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I was recently asked by an organization of financial executives in St. Louis to give a speech on employee engagement. Specifically, I was asked to provide insight regarding the things that managers could do to make sure that their employees were committed and engaged in their jobs.

With rare exceptions, I believe that the only sustainable competitive edge for an organization is to attract and retain the best people. In my almost twenty-five years of consulting with a wide variety of businesses and not-for-profits, it has become clear to me that the ultimate strength and success of any organization is primarily related the quality and loyalty of their employees.

Getting employees to buy into the mission – and commit to the team and its goals – is much harder today than it was in the past. The reason for this is that we live in a culture of individualism.

This point can be demonstrated by looking at how families watch television today versus in the past. In the current culture, very few families watch television as a family. Rather, each family member watches their own cable or streamed show on their own device in their own room. No longer do families need to reach a consensus each evening on which show the family will watch on the television set in the family room.

This focus on individualism affects life all around us. The current culture’s emphasis on becoming the best you that you can be means that it is much harder to get a group of highly independent individuals to commit to being effective together. With such an individualistic mindset, they don’t really want to be team members. Often this lack of commitment can be seen by the way that many employees prioritize events in their personal life that interfere with the responsibilities required for the team to meet its goals.

Recently I had a conversation with one of my more entrepreneurial clients. After returning from a week of vacation he commented to me that he graded the performance of his team at no more than a C plus. Unfortunately, I agreed with him. We have now spent the last two weeks working through the process of seeing who should remain on the team and who needs to be replaced. One of the issues that we have identified is that some team members frequently allow issues in their personal lives to interfere with their team responsibilities. We have also realized that we need to do a better job making sure that we match people’s skill sets to the responsibilities that we assign to them.

About halfway through my presentation last week, I realized that the key to having engaged employees was to become an engaged manager. Instead of trying to figure out why some employees were engaged and some were not, the real questions became, “What can I do as a manager to maximize the chances that each employee will be engaged?”

Upon reflection, this means that as a manager I need to figure out how to take a group of individuals – who place a premium on their personal self-actualization – and convince them to set aside some of their personal goals and interests and replace them with priorities that relate to the success of the team.

On a practical level, this means that the successful engaged manager must find ways to engage, motivate and retain high performing employees who, at their core, are more interested in their personal priorities. It means that the manager needs to appeal to their need to belong to a community instead of being solely focused on their self-actualization.

With this goal in mind, it is useful to reflect on research done by the Gallup organization over the last twenty-five plus years. Their studies indicate that employees do not quit companies. That is, within reason, employees do not leave their current employer because they are underpaid, or because of a lack of benefits, or due to other tangible, financially-related reasons.

In fact, employees quit managers, not companies. They leave well-paying jobs to move to a different organization primarily because of two reasons. Firstly, they do not have any friends at work, and, secondly, they feel that their manager is not interested in them or their career.

Stated positively, employees who stay want to work for a manager who is genuinely interested in them personally and who is also interested in their career. In addition, they want a manager and a workplace that encourages them to develop personal relationships with the people they work with. Effectively, this means they want to work in a job which helps them meet their need to belong.

So the role of an engaged manager is to do things that promote loyalty and commitment. Therefore, building a successful team means that the manager/leader does the following:

  • Understands the strengths and weaknesses of each team member.
  • Matches team member’s strengths to the tasks that need to be done.
  • Explain, if necessary, to the team as a group as well as individually the reasons for your actions.
  • Act decisively but understandingly as a leader.

Simply defined, the ultimate manager’s mission is to maximize the effectiveness of the team by matching each employee’s responsibilities to that person’s talent and passion. The fact of the matter is that people do not perform well in roles where they have no talent or passion. This means that the key to being an engaged and effective manager is to put every team member in a position where they can use their talent and where they are motivated to perform. Said simply, put each employee in a position that maximizes their ability to succeed.

Therefore, there are several things that engaged managers do. First, and perhaps most important, is that these managers develop a unique personal relationship with each member of the team. This means that they relate to each employee both as a manager and a friend/advocate. Of course this means that the personal relationship cannot be so close that the manager cannot give frequent objective feedback on performance – both praise and constructive criticism.

In addition, engaged managers visibly demonstrate commitment to the employee and their career path. They play the role of both manager and mentor. They demonstrate fairness, and they reward both good performance and bad. The engaged manager addresses poor performance quickly, but they are always looking for ways to encourage and compliment their employees.  They make good decisions in a proper amount of time, and they invest their time in high performers rather than allowing their time to be consumed by people who lack talent and commitment.

Being an engaged and effective manager means that you must be proactive in your approach to each member of your team. It means that you must take time to learn their strengths and weaknesses and what motivates them. It means that you do your best to match each team member’s assignments to their skillset. It also means that you try not to ask people to do things that they are not capable of doing or that they are not motivated to do.

Further, it also means that you are consistently working hard to keep strong and open relationships with each team member so that you can adjust the course as needed. This is essential in the current workplace since people change frequently and the challenges that the team faces change constantly.

If you can master many of the skills described in this article, you will become an engaged and effective manager who will attract and retain skilled and engaged employees. And since success is primarily a function of the quality of the people on your team, you will maximize you and your team’s chances to achieve extraordinary success.
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