Employee Engagement: You Have to Give It to Get It!

The following is a Q & A with a human resources expert, Christopher Demers, SPHR. I think you’ll find his feedback spot-on!

How to engage employeesWhat’s the price to pay for a company or organization that lacks employee engagement?

Dollars and cents. In HR we like to talk about engagement and leadership and vision as if they were enough in and of themselves simply because they represent something “good.” Our leaders typically don’t see it that way, and they shouldn’t. They see dollars and cents measured in revenue, costs, mistakes, customer satisfaction and so forth. Engaged employees outperform those who are disaffected – those who are checked out – by a factor of 2-3 times. Think about that from a leadership perspective: the same costs in salary can return anywhere from 1-3 times unit productivity. So when my clients tell me they don’t want to talk about engagement, I ask them if they’d like to talk about money. So far, no one has said no.

In your experience, what are some common causes of employee apathy? 

Clearly, lack of trust in leadership is number one. Much of this has to do with suffering through bad management. Companies that care about engagement invest in developing their managers and people leaders especially at the first-line or supervisory level. This  is where most of the work gets done. So not investing in the development of leaders is clearly the first step towards apathetic employees. Saddle them with poor equipment, incomplete information and changing goals from month to month and people check out. Focus wins, and focus on developing people leaders pays off big time.

What’s the number #1 thing a manager can do to increase engagement?

Pay attention. You have to give engagement to get it. Attention is time spent with people, listening to their questions, helping sort out their needs, encouraging and debating with them. Too many managers talk about engagement in a team meeting, go back to their cube and then turn their back on people. Forget that: walk around. Peters & Waterman had this right 30 years ago in In Search of Excellence, and Drucker before them and Deming before him: you’ve got to walk around and interact with people, pick up the phone and call the ones not there and do a Google Hangout for your worldwide team. Pay attention: people grow when you do.

What role does company culture play in employee engagement?

A company’s culture always produces the appropriate engagement for it: this relationship is symbiotic. There’s a reason some cultures force questions upstream in a never-ending cycle of escalation: those environments produce it. Culture produces the engagement it deserves.

Can you share a professional anecdote regarding employee apathy and what you did to change it?

Once I had some buttons made, you know, like the kind you pin on your clothes? They were round and I had the word “Tuit” printed on them. Every time someone gave me a lame answer about an issue they should have cared about I gave them a button. It was “a round tuit” and I told them they needed it. The joke soon gave way and no one wanted a pin – and they got around to things a lot faster.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Many of the stories I read seem to suggest engagement is a one-way street and that it’s incumbent on management to do all the work. This just isn’t accurate. Engagement is about both parties agreeing to bring their best to bear every day in recognition of long-term benefits for all. Now, “our best” changes every day – but our commitment can’t. Engagement takes two.

Christopher Demers, SPHR has been practicing human resource management for 25 years: one day he hopes to get it right. His career includes time with P&G, Dell, Apple and The Home Depot, and he currently consults and contracts primarily in Talent Management and Leadership Development. He is a Lifetime Senior Professional in Human Resources, holds an MBA and a Bachelor’s and has taught the HRCI Certification Preparation Course at the University of Texas at Austin for over ten years. His home includes dogs, cats, children and grandchildren and lots of laughter.

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