Second of two parts

In the first part of this article (Increasing Employee Engagement: You Must Give First, Then Receive), we started off with Simon Senik’s admonition:

“If you want your employees to be completely devoted to you and your cause, you need to be completely devoted to them.”

We then began to explore what Jerry Bannach, President and CEO of Custom Disability Solutions, and his team did to foster employee engagement when he took the helm at CDS. Rather than exhort employees to show commitment and drive for results, he first focused on “embracing and then empowering” employees.

Today, we’ll continue to explore how Bannach and his team created an environment that laid the foundation for an engaged workforce. He went on to say how they made sure they did what many well-meaning — but busy and preoccupied — leadership teams know they should do, but don’t.

Laying the foundation for employee engagement

They followed up on each and every bit of feedback.

Bannach and his team were mindful of the important message conveyed when management responds to, rather than do nothing with, employee feedback:

The next step was answering each one of those items that they had spoken about and either correcting the situation or explaining why you couldn’t change the situation, or offering an alternative to the situation that might arrive at the same thing.

Every single item that came up out of that was addressed. As an employee population who saw that occurring, they really felt that they were being listened to. That’s probably one of the very first things when somebody feels valued is they feel they’re being listened to.”

When employees feel heard, when they feel their input makes a difference, they are obviously more likely to share their ideas and give their input in the future. They are more likely to care, because they see they make a difference.

Conversely, when employees get the message that their ideas and input do not matter — when they realize THEY don’t matter — they stop trying.

Avoiding “Learned Helplessness”

They develop what psychologists call “Learned Helplessness.” Learned Helplessness takes place when an individual — whether a lab rat or a human being — experiences helplessness in one situation and transfers that learning to other situations.

Whether it’s a lab rat being prevented from escaping a cage in which it’s being shocked, or a person being asked to solve unsolvable problems, feeling helpless in one situation can trigger individuals to not even try to solve problems or escape unpleasant situations in the future. They learn that “Nothing I do matters. I am helpless.

Employees with Learned Helplessness demonstrate passivity, waiting to be told what to do next. Rather than show initiative and solve problems on their own, they ask their supervisor to do that for them.

In today’s challenging world and unforgiving marketplace, where you need all employees to have a “Can Do” attitude, you cannot afford a workforce suffering from Learned Helplessness. You need people who believe they can tackle any problem and overcome any challenge.

Making sure your employees know that their voice does make a difference is one way to prevent Learned Helplessness.

Creating a supportive environment that energizes

According to Bannach, their process of “embracing” employees through giving them a voice, and listening deeply to what they had to say, is then followed, quite naturally, by using this information to support them.

“Support them” means both support their ability to do a great job through proper tools and training, but also, “support them” by creating a supportive, nurturing environment.

Rather than simply give edicts — “These are the results you will be accountable for delivering, now go do it” — he focused on asking the question “How can we help you do your best and be your best?

Notice the intention of creating a “nurturing environment.” Knowing how to create such an environment is essential if you want an inspired, energized, enthusiastic workforce. Knowing how to create a nurturing environment that energizes — rather than sucks the life out of employees — is especially important in customer service and sales, where performance is so closely linked to the emotional state and energy level of employees.

Empower employees to make a difference

While embracing employees may be necessary for achieving employee engagement, it is not sufficient. Employees must have the ability and the opportunity to make a difference before they try to make a difference. They must be able to experience mastery and excellence at their jobs if they are to feel confident and competent to tackle big problems and make a difference.

This is where “empowering” comes into play. For Bannach, empowering employees boils down to “trusting them to do their jobs.” It’s giving them the autonomy to think and act like they are the business owner of their position.

Bannach goes on to explain that along with this message of trust comes the message of accountability:

I’m going to treat you with the respect of an adult. I’m going to treat you like an adult and, as such, you’re going to be listened to, you’re going to be trusted, and at the end I’m going to expect you to be accountable for your actions.”

Thus, rather than communicating “We see you as a child who needs to be constantly supervised and told what to do,” Bannach consciously communicated to employees, “We see you as an adult, and as a competent adult, this is what we expect from you.”

Engaging The Law of Reciprocity

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Arizona State professor Dr. Robert Cialdini writes about how human beings are hard-wired to reciprocate. When people do nice things for us, we want to do nice things for them. Conversely, if someone doesn’t care about us, we are less likely to care about them.

Jerry Bannach’s approach to fostering employee engagement at Custom Disability Solutions demonstrates an awareness of this simple truth that many intensely goal-driven leaders can benefit from. If you “seek first to understand” and address the concerns and needs of your employees, the goodwill you demonstrate will come back to you in a workforce that cares far more deeply in you, your goals, and doing a great job.

In reflecting on how embracing and empowering precedes engagement, Bannach shared his viewpoint that you need a workforce that trusts the “embracer” and wants to be empowered.

While this is true, if currently your employees don’t trust management, this does not mean you cannot improve employee engagement. It does mean, though, that you need to precede the “embrace” step with an “acknowledge” step.

When working with management teams seeking to improve employee engagement or spearhead an initiative to make their organization a Best Place to Work environment, I recommend they openly acknowledge the things they’ve done in the past that would lead employees to be skeptical. This includes flitting from one Flavor of the Month management fad to the next, conducting employee surveys and doing nothing with the feedback, and allowing disrespectful behaviors to go unchallenged.

I also recommend openly encouraging employees to notice when they, the leadership team, both demonstrate their commitment to making these changes, and when they forget to  – call them on it.

For greater engagement, remember “Officers Eat Last

As you consider how you will go about increasing employee engagement, remember the U.S. Marines motto “Officers Eat Last,” and Simon Senik’s admonition:

If you want your employees to be completely devoted to you and your cause, you need to be completely devoted to them.”

For greater engagement, start by embracing and empowering your employees.

Give first, and then watch what you get back.

Did you miss Part 1 of this article? You can find it here at Increasing Employee Engagement: You Must Give First, Then Receive

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.