Moving Employees Up The Engagement Scale

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

Using the definitions in my last post, where are your employees on the “transactional-to-engagement scale” on a scale of 1 to 100? Assume 1 represents a completely self-absorbed employee (think Jack Nicholson in The Shining) and assume 100 represents an employee sent to earth for the sake of the rest of us.

When I poll managers and executives during training programs, most scores fall in the 40 to 60 range, with 10 and 90 at the extremes. When I ask the follow-up question—can your score improve and, if so, would it be beneficial—invariably the answer is “yes.”

If you feel the same way about your employees’ scores, start with the fundamentals—the engagement level of your managers. Are they transactional? “Do what I tell you, and that’s how you get paid.” Or are they engagement? “We’re in this together.”

To move your management team up the transactional-to-engagement scale, consider the following seven steps:

(1)        Understand What Engagement Employees Need

Paradoxically perhaps, engagement employees are more demanding than transactional ones. Both want to be paid. However, engagement employees also want: (a) a sense of purpose, (b) the opportunity to make a difference—to improve and grow, and (c) recognition that they add value. Engagement managers understand this and seek to create conditions that will meet these needs.

(2)        Focus on Why, Not How

To have a sense of purpose, employees need to know what’s really important. This means emphasizing the “why” versus the “how” or the “what” (i.e., the reason the job matters to the organization versus the mechanics of doing that job). If you want to maximize an employee’s talent, energy, and skill, connect every performance-related conversation to the organization’s big picture. In addition, give the employee room to suggest and implement alternative “hows” & “whats” that may better accomplish the “why.”

(3)        Use Consultative Decision-Making

Unfortunately, many managers are still locked in the world of Command & Control: “My job is to give the orders; yours is to follow them.” True engagement won’t happen with this approach. Try a different one: “I have a decision to make but first want your recommendation.” If you follow the employee’s recommendation, give him or her credit (even if you’d already thought of the idea yourself.) If you don’t follow the recommendation, let the employee know, explain why, and thank the employee for having spurred your thinking.

(4)        Give Direct Recognition

What’s a sure sign of a transactional boss? “Why should I praise my employees for doing their job? That’s what a paycheck is for.” These managers miss what behavioral scientists and engagement managers already know—direct recognition of a behavior produces more of the same. Engagement employees need to feel “my boss values what I do.” They won’t get that feeling if they have to guess.

I’m not suggesting a pat on the head or a generic “great job.” Rather, point out the specific behavior and its beneficial results. For example, “I appreciate how you kept your cool with Customer X and stayed focused on solving the problem without becoming defensive. That’s exactly what we need in Customer Service.”

(5)        Provide Forward Feedback

Whether formal or informal, performance feedback should be framed in future terms. Look primarily through the front windshield, not the rearview mirror. What do past actions and results tell us about how we can be successful in the future? All feedback involving past behavior, whether positive or negative, can be framed in forward-looking terms. “Here’s what happened …. Here’s why it matters …. Now here’s what we can learn that will help us going forward.”

(6)        Have the Courage to Discipline

Numerous executives have lauded Jim Collins’s bus metaphor in Good to Great—get the right employees on the bus and the wrong ones off. Yet, when I’ve asked executives what they’ve since done, they acknowledge having made little, if any, progress, especially when it comes to getting the wrong employees off the bus. It’s so much easier said than done.

Bringing an employee to an “up or out” crossroads takes courage, perseverance, and smarts. Most managers shy away from the crossroads even when the gap between expectations and employee behavior is measurable, substantial, and important. Among the prices paid are lowered engagement levels of other employees. To appreciate this point, ask yourself if you’ve ever had to work with an employee whose sub-par performance or toxic attitude was tolerated by management? If you answer “yes,” what did that do to your engagement level?

Subsequent blog posts will address the “smarts.” The key point here, however, is that if you’re truly committed to having an engaged workforce, from time to time, your job will include discipline and discharge.

(7)        Get to Know Your Employees 

Engagement employees need to feel that they matter as human beings. What are you doing to reinforce that feeling? What do you know about them, their families, interests, and aspirations? Have you engaged with them as people or as automatons plugged into your grand design? If you’re from the school of “keep business separate from personal,” I’d encourage you to reconsider. If it helps, think of getting to know your employees as a way to improve human capital return on investment in two ways: (1) you get a higher return from engaged subordinates, and (2) your company gets a higher return from you.

Jathan Janove is the managing shareholder in the Portland office of Ogletree Deakins. Follow Jathan on Twitter.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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