Advice for Leaders: Ten Ways to Avoid Disengaging Your Employees

I would like to start this piece by saying that I am truly passionate about employee engagement. I believe a positive employer/employee relationship can be so mutually rewarding that it makes perfect sense to strive for it. Countless studies have shown the correlation between an engaged workforce and an organization’s overall performance.

Unfortunately, there is so much information floating around concerning this topic that it can be difficult for leaders to ascertain HOW they can effectively capture that elusive employee engagement mojo and put it to work in their own organizations.

What’s worse, many executives, managers, and organizational development professionals have an entirely unrealistic and pretty creepy idea of what employee engagement actually is. I call it the Stepford Employee Fallacy. An “engaged” employee is expected to wake up and skip into work every day with a smile so big that their facial muscles cramp up and cheerily exclaim: “Hi! How are you?! Are you engaged?? I sure am engaged!! Oh boy! Oh gosh gee golly willikers! I love my job! I love this company! I’m ready to give 110% today JUST because I’m getting a paycheck! :)”…. Guess what? It doesn’t work that way. And it never will. This over-the-top example is meant to illustrate that employees simply don’t think that way. Employees don’t engage themselves; leaders engage employees… Leaders can also DIS-engage employees.

I personally don’t believe the concept of true employee engagement is very well understood (because the commonly accepted definition implies that employees engage themselves), nor do I agree that it is separate from employee satisfaction. Employees’ dedication to and involvement in their company has everything to do with how happy they are with their company, their management, their compensation, and their career. There’s also the other part of the equation: the amount of effort leaders exert to facilitate that satisfaction. With that said, I’d like to introduce a list of rules that I, in my humble opinion, can tell you will foster a culture in which employees at least WANT to do their best work.

Advice for Leaders: Ten Ways to Avoid Disengaging Your Employees

  1. Don’t be evil – Yes, I totally stole this from the Google playbook, but it is so true. Really, it boils down to treating your employees with respect and dignity. Treat them how you would like to be treated. Treat them like human beings, not like human capital. Employees are not capital. They are not line items on a balance sheet. They are unique individuals with hopes, dreams, strengths, fears, weaknesses, mortgages, hobbies, quirks, etc. They also have brains and they can tell when they are being treated unfairly. All the dirty little tricks and traps that companies use – make illegal firings appear legal, manage employees out, force them to sign away their legal rights, sabotage their careers, or otherwise behaving in an unethical (for lack of a better word, sleazy) manner – are downright evil. And employees know about them. And they will hate you for using them. And…..get ready for it…..they will never be truly engaged.
  2. Don’t give them a reason not to trust you – Once you’ve lost the goodwill of your employees, it is nearly impossible to get it back. This is almost an extension of rule #1. If you wear a fake smile and tell them that they are valuable assets to the company while cutting benefits, freezing salaries, laying off their coworkers, doubling their work load, and basically talking out of both sides of your mouth, then they will never trust you. Be fair. Be honest. Be transparent. Be realistic. Be willing to put your employees’ interests before your own from time to time. A leader who has the trust of his or her followers will have a much easier job of actually LEADING – something I would think is a no-brainer.
  3. Pay them well – I don’t care if your current market share is pathetic and your stock price history looks like a ski slope. Pay your employees well or, at the very least, pay them fairly. Office pot lucks, cheesy contests, and silly tokens of appreciation do not make up for unfair compensation. If you pay your employees less than what your competitors (big and small) pay, they will jump ship. Trust me. Pay should not be a mysterious and secretive topic with employees. (Sidebar: dissuading or punishing employees who talk openly about pay is illegal and will land you in hot water with the National Labor Relations Board). If you pay below market average salaries and threaten employees who talk about it, guess what you get in return? A workforce of fully engaged employees who put in 10 hours of hard work every day with a big ol’ smile on their faces? Nope! Janet Yellen (our Federal Reserve Board of Governors Chair) and her husband wrote a piece back in the 90s called the ‘Fair Wage-Effort Hypothesis’. They posited that “workers proportionally withdraw effort as their actual wage falls short of their fair wage.” Words of wisdom!
  4. Don’t rely solely on employee surveys to measure employee engagement levels. These survey results are not necessarily accurate. Why? Because many employees honestly believe management can tell who wrote what survey answers and that they would face retaliation for expressing any negative views whatsoever (See #2). So what do they do? They don’t complete the survey. Or they only write positive answers. Instead of relying on a one-way instrument, talk to your employees. If you have an “open door” policy, then allow employees to voice their concerns without labeling them complainers and sticking them on the company blacklist. Make it clear that you have a zero-tolerance policy for retaliation against employees who want to improve their work lives. Maybe fire some managers/supervisors who are notorious bullies to get your point across.
  5. Respect work/life balance – If you say you have a work/life balance at your organization, you better show that you mean it. If an employee misses his son’s soccer game five weeks in a row because he simply doesn’t have the time to complete all the work you gave him, that’s not a work/life balance. And “work smarter” is not an acceptable response to that situation. “Work smarter” is an insulting platitude, especially when directed at knowledge workers. If you discipline or even fire an employee because she has to take a few days off to care for her sick daughter, you aren’t really championing a work/life balance (and, quite frankly, you’re a terrible person). Have a generous time off policy. Don’t discipline employees for taking sick days. We all get sick, have loved ones who get sick, or simply need a mental health day. Would you rather have a well-rested, productive employee, or a stressed out, resentful employee? Despite the common belief of workaholics and people who enjoy only getting 4.5 hours of sleep every night, the 40 hour workweek is still alive…barely. Taking it off life support will only disengage and utterly burn out your workforce.
  6. Realize that an employee’s direct supervisor has a MAJOR impact on his or her engagement – Direct supervisors have the power to make their subordinates’ lives absolutely miserable. Be very careful about promoting people to management positions and watch them like a hawk if you receive any complaints about them. Is it a bad thing to undermine the authority of your managers who have direct reports of their own? Not necessarily. Not if that manager/supervisor is creating such a toxic work environment that employees would rather drive off a cliff than drive into the office parking lot come Monday morning. Make a leadership development curriculum mandatory for anyone moving into a managerial position and hold them to a very high standard for engaging their employees.
  7. Don’t expect peak performance from employees if your technology doesn’t work – As leaders, it is your responsibility to provide the tools for your employees to do their jobs. If a certain technology platform isn’t working, then you need to involve the employees who utilize it in determining how it can be fixed or replaced. I say that employees who use the technology should be involved because they have the most intimate knowledge and experience as to how it affects their jobs. Telling them, instead, that they still need to meet their key performance indicators is a sure-fire way to disengage the workforce right quick. That’s like a track coach telling his team that they now have to run in flip flops, and if they don’t maintain their average times, they will be cut from the roster. That isn’t just demoralizing, it’s downright atrocious leadership. Employees should not have to suffer the consequences of a poorly planned and executed technology solution forced upon them by higher ups trying to bolster their own egos as “innovators”.
  8. Work with your employees individually to find out what makes them tick – Make sure to ask employees individually what you can be doing to engage them. Public recognition? Opportunities for rewards? Interesting or high-visibility stretch assignments? Flexible hours? Job enrichment? Every employee is different, even those who belong to the same age group. Don’t assume that all generational stereotypes are true, so try to view each member of your team as a unique person who has the ability to be a star performer if you can find out what really drives them. Train supervisors to take this approach and drive home the expectation that they should have regular discussions with employees, not just during annual review time. Employees will appreciate that their leaders have a genuine…GENUINE…interest in how to help them succeed.
  9. Get your hands dirty and be willing to help your employees if they are experiencing productivity or efficiency bottlenecks. I am always impressed when I go to a restaurant and I see the manager bussing tables, or dropping off orders, or mopping up a spill. Picking up the slack when there is simply too much work to be done sounds simple enough, but it sends a powerful message to employees. They won’t think that you see yourself as too important to carry out the more menial organizational tasks; they’ll see you as a member of their team who is willing and able to pitch in when needed. They will also be much more likely to return the favor.
  10. Onboarding and continuous training should be concrete pillars of your culture– Once you have attracted talent, you need to have a robust onboarding experience to introduce them to the organization, its mission, culture, values, inner-workings, and goals. Make visibility and accessibility of senior leadership a critical part of this process – hold road show presentations, in-person classroom sessions, or informal luncheons. Be creative and sincere in welcoming new employees. This will set the tone (good, bad, or indifferent) for the start of their jobs. Once they’ve actually settled in, train them. Have formal training sessions, require supervisors to work with them one-on-one, arrange for job shadowing. Employees who are confident in their roles because they have received substantial, meaningful training will be far less likely to feel disengaged. Finally, training should not end after an employee has been on the job for a few months. Encourage (and offer!) training in areas of interest or need, then give people the chance to showcase what they’ve learned.

So there you have it: my take on employee engagement. Even considering all I wrote above, I do not believe there is a silver bullet that will magically turn employees into high-performing, brilliant robots with attitudes so positive that they leave rainbows in their wake as they exit the office at 8:00 pm every night. As I’ve said, it just doesn’t work that way. Employees are human beings. They have good days and bad days. They  have personal problems that don’t go *poof* and disappear when they walk into the office. They might not enjoy the work they do all the time or even most of the time and a job may only just be a “job” to them. But if you treat them ethically…if they trust you…if they have a good relationship with you and they honestly believe they work for a good organization, then they will give you your money’s worth (and maybe even more).

Posted in Uncategorized.

Leave a Reply