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The Simplicity Cure: Why True Employee Engagement Lies In The Little Things

by Todd Patkin, author of "Finding Happiness" We all know that employee engagement matters. Yet again and again, studies point to a pervasive lack of it (for instance, a recent Gallup report indicates that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged), as well as the incredible costs of this problem. No one can deny that disengaged employees are less productive, less innovative, less collaborative… less everything that leads to successful organizations. Yet, despite all the handwringing, no one seems to know what to do about it. That’s not particularly surprising; after all, it’s not like companies have the money to spend on lavish perks or formal “engagement” initiatives these days, nor do busy leaders have the time to obsess over such matters. Everyone’s just trying to survive. But hold on — there’s some good news here. True employee engagement needn’t be expensive or difficult to implement. Engagement is really just another word for on-the-job happiness… and we intuitively know that happiness is connected to the simple things in life. So why not apply that principle to the workplace? Over the years, I’ve found that simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy than, say, big salaries and corner offices. Best of all, these things are free and usually easy to provide. Sure, you might have to put some work into changing the bad leadership habits that might be keeping your employees beaten down and resentful. But doing that work is worth it. It’s the cornerstone of a cultural change that will naturally and organically lead to better employee engagement. Here are eight inexpensive (or free!) strategies that you can use to start transforming your workplace environment:

1. Catch people doing things right.

Everyone knows how embarrassing and stressful it is when the boss catches you doing something wrong. And for most employees, those negative feelings can linger (and impact performance) for hours, days, or longer. That’s why, if you don’t want your team to dread your presence in their workspace, you need to start each day with the intention of catching as many people as possible doing well. Not only can praise improve your employees’ perception of you, it’s also an incredible morale and motivation booster. People love to hear positive feedback about themselves, and in most cases, they’ll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments coming. Why? Because praise, especially when it comes from an authority figure, is incredibly fulfilling. (And sadly, it’s also rare.) Phrases like, ‘Bob, I’ve noticed that you always double-check your reports for errors, and I want to thank you for your commitment to quality,’ or, ‘Sue, you always take such care to keep the file room neat. Thank you so much!’ take about five seconds to say, but they can pay long-lasting dividends for your company.

2. Praise them publicly (and then praise them some more).

Even if they brush off praise or downplay their achievements, everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don’t stop with a “mere” compliment when you catch an employee doing something right — tell the rest of the team, too! Whether correctly or incorrectly, many employees feel that their leaders take them for granted and point out only their mistakes in front of the group, so make it your daily mission to prove that perception wrong. When I was at Autopart International and I saw that one of my people did something noteworthy, I made sure that everyone else knew about it by emailing the story to the entire chain. I could literally see the glow on the highlighted employee’s face for weeks, and I also noticed that many of the other team members began to work even harder in order to earn a write-up themselves. Other successful recognition strategies included writing thank-you notes to my employees and publishing a company-wide monthly newsletter highlighting our ‘stars.’ During our best months, it included everyone from upper management to drivers to floor salespeople and was often over 30 pages long!

3. Handle mistakes with care.

In business, mistakes are going to happen. You don’t have a choice about that. What you can choose is how you as a leader handle them — and by extension, what kind of impact they have on your company. Sure, lambasting an employee who has dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it’ll negatively impact that employee’s self-confidence, relationship with you, and feelings for your company for much longer. Don’t get me wrong: You shouldn’t take mistakes, especially those involving negligence, incompetence, or dishonesty, lightly. But when your employees have made an honest mistake, try to be as understanding with them as you would be with your own family members. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the employee feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. Did the employee (or the company as a whole) learn something? Should a process or procedure be tweaked going forward to reduce the chances of something similar reoccurring? Also, never forget that mistakes are an essential part of growth. The innovation and creativity it takes to grow a business will be accompanied by setbacks and slip-ups. You don’t want to create an environment where people don’t take potentially productive risks because they’re afraid you’ll get mad if they screw up.

4. Don’t be the sole decision maker.

Maybe you’ve never put much emphasis on the thoughts and opinions of your employees. After all, you pay them a fair wage to come to work each day and perform specific tasks. As a leader, it’s your job to decide what those tasks should be and how they should be carried out, right? Well, yes — strictly speaking. But this unilateral approach to leading your team sends the impression that you’re superior (even if that’s not your intent) and also contributes to disengagement. Employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine. Yes, you might get the results you want, but never more than that — and often, your team’s performance will be grudging and uninspired. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by seeking out their opinions, ideas, and preferences. They’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it. And here’s some good news that may surprise you: Your employees probably won’t care as much as you think they will if their suggestion doesn’t become reality. Mostly, they just want to know that their voice was heard by the people in charge.

5. Help your employees grow.

As a leader, there’s a lot you have to deal with on a daily basis: meeting quotas. Making sure procedures are followed. Keeping up with advances in your field. Learning and disseminating company policy. Putting out fires. The list goes on (and on, and on). But no matter how full of “stuff” your plate may be, don’t lose sight of the fact that a crucial part of leadership is developing your people. Ultimately, the success or failure of your business depends on the people who show up each day to do the work. So place a strong emphasis on developing them. Get to know each member of your team and give each person progressively more autonomy, authority, and responsibility when they show they can handle it. When they feel challenged and know that their talents are being utilized, your employees will be more engaged. And whatever you do, avoid micromanaging, which can give employees the impression that you don’t trust them or have faith in them. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go for a walk around the building to keep yourself from hovering!

6. Remember that business is personal.

The truth is, people don’t care how much you know (or how good you are at your job) until they know how much you care. Your employees will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions. For instance, if you know that John in Accounting has a daughter who’s applying to college, ask him which schools she’s considering. Or if Susanna in HR just came back from vacation, ask to see a few pictures. Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know. When you dare to ‘get personal,’ your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket. That’s why, when I was leading my family’s company, I took advantage of every opportunity I could think of to let my people know I was thinking about them. I recommended books I thought they might enjoy. I sent motivational quotes to employees who might appreciate them. I attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations I was invited to. And you know what? Not only did I fuel my employees’ engagement… I also formed a lot of meaningful relationships that continue to this day.

7. Make it a family affair.

Whenever possible, engage your employees’ families in a positive way. In addition to holding contests with family prizes and inviting loved ones to company celebrations, make sure that your team members’ families know how much they’re appreciated by your company. Having a leader validate all the hours each employee spends at work will be remembered far longer than a bonus (really!). Plus, when spouses and kids know what Mom or Dad does at work and are “on board” with it, your employee’s performance will be buoyed by support from the ones he or she loves the most. For example, if an employee did something really tremendous, I would call his home, generally trying to get the answering machine and not a person. Then I’d leave a voicemail like this one: “Hi, (name of spouse and kids), this is Todd Patkin from Autopart International where your husband and dad works. I just want to tell you that your husband and dad is incredible! He just broke our Nashua, New Hampshire, store’s all-time sales record. Guys, that is tremendous! So, please, kids, do me a favor. When your dad comes home tonight, everyone run up and give him a huge hug and tell him how proud you are of him and how great he is. And, (name of spouse), I hope you will give him a wonderful kiss to make sure he knows how much you love him and how much he is appreciated for all he’s doing for our company. Thanks, guys." And in fact, years later, many employees whose families received these phone calls told me that although they didn’t remember how much their bonus checks were for that year, that extra-special homecoming was still clearly etched in their memories. And you know what? Leaving that message cost me next to nothing.

8. Re-recruit your best people.

Since the buck stops with you, it can be tempting to focus the bulk of your help and encouragement on your lower performers. If I can help Ted and Tina boost their numbers, the thinking goes, this entire department will be better off. Plus, I just don’t want to explain their dismal performance to my boss. While it is your duty to help your weak links move up in (or out of) your organization, don’t allow them to distract you from your most valuable players. Actually, your efforts are best spent with your top people. Just think of how much more impressive their already-great work could be with some more encouragement and guidance. Also, think of how far back your team would slide if these MVPs decided to hand in their notice and work for the competition. You should go as all-out in ‘re-recruiting’ your top people as you would in attracting new talent. At Autopart International, I regularly thanked my top performers and gave them tickets to concerts and sporting events, gift certificates to restaurants, etc. in order to show the depth of my appreciation. And considering what it would have cost in turnover to attract and train suitable replacements, well, I never considered those expenses to be anything other than money well spent. If there is one thing I would like to tell all leaders at all levels and in all industries, it’s that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain—including an improved bottom line — by making your organization as happy a place to work as possible. While a lack of employee engagement is certainly a costly problem, its solution doesn’t have to be.   Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy.    

This is an article contributed to Young Upstarts and published or republished here with permission. All rights of this work belong to the authors named in the article above.

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