One of the biggest challenges facing most leaders today is how to improve the current levels of employee engagement in their organization. Over the last few years, there have been numerous studies which have repeatedly shown that employee engagement levels continue to stagnate at the low end of the scale, impacting not only overall productivity, but also an organization’s ability to innovate and adapt in response to changes in the global economy.
It was certainly an issue that Alan* has been struggling with in his organization the last few years despite numerous attempts to try and improve the levels of engagement found in his workforce. As we sat in the conference room discussing the problem, Alan told me about some of the measures he’d taken – things like holding pizza parties and giving out company T-shirts and baseball caps.
And then in what could have been a scripted moment, Alan said with much exasperation: “I give them what they want and they still don’t seem to care!”
Now on any type of leadership score sheet, Alan would definitely rank as a competent and fair leader.
But through our discussions, it became obvious to Alan that a chasm that existed between what he perceived as what his employees wanted from him and the reality his employees face every day and what they needed from him to address it.
While we came up with a number of approaches that Alan could use to improve his understanding of what’s really required to improve employee morale in his organization, I want to share the following steps that I encouraged Alan to take – 3 key measures which every leader should be employing to ensure they understand what their employees need to be successful in their collective efforts.
1. Get out your head to understand the perspective of those you lead
When Alan started off our discussion talking about how he had organized pizza parties and given away free stuff to improve employee morale in his organization, I knew that he’d follow this up with that commonly expressed frustration of ‘giving employees what they want’ and not seeing it make a dent in building morale.
Of course, the reason why Alan’s response was expected was because he was making a mistake that so many leaders continue to make – of relying on their assumptions to guide what efforts they make to engage and empower their employees. From Alan’s perspective, he thought his employees were simply stressed and overworked and that all they needed was a little break at work to unwind and have some fun. And let’s face it – who doesn’t enjoy getting free stuff?
But the problem with Alan’s approach is that he was simply addressing the symptoms of what he saw and not the underlying causes that were outside of his perspective or field of view.
That’s why the first thing I had to help Alan with – and the first step that all leaders need to ensure they’re taking before moving forward – is to recognize how he needed to get out of his own mindset and reach out to his employees to understand what they saw as being necessary for improving conditions in their workplace.
As I told Alan, our brain is constantly looking out for shortcuts – of finding ways to do things with minimal time or effort, which is why we end up creating so many different habits to help us get through our day.
Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t necessarily pick the best route or the right one to take, but it’s often the quickest and at times the easiest. Now pair this up with how much more demand there is for our time and attention, and you got a surefire recipe for tuning out the perspective of others in order to simply get things done.
2. Connect what your employees do with what matters to them
Now that Alan had this greater awareness for how he needed to ensure he was being more attentive and aware of the perspectives and realities of those he leads, the next thing Alan needed to do was to understand what really matters to his employees – what drives them to be full contributors to his organization’s shared purpose? What would make them feel like their contributions are meaningful to their organization?
I pointed out to Alan that the reason his pizza parties and free T-shirt giveaways had minimal impact was because it wasn’t connected to what matters to his employees. Although it was certainly a nice gesture, it didn’t inform his employees of what matters to their organization – of how they can contribute in a manner that makes a difference and creates a sense of value not just for his organization’s customers, but for his employees as well.
It’s important to remember that we are all driven by a need to feel like what we do matters; that it helps to improve things or creates something beneficial for others. Clearly, the stress and disengagement his employees felt was in part due to a lack of clarity about how their efforts mattered beyond their impact on their organization’s quarterly earnings or the bottom line.
And that’s why I encouraged Alan to his new mindfulness to reach out and connect with his employees; to understand both their pain points and their insights on how they can do their jobs better, and thereby increase the value of their contributions to their organization’s shared purpose.
3. Demonstrate your commitment to connect and engage over the long term
This is perhaps the most important step because the last thing your organization needs is a leader who simply runs around putting out fires instead of making efforts to minimize these kinds of situations that can impair the overall productivity and engagement levels in your workforce.
That’s why after discussing what Alan could do to sustain these efforts over the long run, we came up with the idea of “15 on Friday” – a weekly meeting held every Friday where for 15 minutes his employees would meet with Alan in their break room to discuss whatever issues, problems or ideas they might have. To that end, Alan’s employees would not only be the ones who set the agenda, but they would also be the ones who lead these meetings.
By limiting these meetings to 15 minutes, his employees ended up taking the initiative to not simply show up to these meetings with a list of problems, but that they brought some ideas of what they could do to address it. And in particular, what additional resources or help they’d need from Alan to help put their plans into action to resolve or improve the issues they face in their day-to-day responsibilities.
This time limit also eased any pressure Alan might have felt to find time in his busy schedule for yet another weekly meeting, ensuring that he would be able to commit to this effort not just for a few weeks, but for the months ahead as he took into account the long view.
Thanks to these two simple measures, these “15 on Friday” meetings have become not only an outlet where Alan’s employees felt like they were being heard, but they’ve also become a way for Alan to connect with those under his care.
Additionally, these meetings have served to engender a sense of shared ownership in his employees for their collective efforts – something that Alan admits he’s actually grateful for as it’s encouraged him to delegate more responsibilities to his employees, freeing up more time for him to address those issues that he never felt he had the time before to deal with.
In a recent study, The Ken Blanchard Company found that while 70% of employees want to discuss with their boss their future goals and tasks, only 28% of leaders actually have these kinds of conversations with their employees. This same study also found that more than 80% of leaders don’t listen to their employees.
And this is exactly what Alan’s story reflects and exemplifies – of how in our attempts to address the increasing demands on our time, attention, and resources, leaders are neglecting one of the key functions of their role – that of being attentive and hearing what those they lead have to say, and what their insights, experiences and knowledge can inform us about making the best decisions and choices going forward.
In this light, it should come as no surprise that so many organizations continue to struggle with declining employee morale and engagement levels – so long as we fail to show up in those day-to-day interactions with our employees, we will continue to fail to create the right conditions to help our employees, and consequently our organization, to succeed in our collective efforts.