Employee Engagement? Sometimes, It Requires Acts of Courage

Employee engagement is not for the timid.

Assessing and improving employee engagement requires courage from leaders and employees at every level — and that can be a challenge for some organizations.

If you are working to establish a culture of engagement at your organization, keep in mind that you’ll need to start by fostering a culture of courage from the CEO down to frontline employees to ensure it’s effective.

Courage from leaders

Don’t ask questions about employee engagement if you’re not ready for the answers you might receive. It takes great courage to ask employees how they feel about working at your company — but you can’t stop there. If you’re going to ask employees for feedback, you must also be ready to:

  • Receive it — When your employee engagement efforts are authentic, your employees will answer questions honestly and may tell you things you might not want to hear — or you’ll be surprised to learn. Prepare yourself.
  • Honor it — You’ve asked employees for their feedback, now thank them for it and show them they’ve been heard. Keep the interaction respectful and make it clear that you value their input.
  • Respect it –– Any feedback you’ve received is worthless if you don’t do something with it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have made all the changes employees want; it does mean that you have to show how you’ll leverage their input — or what you’ll do instead, and why.

Doing these three things helps establish respectful, productive conversations between company leaders and employees.

London Business School Professor Lynda Gratton has written about the importance of building adult-to-adult relationships in the workplace — having meaningful, two-way conversations where both sides respect ideas and opinions and share their opinions in a truthful and upfront way — and this is essential.

Too often, though, relationships in the workplace more closely resemble an adult-to-child relationship because leaders don’t honor and respect what they hear from employees, which leads to apathy and cynicism in the ranks. You’re all adults at your organization, so have the courage to ask for, receive and implement feedback — the way adults do.

Courage from employees

In an employee engagement process, employees must be willing to share their true thoughts and feelings about their work and the company.

If they don’t share honestly, it’s difficult to make improvements. Employees must ask themselves if they’re willing to speak on their own behalf, or if they’ve given up their voices.

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Employees may feel that the fear of loss outweighs the potential for any gain they might make by being honest. If your company’s leaders have been punitive or dismissive of employee opinions in the past, or previous employee surveys asked for honest opinions that were then ignored, employees may feel they have nothing to gain by providing thoughtful, honest answers.

How to foster courage

Trust is earned in small steps. Leaders that wants to change a company’s culture and foster courage among employees shouldn’t over-promise something they’re not used to delivering.

When you make changes based on what employees have told you, communicate with them about what you’ve done — and then communicate it again. Show them their opinions and ideas are valuable, and that the organization is willing to implement them when possible.

Employees, for their part, should continue to ask about engagement efforts and improvements, and what role their feedback plays in any changes. As company leaders continue to show that honest and productive feedback is honored, employees will provide more of it.

As the adult-to-adult conversation continues, leaders can look for ways to establish a platform where employees can share their ideas and leadership can highlight changes that have been made. This two-way channel of communication can effectively and efficiently boost employee engagement — all it takes is a little courage.

Chris Powell is the CEO of BlackbookHR, a software company on a mission to create more engaged and connected workplaces and communities. He previously served as executive vice president of human resources for Scripps Networks Interactive (HGTV, DIY, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel, et al.), as vice president of human resources for the global financial services company ING, and in various corporate HR roles at Marriott International.

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