employee engagement

Why Employee Engagement Doesn’t Work

If it wasn’t so funny, I’d probably cry.

For some time now, employee engagement has been the rage … the “in” topic, the flavor-of-the-month training program and the approach that’s going to save us all from ruin, destruction, and the competition.

And to make matters worse, many organizations take the Nike approach to employee engagement. In other words, they tell their supervisors and managers to, “Just Do It.”

Nice sentiment. Cute slogan. But woefully inadequate.

Employee engagement has never come about or even improved because someone said it was important and ordered it to take place.

So it’s no wonder I get so many emails from people every week asking me HOW they can go about engaging their employees.

And it’s no wonder so many people pull me aside at seminars and say, “I don’t care about all the fancy academic models on employee engagement. I don’t care about all the research. I already get that. Would someone just please, please, please tell me WHAT I can do to engage my employees?”

Well, actually I can. It’s the entire thrust of my program on The Power of Partnership: 7 Skills for Better Relationships and Stronger Teamwork.

To get you started down the path of employee engagement, here are seven strategies you can implement right now.

1. Reward the Doers.

Employees are very sharp. They know who is doing the work and who is just putting in time. So don’t recognize and reward everyone in the same way.

Larry Bossidy, Honeywell chairman, said, “If you reward equally, you will chase out the good players and keep the others. You will have a kind of socialism which is inconsistent with a performance culture.” By rewarding the doers, employees will be quite aware of whom and what is valued.

On the reverse side, do not praise ordinary performance. If you praise employees for doing routine tasks, they won’t be motivated to do any better. And if they do excellent work, your praise won’t mean as much.

2. Give Variable Recognition.

In other words, you don’t have to recognize every good thing your employees do. Indeed you shouldn’t. Some of the joy and satisfaction of a job well done should come from inside the employee.

So recognize, praise, appreciate, and encourage on an unpredictable time table. If your employees come to “expect” your recognition, it loses some of its motivational power.

In a similar sense, vary the recognition and reinforcement you give. You may say “Thank you” one time, give a small gift another time, and send a note on still another occasion.

3. Give What the Other Person Would Appreciate.

No one tries to be intentionally insensitive, especially when they’re involved in an employee engagement program, but it happens all too often.

I see it when the boss gives his employees tickets to a baseball game, but some of his employees couldn’t care less about baseball. I see it when a husband gives his wife a new TV set, but he’s the one who does most of the TV viewing. You’ve got to give what the other person would appreciate.

Lisa Whicker’s children didn’t understand that. While she was shopping with her three small children at the mall, a window display of lingerie caught her attention. As she pointed to a lacy teddy and matching robe, she asked her kids, “Do you think Daddy would like this?” “No way,” her horrified 6-year old son replied.

Give what the other person would appreciate.

4. Be Specific.

General praise has very little motivational power. If you tell someone, “Atta boy…Good job…Neat…Great…Wonderful,” she may think you’re just saying it. She may not believe or accept your words of recognition.

Wait for something specific to praise. Then describe exactly what you like about the other person’s performance. She will know that your specific comment applies to her and not just anyone. And she’ll know which behavior is being reinforced.

Let’s say you’re pleased with your employee’s handling of a difficult customer. Look at the difference between these two comments. General recognition might sound like this: “You did a good job with that customer.” The employee wouldn’t even know what she did right. She would have to guess. And that’s not effective employee engagement.

But consider how much more effective it would be if you said: “I liked the way you kept on paraphrasing what the customer was saying so he knew you understood him.” Such a comment would have a lot more credibility and it’s quite likely that the employee would repeat the same behavior with the next difficult customer.

5. Get Systematic About It.

Quite frankly, it’s easier to engage and praise some people than others and some weeks you have more time than others. But if you only recognized the “easy” people on the less “stressful” weeks, you’d be running a very sloppy haphazard engagement program that doesn’t come anywhere near to creating a peak performance work environment.

Get systematic about it. Make up a weekly to-do list on which you record all the names of people who report to you. Also record the goals you want your organization to achieve and the behaviors you want your people to exhibit. Then look for at least one thing each person does each week that fits those criteria — and praise it, recognize it.

Use the daily five coin method. At the beginning of the day, put five coins in your left pocket. Then during the day, look for ways you can praise your employees and each time you offer praise, transfer a coin to another pocket. Your goal, of course, is to transfer all five coins everyday so you develop the recognition habit.

6. Give and Engage Even When You Don’t Feel Like It.

Give when it’s not easy. Such sacrificial giving often brings the best results.

Cecil Osborne discussed that in his book, The Art of Understanding Your Mate. He discussed the case of a woman who told her counselor, “I hate my husband. I can’t stand him. I not only want to divorce him, but I want to make things as difficult for him as I can.”

The counselor wisely perceived something else was going on. So he said, “I have an answer for you. When you leave my office, I want you to go home and start catering to your husband’s every whim. Love him. Compliment him. Pamper him. Make life as easy and wonderful for him as you possibly can. Then when he gets to the point where he needs you and is flowering in the glory of your attention, file for a divorce. That will fracture him.”

The woman left, and for months the counselor did not hear anything from her. One evening at a social event, however, he saw her across the room. He asked, “I haven’t heard from you since we talked. Did you divorce your husband?”

“Divorce my husband,” she gasped. “I love my husband. I took your advice. Every bit of it. We’ve never been happier.”

The counselor’s strategy worked. When the woman gave when she didn’t feel like it, when she didn’t want to, when it wasn’t easy, the relationship improved.

The same principle applies and works equally well in an employee engagement program.


7. Give and Engage … Even Though You May Not Get Anything in Return.

That’s the very nature of giving. If you expect something in return, you’re not giving; you’re exchanging.

You may not get anything in return, at least for a while. You don’t go from a highly disengaged culture to one of high engagement overnight. It’s a process that takes time.

But it’s your spirit that counts the most in the beginning … like the spirit of one five year old boy who understood the principle of giving without getting anything in return.

His story was told by a hospital volunteer.

The volunteer said she got to know a little girl, a patient named Liz, who was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her five year old brother. He had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the disease.

The doctor explained the situation to her little brother and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. The boy hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it, if it will save her.”

As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, seeing the color returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale, and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?”

Being young, the boy had misunderstood the doctor. He thought he was going to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her. But he was willing to give even though he wouldn’t get anything in return.

Final Thought: Employee engagement is not only possible but probable … if you adhere to seven strategies.

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