How “Employee Engagement” Really Works
As we laid out in a previous post, “employee engagement” simply means getting your people to truly care about the company and their work. Done right, it has a huge impact on their productivity and your profit. The degree to which they care is determined by their answers to three questions that everyone in every company subconsciously asks themselves all the time:
- Why should I be proud to work here?
- How do I contribute?
- Is this a good place to spend half my waking hours?
How your people answer these questions is entirely in your control. Let’s take them one at a time.
What Tribe Do I Belong To?
Human beings crave belonging. This is an evolutionary gift from our earliest ancestors, for whom tribal membership meant survival. For us it means identity, community and the confidence that comes from knowing others are there to help us, just as they need us to help them.
We also need a reason to be proud of the tribe we belong to. After all, no one wants to be part of a losing team, much less an irrelevant one.
One way to define your tribe is by completing the sentence “We are the tribe that __________.” Here’s how several of our clients completed it:
- . . .Makes steel do things no one else in the world can make steel do.
- . . .Does the job right (no good/better/best for us; we only do best).
- . . .Is going to run the table (we will dominate our industry).
- . . .Lives to create “converts” (this is about customer loyalty, not religion).
Can you complete that sentence in a way that would help your people see clearly what they’re part of and why they should be proud of it? If you can, they’ll work much harder.
How Do I Contribute?
We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Being part of a tribe we’re proud of gives us that. But unless we also know that we contribute to the tribe in a meaningful way, it’s a hollow victory. Being an anonymous benchwarmer on a winning team is an incredibly demoralizing experience.
Everyone in your company contributes in some meaningful way. Otherwise, why are they there? For your people to truly care about and take pride in their work, you need to make sure every one of them can connect the dots and see how what they do every day helps the tribe.
Is This a Good Place to Spend My Days?
Helping your people feel that they’re part of something special and helping them know how they contribute to it is what gets them to care. Allowing a work environment that is “psychologically unsafe” is the surest way to get them to stop caring and run for cover. Sadly, this happens all the time.
The neuroscience behind psychological safety is fascinating and extensive—too much to go into here. It boils down to the fact that when the primitive part of your brain perceives a potential threat, even a mild one, it puts you into fight-or-flight mode. When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your brain is busy trying to keep you alive. When that happens at work, it’s biologically impossible for you to focus on your job and do it well.
This is subconscious and instantaneous. You can’t stop it. What you can and should do is get rid of the artificial, self-created “threats” your people see. Fear-inducing behaviors include showing no interest in people’s lives outside of work, micromanaging, keeping company goals and plans secret, assigning blame and playing favorites. We see these behaviors all over the place, mostly because managers have never been taught or held accountable for NOT doing them.
To be clear, this is not about coddling weak performers. It’s about making sure strong people, which is who you should have, are able to help you achieve things you could never accomplish on your own. There are plenty of real threats “outside the wire” where the enemy is. Choosing to focus our energy there keeps us cohesive, strong and productive.
This is the story of employee engagement—what you have to do to create it and what you have to manage in order to keep from losing it. A little blind faith—when you get this right, you won’t need an engagement survey to tell you. You’ll feel it when you walk in the door and you’ll see it in your results.
If you’d like some help getting there, let us know. We’d love to show you how.