How to engage employees

Jun 25 2010 by Mitch McCrimmon Print This Article

A raft of research exists confirming that employees are turned off when managers don't care about them as individuals, don't respect them enough to hear their input and focus on their weaknesses, not their strengths.

The underlying problem here is not feeling valued. While employees are motivated by widely different things, everyone wants to be appreciated. A pat on the back helps but it can be as superficial as a store cashier telling you to have a nice day.

More elaborate forms of recognition shine a light on exceptional actions but leave too many other employees in the shade.

So here are three simple techniques to help managers engage their people more effectively.

  • Ask employees "What do you think?" more often.
  • Start all meetings by asking what went well since the last meeting.
  • Delegate more - not just more work, but greater responsibility.

1. Asking "What do you think?"

What better way to show people how much you value them than asking for their advice? Acting on employee suggestions creates shared ownership in the outcome. Such actions speak louder than words. In comparison praise is just talk.

Variations on "What do you think? include:

  • What is the issue, in your view?
  • What options do you see for dealing with it?
  • What is your preferred option and its pros and cons?
  • What are the benefits, costs, risks associated with your solution?
  • What impact will your plan have on X, Y and Z?
  • How can we implement your solution?

Unfortunately too many managers won't ask for input. One manager who was coached to be more engaging objected that drawing solutions out of others wouldn't feel like making a real contribution. He didn't see it as "real work."

"Real work" for most managers means using their analytical abilities to solve problems to come up with better answers than their colleagues. Upon starting a new job, a senior executive with a very engaging style asked direct reports for suggestions to address what they saw as major issues in the business. One old timer asked him: "Do you want me to tell you how to do your job?"

This attitude reflects a real problem. Managers are expected to have the answers, to know what to do. Asking for input is seen by many a sign of weakness. And so in a meeting situation, many recognize only one form of contribution: making statements about content. They can't see beyond their self-imposed identity as solution generators or goal-scorers.

The idea of asking engaging questions to stimulate others to think smarter is just not on their radar screens. They only think of asking questions for information, but even these they severely limit for fear of looking stupid.

To be more engaging, managers should see that their role is to get the best out of employees. In the industrial age this meant delegation. Now, there is mental work: thinking creatively, making tough decisions and solving complex problems. To engage employees and get mental work done, managers need to do more asking and less telling.

Engagement needs to start at the top. If a CEO expects direct reports to have the answers, they will come to meetings prepared to score goals. A CEO determined to foster an engaging culture asks direct reports to brainstorm solutions with their teams, not simply fire off their own answers.

2. What went well since the last meeting?

It's true that catching someone doing something great and offering an immediate pat on the back can give the recipient a big boost. But, it's not possible for busy managers to catch enough employees doing good things. A better solution is a simple discipline for all meetings with both individuals and teams.

Create a positive atmosphere by starting each meeting by asking every participant what went well since the last meeting or what they are pleased about. That way, everyone gets to tell their manager a few good things they did (however small). Not only is this a great opportunity for providing recognition, but it encourages people to do some extra good things before the next meeting so they have something interesting to report!

The trouble is, most management meetings focus on problems, thus creating a climate of fear and blame. Everyone shows up feeling guilty, ready to defend themselves for not getting something done. By creating a better balance between positive and negative, employees feel less defensive about owning up to mistakes.

Reviewing even small accomplishments can also create a sense of forward momentum while a one-sided focus on problems sends the message that we are stuck, stupid or failures which is obviously deflating. Everyone needs a sense of making progress, however slight, to feel like exerting extra effort.

But why would managers want to destroy employee motivation by jumping on every mistake? The truth is that most managers don't want to bother with managing. They got to where they are by being goal scorers, coming up with great solutions to problems and they want to keep themselves free to continue in this mode.

So they manage by exception, only paying attention to employees when they make mistakes. Worse, many managers feel that they are in the hot seat: produce or get out! Mistakes make them look bad so they jump on them with self-defeating annoyance. But by killing employee motivation, they unwittingly make it harder to achieve their targets.

Managing by exception works for non-human resources, but people need regular feedback. Reviewing what went well in every meeting before discussing problems has a two-fold impact on employee engagement. First, employees get regular recognition. Second, they have to come up with something worth reviewing.

3. Delegate more responsibility

Too many managers delegate tasks rather than real responsibility. This is because we are still stuck with the metaphor of the organization-as-person which means that the "head" thinks and the "hands" do. It is no coincidence that employees were once called "hired hands."

As a result, managers regard delegation as a tool to free up their time for strategic thinking. They then delegate menial tasks. This is a double whammy for employees: first, menial tasks are boring; second, delegation is used to make strategic thinking off limits to employees.

The solution is for managers to strike a better balance between operating as solution generators and facilitators. Delegation should be seen as a means of developing, engaging and stimulating employees. This means identifying their strengths, what they want to learn and do more of in future, then delegating projects that are challenging but not outside their capabilities.

Practical steps

Managers need to be trained on how to be more engaging. But they also must be rewarded for being engaging, placing less emphasis on shining by promoting their own answers to difficult problems. There is no point encouraging managers to operate as facilitators, coaches and catalysts as long as their ability to generate great solutions is what gets rewarded.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Executives climb the ladder by being decisive, by showing that they know what they are talking about, not by being great facilitators.

This is why deep employee engagement is so difficult. But as the importance of innovation and engagement increases, managers who do all the thinking (as "heads") will leave employees feeling like "hands." Organizations that retain such cultures risk going the way of the dinosaurs.


About The Author

Mitch McCrimmon
Mitch McCrimmon

Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive assessment and coaching split between Canada and the UK. He is also the author of three management books, the latest being Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes,