Best of TLNT 2017: 3 Factors for Improving Employee Engagement

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Nov 10, 2017

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 29 of 2017. You can find the complete list here.


People often ask me how a chemical engineer wound up in talent. The short answer is, like many people, I naturally gravitated towards human resources and talent development roles in the companies I’ve worked for because I wanted to make work a better place. But the more detailed answer is rooted in the surprising similarities between these two fields.

In engineering, when you have a challenge in front of you, the first thing you do is write down your assumptions. Then you start to draw a picture of potential ways of solving it.

The same goes for people development. First off, people aren’t problems. They’re opportunities. And when you look at a person, you should start off by asking, “What are our assumptions? What don’t we know? How do we use this opportunity?”

That sounds simple but it’s a bit more complex in the talent world.

The problem in talent today is that we don’t focus on engagement where engagement lives: on teams and with team leaders. We’ve been so focused on managing talent that we have overlooked how to activate talent – which starts with where work is actually happening.

The ADP Research Institute study Fixing the Talent Management Disconnect reveals that the number one reason people choose to leave a midsized company is due to a poor relationship with their direct manager. Further, the Gallup report, State of the American Manager estimates that 70% of variation in team performance is due to the team leader.

An IBM study found managers are the reason in only 14% of employee quits. See “Surprise! Most People Leave Companies, Not Managers.”

Let’s face it, people don’t always become managers because they want to lead others. Managing a team is frequently added to one’s responsibilities as they excel at their role and progress through their career. But people who are good at their job, aren’t always good at managing others so they need to be given the tools and education on how to better lead and engage their workforce.

In an environment where the economy is near full employment and organizations are fighting to recruit a small segment of available talent, it only makes sense to put additional emphasis on developing and engaging the skilled talent you already have. 2017 Gallup research shows that high engagement leads to 21% higher profitability, 20% higher sales, 70% reduction in safety incidents, and 24% lower turnover.

So, how do you start? It’s important to consider what engagement is. We define it as the conditions needed for people to do extraordinary work.  Here are a few tips to ensure your providing those conditions to help engage and retain your top talent.

Data is Vital

If you want to move the needle on engagement, first you have to know where the needle is. But what’s largely broken about the way we see engagement today is four things:

  • The right questions: Companies need to ensure the questions they are asking reveal if a team has the right conditions to be engaged.
  • The right time: Companies need to collect data frequently enough so they can keep a pulse in real time.
  • The right people: Companies need to put employee data in the hands of the people most able to make a difference – the team leaders.
  • The right actions: Companies need to help leaders know how to create highly engaged teams.

Centrally deployed, annual check-ins don’t give us the data to know how to make effective changes. CHROs and business leaders need to be brave enough to recognize and vocalize that their talent strategy might not be working, and then give their team actionable data that can work to boost engagement.

Don’t Avoid Check-Ins

Checking in regularly seems like it should be intuitive, right? Well, it’s tricky. Managers have been conventionally conditioned to tell people the 29 ways they’re broken. Nobody wants to do that, which is why managers might avoid checking in with employees altogether. Businesses need to stop their backward-looking approaches and instead create a forward-looking framework, agile enough to respond to work presently being done. This can happen in as little as 10 minutes a week and if you’re leading, it is the most important place you can spend your time.

Take Baby Steps

All of this might seem like I’m advocating for businesses to undertake a massive cultural makeover. In a way, that’s true. To measurably improve engagement, workplace culture needs to change. However, a cultural shift should be a byproduct, not the goal. We tend to think about cultural change as a big, hairy thing. We hear, “We’re on a five-year culture-change journey,” but by the time a company gets to the end, its culture has shifted so many times and nothing has really stuck. The take home message: think small. Think of getting those daily strength-based conversations going, and in turn, it will be ingrained in your company’s DNA. If you think at the team level, you’ll be surprised to see what happens organization wide.

What excites me about talent activation is when I actually see it happen with real people. The path to better business outcomes is your people. The answer to engagement doesn’t lie in a sexy-titled book or a pretty PowerPoint. It’s all about real people in the real world, doing more of their best work and going home just a little bit happier every day.