At least declaratively, every company’s leadership and HR teams are looking for and investing in ways by which they can improve the level of commitment of their employees. The reason is simple when you look at existing research that demonstrate the direct correlation between employee engagement and company performance. Gallup studies show that companies with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee experienced 147% higher earnings per share compared to their competition.
Throughout my corporate experience I have noticed that no matter how many programs get implemented, companies still struggle with getting employee engagement right. Why is that?
For the past 10 years I have been searching for an answer to this question, while experimenting with practical solutions to increase employees’ engagement. I have come to realise that no matter how many programs get implemented, the manager’s behaviour has the biggest influence in driving engagement and it goes beyond acting as a role model for others.
Harvard Business Review best summaries the four principles that managers should apply to positively impact employees’ engagement towards sustainable performance, emphasising that all of them must be operated simultaneously for the desired outcome. The theory is great, but how about some best practice sharing? I started to implement them some years ago and noticed that all methods require at least six months before any sustainable shift in engagement and performance becomes noticeable.
This is what all managers can do to empower their teams and generate sustainable long-term performance, irrespective of their seniority and level.
Empower and guide your teams
Put it in simple words — turn routine tasks into participative decision making. Offer your employees ways to contribute to and decide the best way they want to deliver on certain projects or responsibilities. Create a safe space where you allow them to make mistakes. When this happens — and, trust me, it will — try to use coaching as a tool to draw the valuable lessons so that people can learn from past mistakes and move on to a higher level of performance.
A simple and efficient way of putting this approach into practice is target setting. For many years I have cascaded targets down to my teams based on my knowledge of their tasks, as well as potential and historical trend of achievements. Two years ago I decided to let go of this approach and asked my team of managers to set their own performance targets. I surprisingly discovered that not only did they aim higher than my own target setting but they constantly exceeded them ever since.
Share information even if it’s bad news
Some managers think that employees are not “mature” enough to handle high level information, or that they might get demotivated or decide to leave when hearing bad news. While demotivation and attrition remain valid risks, I believe that whenever we are not talking about confidential or sensitive information people deserve to have visibility to a) how their own performance and contribution influence the team, department and company results and b) how company decisions might impact their activity or compensation.
One example from personal experience is acknowledging when a system implementation had gone wrong. Instead of avoiding the subject, I chose to inform my teams about the situation. This allowed everyone to find constructive ways of dealing with the aftermath of the implementation without trying to hide their frustration or disappointment.
Minimise incivility in yourself and others
Under stressful conditions, even the calmest of us can respond impolitely to an email or snap during a meeting. Whenever this happened to me, I acknowledged my mistake and apologised for making anyone feel uncomfortable. Whenever uncivil behaviour arises, I choose to take immediate action by reminding everyone about the values of respect and collaboration that we share and I advocate for politeness and professionalism as a way of living them.
Set clear goals and offer performance feedback
Alongside empowerment, this mechanism is extremely valuable in enabling employees to develop and grow in their career. As long as it is done well, meaning it provides actionable input that people can use to improve their way of working.
Over the years I built an entire system around kind but honest feedback for performance enhancement. Twice a year, I ask my managers to provide me contacts of internal partners and customers they have worked the closest with. I then send the designated contacts an easy to fill questionnaire. Additionally, I created an anonymous survey which their direct teams use to provide feedback on their performance as leaders. This allows me to provide my direct reports a 360° view of their strengths and improvement areas and help them use this information to become better professionals and leaders.
I strongly believe that not only giving, but also receiving feedback openly and non-judgmentally is important. I have seen many cases in which leaders shut themselves down to company or individual criticism to such a degree that their teams no longer felt comfortable sharing constructive feedback or concerns. As a leader, working constantly on increasing your self-awareness level is among the best antidotes to avoid distancing yourself from your teams.
As pretty much anything that involves human interaction, the beauty of the above practice is that you get to experiment and become better at it every time you put it in action. Eager to start? Reflect on how you interact with your team on a regular basis: how much do you use the four principles and how can you apply them in your daily engagements?