We don’t need tons of research to tell us the importance of having employees who are engaged in their work. It shows up in a lot of different ways that we can see. The result of an engaged set of employees shows up when an employee goes beyond his call of duty to serve a customer or when a team gets formed organically to address some specific issue that has cropped up during the day.
It is no surprise either when that having such an engaged workforce can and does become a true competitive advantage.
This also means that in a world with transient competitive advantage, businesses that are able to build an engaged workforce, which is also agile, becomes one of the top priority.
However, a leader can not expect to get an engaged workforce as a default. We need to build such teams, one at a time.
As they say,
This is simple, but ain’t easy.
It is also not a one time process that you increase the engagement levels and it will remain there. One needs to work hard to raise the engagement levels and work harder to keep it at that levels.
Having said that it is not easy, it need not be too difficult either. If done for the right reasons, building engagement can be a lot of fun and is definitely the right thing to do.
Building an Engaged Team
Here are a few things that we as leaders can do to work towards building an engaged workforce:
Hire & Fire people for their Attitude.
The engagement starts right from the first contact with an employee. It is important that while hiring people, we give more importance to their attitude towards work and if this fits the kind of attitude we want to have towards work inside of our teams. While some basic level of skills are needed to perform any job well, most of us can be trained to skill up but its much more difficult to train for attitude. So, this means that we need to be slow to hire and be quick to fire (for attitude).
It is important that the issue of pay is taken off the table as early as possible. Pay the team well. If the business can afford, pay them better than your peers. If not, be creative and find different ways to compensate your employees (financially, psychologically, emotionally or physically). As long as employees think that they are not being compensated well, they can’t bring their whole self to work. Unless they bring their whole self to work, true engagement is not possible. So, take care of their compensation.
Respect & Trust:
Once the compensation is taken care of, then comes the emotional, psychological compensation. This is paid in terms of respect and trust. Respect to the different voices in the team, trust so that everyone feels it is ok for them to speak up, irrespective of what they are about to say. This is again something that one needs to give first in order to receive. So, as leaders, we need to respect every employees opinion and trust their judgement. We need to trust that they have the best interest of the team and the business in mind, irrespective of how conflicting they might sound to us in moments. We need to give the respect and trust in order to gain their respect and trust.
Train People for Skills:
We also need to constantly find ways and means to up-skill our teams. The cost of doing this is far less than the cost of not doing this. This need not break our balance sheets as there are a lot of different ways for us to continue to train people at low or even minimal costs. We need to be creative when it comes to learning. It is not sufficient to train people so they are able to up-skill, but equally important to find ways and means to create opportunities for the teams to put these learnings to use. It is only when something learnt is put to use, do we truly have the opportunity to internalise the learnings.
Culture or Stories: People like us do things like this:
Then comes the part that culture plays in building engagement. We need to be extremely clear in our communications about what is acceptable in our teams and what is not. What is expected and what is not. This can be done in three distinct ways that feed into one another and create an upward spiral.
The stories we tell: One of the most elementary trait that teams possess is their sense of identity – people on this team do things like this. Stories can be a very powerful medium to reinforce what behaviour is expected, appreciated and will not be tolerated.
Living the stories: As leaders, we not only communicate these stories but need to be living breathing examples of these stories. If we say that diversity of thought is important, do we allow and appreciate diversity of thoughts in our daily behaviours? If we shut out every voice that doesn’t agree with our vision and thoughts, we can forget about building any kind of engagement.
Rewarding the stories: Once our teams see that we truly live the values that we espouse and they start trusting us enough that they start living out the values themselves, we need to actively find these acts and recognise or reward them appropriately, in public. This gives others who are still on the edge confidence to come over to our side and start playing as a team.
Teams that have fun together are some of the most engaged teams. It requires us to let our guards down in order to really have a lot of fun. This only happens if we trust everyone around us. What this means, is that if we want to build engagement in our teams, we need to find ways and means to create the opportunity so that the teams can have fun together.
Listen & Engage
One of the most important criteria for engagement is that it is always two ways. We can not expect engagement unless we ourselves are engaged as well. What this means is that we need to know the pulse of our teams and are completely engaged with our teams and the work that we do together. This means that we are there for the team members when they need us – as friends, colleagues, managers or just another empathetic fellow human being.
We need to continue to look at the team and explore if they need anything that they themselves are not aware of yet.
Are they on the verge of a breakdown?
Are they having some difficulty in their personal lives that they need to give precedence to?
Are they in a phase of their lives, where spending more time at home with their families more important?
Are they in a phase of their lives, when they need to make a lot more money than they have in the past?
If we as leaders are able to find this and help them deal with these before they have to bring it up with us, we demonstrate that we are as much engaged, if not more and that each one of the team members matter to us.
Recognise & Reward:
As Ken Blanchard says in his legendary book – The One Minute Manager, we need to constantly look for behaviour that we can recognise and reward. Usually, we are looking for mistakes so we can punish people. Instead, if we are constantly on the look out for good behaviour that we can recognise and reward, we will find a lot more of them. The side effect of this is that every now and then there is a celebration in the air. This celebration creates opportunities for the teams to have fun together and revel in each other’s success.
Last but not the least, we need to set very clear expectations in terms of our goals. What I mean here is that it is better if we learn from the military and set a commander’s intent and constantly communicate the intent rather than having a very specific goal to gun for. Commander’s intent is a simple statement that tells us the objective and by when we want to achieve this objective. Every subsequent military leader then uses this commander’s intent to decide the best course of action on the ground so that the team can achieve the intent. This allows for the teams to bring in their full creative power to play and even change course as they see fit as long as they are operating in a way that suits our culture and takes us towards our objective. This is when true engagement can be seen in action.
Building an engaged team is not easy work. It takes a lot of intent, planning and an engaged leader who trusts his/her team.
Yes, it takes time and effort. But as I said earlier, it is simple but it ain’t easy.