I Don’t Mean to Be Offensive, But Your Employee Engagement Stinks

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My husband likes to point out that every time I start out a conversation by saying “I don’t mean to be offensive…” I ultimately end up saying something that offends. So brace yourself, because I’m about to push your buttons.

I don’t mean to be offensive, but why don’t you do more to engage your employees?

In other words, why does your employee engagement stink?

Talking a good game

I know many organizations talk a good game when it comes to employee engagement, but how many of you actually walk the walk? According to the latest Towers Watson survey, not many. The study found that 63 percent of workers are not engaged and are struggling to cope with work.

That means that only 37 percent of employees are giving their all to your organization! What if only 37 percent of your products or services were at their best — would that be acceptable? I hardly think so.

So why is it that so many of you are OK with such an abysmal number? And why do you keep squeezing more out of an already overloaded team?

It can’t be because you don’t care. I mean, data is everywhere showing that higher employee engagement contributes directly to the bottom line, and every organization cares about the bottom line. So that leads me to believe then that perhaps you don’t know how to improve engagement.

Even rock icons know how to engage

I went to a Neil Diamond concert last week, excited to hear the legend. I expected to sing along to some songs, but I didn’t expect to be recruited to be a Neil fan – I thought I already was. But Neil knows better. He knows that his job at each and every concert is to engage his fans.

He came out on stage, told us that he has been playing that particular venue since 1971, and then proceeded to say “We want to earn your loyalty tonight.” Imagine after 40 years of playing a venue and 20,000 people paying big bucks to see his show, he walked out on stage with the goal of earning his fan’s loyalty!

What if your company had the same goal each and every day your employees arrived for “the show?” What would it look like at your company if your main goal was to earn the loyalty of your employees? My guess is that productivity would increase, engagement would skyrocket, customer service would improve, and turnover would plummet.

Neil Diamond knows how to engage people -- does your company?

Notice that Neil used the word “earn.” He knows that he doesn’t just get loyalty by showing up. He knows that it is going to require work on his part and he is transparent about it, just as we should be with our employees. He also knows that working hard and being transparent aren’t enough.

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He has had to craft just the right combination of words for his songs to energize the audience. He has to display passion for what he does and commitment to giving the crowd an unforgettable experience. Through his unique voice and authentic approach, Neil Diamond moves the crowd from being a group of independent strangers at the onset to “reaching out” and “touching hands” as they collectively belt out Sweet Caroline.

You should have the same goal. You should display the same passion and commitment.

You can create your own loyalty by putting together a winning talent management strategy that includes just the right combination of programs that speak to your employees and causes them to collectively sing along to the goals your organization is aligned around.

What’s an organization to do?

As I walked around the exhibit hall at a SHRM talent management conference recently, I was dismayed by the overwhelming emphasis on recruiting. I saw booth upon booth devoted to all of the activities that are important to successfully recruiting top candidates – sourcing, attracting, selecting, interviewing, and onboarding. And the reality is that over half of those people are going to leave their organization after one year. By year two, that number goes up to 76 percent!

If companies spent a fraction of their recruiting budget on activities that engage those employees, they wouldn’t have to spend nearly so much to bring new people in the door.

Here’s how to earn employee loyalty:

  • Understand what speaks to your employees. Just like some songs speak more to the crowd than others, some programs are more impactful than others. Do a needs assessment, survey, focus group, risk profile, whatever it takes, but find the things that inspire your employees to be their best and try them out. But don’t just create the programs on your own. Involve employees in crafting the solutions that are important to them.
  • Rethink job expectations. Stop overworking employees. How much of what is expected of a particular job is really critical to that role’s success? If the President of the United States can design his job so that he can be home in the evenings for dinner with his family, shouldn’t we be able to make our jobs work a little better to support our lives as well? Challenge each employee to eliminate 20 percent of their role to focus only on the things that matter while freeing up their time, energy and creativity.
  • Embed Work-Life into your culture. Make it a natural part of your culture to talk about both personal and professional goals. Move beyond a flex policy and truly embrace new ways of working that benefit both the employee and the organization. Build work-life into performance evaluation and career-path discussions so employees are making action plans for how they will “do it all” and avoid burnout every step of their career.
  • Focus on teams vs. individuals. Align teams so that the responsibilities of any particular job don’t fall solely on one person but rather are absorbed by a team of people that collectively accomplish their goals. Invest in team success by giving your teams tools to be more collaborative, aligned and productive.
  • Offer coaching. Build culture change through individual change. Help employees change mindsets and behaviors that get in the way of their success. Help managers open their minds to new ways of working. Help employees start thinking about how to “have it all” at an earlier point in their careers. Provide new parents with coaching that helps them think through short- and long-term career strategies and overcome self-sabotaging behaviors like perfectionism and guilt.
  • Innovate time off. Nearly everyone can drive hard when busy times demand it, but most of us have a breaking point when burnout is bound to set in. Restructure jobs to build in mandatory or optional breaks that provide relief and an opportunity to recharge. This might mean building in one week off for every three weeks of heavy travel, offering sabbaticals after six years of service, or mandating vacation minimums. Require leaders to role model behaviors that make it ok to rejuvenate.
  • Inspire your employees. The more leaders can connect with employees on a personal level, the more the employees will naturally show their loyalty. Communicate transparently. Involve employees in developing solutions to organizational problems. Build trust by giving trust. Paint a picture of the future that will inspire employees to not just show up, but rather inspire them to contribute their time and energy to something

Smart engagement strategies can work wonders on your recruiting costs. And smart organizations know that there is an investment they need to make in order to win their employees’ loyalty.

Sound like a lot of work? Sure, it can be. It takes time, energy and money. But the results are worth it — not just for your employees, but for the company’s bottom line too. Done well, it can bring 20,000 employees to their feet, cheering for an encore.

Teresa Hopke is senior vice president of Life Meets Work, a workforce innovation company. She partners with clients to discover new ways of working to improve employee performance and grow businesses. Hopke’s work has been featured in the books Battling to Be the Best and Innovation Excellence. Contact her at thopke@lifemeetswork.com .