Increasing Employee Engagement: You Must Give First, Then Receive

123RF Stock Photo
123RF Stock Photo

First of two parts

In his EO Alchemy 2011 talk, Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action reported the response he received during his interviews with members of the U.S. Marine Corps about what made it such a remarkable organization.

He said one succinct response summed up the ethos best: “Officers eat last.”

Sinek went on to say: “If you want your employees to be completely devoted to you and your cause, you need to be completely devoted to them.”

His observation reminded me of the many conversations I’ve had with frustrated leaders who wondered why their employees didn’t seem to care. It reminded me of Human Resource professionals asking for tips on improving employee engagement.

If you want them to care, make sure you care

Sinek’s take-away message also reminded me of the many interviews I’ve done with frustrated employees.

It reminded me of story after story from employees who cared deeply about doing a great job, but felt their boss didn’t care about doing their part to facilitate the employee doing great work. It reminded me of how often employees reported feeling like their boss and their employer didn’t care about them, so why should they care about their boss or employer?

His message also reminded me of an interview I did a while back with a leader who helped turn around an organization because he first showed employees he cared about them before asking them to care about him and his goals.

Cracking the employee engagement code is on most employer’s minds — and for good reason, given the abysmal employee engagement levels globally. To increase employee engagement, leaders would be wise to consider first how they can build a solid foundation upon which employee engagement can then be built.

Embrace, empower, and engage

According to Jerry Bannach, president of Custom Disability Solutions, a Maine-based company, before you can expect engagement from your employees you must first give to your employees. More specifically, in his words, leaders must first embrace, then empower their employees if they expect to engage them.

I had heard about Jerry Bannach from a Custom Disability Solutions employee, Rachel Narvaez, who talked about him at an association meeting. Hearing the way she talked about him, made me want to interview Bannach about his philosophy of leadership and inspiring employees. So we met to talk about his philosophy and how he cultivated a culture of engagement at Custom Disability Solutions when he came on board in 2006.

When asked about his approach to creating a strong, positive culture that fosters employee engagement, Bannach noted that his approach to cultivating employee engagement was first to, “embrace” employees, and then “empower” them.

What does he mean by “embrace?”

Bannach defines “embracing employees” as communicating that you value them.

…and part of valuing them is showing them recognition. You show them that you’re listening to them; you give them a chance to have a voice through that listening….a true voice that is appreciated and respected.

You listen to what they want to have here in an organization.”

Notice the clear recognition that you need to give to get.

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If you want something from employees — such as greater engagement, more commitment, or simply more productivity — you need first to focus on how you can serve them. It’s like Steven Covey’s “Seek first to understand.” If you want people to listen to you and understand what you’re saying, you need first to listen and understand what they are saying.

Notice that he also stresses sincere listening, not the perfunctory “ask employees for feedback” sessions that result in zero change.

Results without caring crushes enthusiasm & commitment

Often hard-driving results-driven leaders focus so much on meeting their numbers and their goals, they forget the people part of the equation. They forget the people helping them achieve those goals are human beings who want to feel valued. The people they are driving for results want to feel like they matter as individuals and as human beings.

With this self-absorbed “This is what you must do for me” attitude, these leaders inadvertently prevent the very thing they want and need: employees who care about helping them achieve their goals.

Because they focus primarily on themselves and their needs, leaders with this mindset foster an environment that triggers the same attitude in their employees. Their attitude creates in their employees a disengaged, disinterested “If you don’t care about us, why should we care about you?” response.

Recognizing that we get back what we first give out, Bannach didn’t start off by exhorting his people to meet their critical business goals and drive for results. Instead, he focused first on giving: giving of his time, concern, interest, and desire to serve.

A “speak you mind and we’ll listen” philosophy

There was a twist to Bannach’s approach to asking for employee input that was different from what has often been seen— by me and others — as a best practice when asking employees for input and feedback. Notice his approach and the extra dose of “your voice is welcome” it provides:

You listen to their ideas with the perspective that they don’t have to provide solutions to the issues they may raise or the problems they identify. They just need to identify them. If they have solutions, that’s great.

This philosophy sort of goes counter to, “Well don’t be whining about things.

When we first started CDS, we had what we call “green-lighting” sessions where we allowed them to say anything they wanted. I was very adamant about not having that, “If you don’t have a solution, don’t talk about it.

That didn’t make sense because if somebody was to identify a problem, an issue or something that needed addressing, and they couldn’t think of a proper solution, why stop that person from identifying that? It made no sense to me. So it was a complete open, “Speak your mind and we’ll listen” organization.”

Tomorrow: In Part II, we’ll explore what Jerry Bannach and his team did to avoid creating Learned Helplessness, how they worked with the Law of Reciprocity, and what you can do if your organization has a history of flitting from one Flavor of the Month management fads to another, and have a skeptical workforce because of this.

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," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at