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How to develop a high-employee engagement culture at your business

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on September 13, 2021.

I recently attended a presentation by Kelly Stewart, an employee engagement facilitator, about leaders who engage their employees and give them “a voice in creating what affects them.”

Stewart presented a statistic from a February 2020 Gallup Poll indicating that in 2019, only 35% of employees were “enthusiastic about and committed to their work,” significantly below what any leader would desire. This statistic has actually improved from 18% in 2000. 

How can leaders increase employee engagement? Gallup suggests the following four ways:

High-development cultures are CEO and board initiated. 

It’s not the board’s job to initiate a company’s employment engagement culture. The board is responsible for holding the CEO accountable for leading with the proper tone at the top and nurturing the right culture. “Leaders of great workplaces just don’t talk about what they want to see in the management ranks, they live it.” 

High-development cultures move from a culture of “boss” to “coach.”

At my company, when we introduced a culture of continuous improvement, we empowered employees to initiate their own improvement projects that were within their level of authority. If an improvement project was beyond their authority level, they were empowered to present the project to their boss and on up through the organization to the individual who had the authority to approve it. Leaders at all levels were trained to be coaches and counselors to create a culture that encouraged their direct reports to be engaged in the business. 

We demonstrated trust in our employees. After training in continuous improvement principles, we gave $50,000 annually to each group of production unit employees in our plants across the U.S. to invest in improvement projects they chose themselves. These projects had the highest financial returns of projects we undertook, and were a significant source of earnings growth.

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High-development cultures practice company-wide communication

During her presentation, Stewart stressed the importance of two-way communication. Town meetings with employees are a great way to accomplish this.

I recall a town meeting at one of our plants at which the VP-general manager for a product produced at the plant shared an initiative to assume the management of the rail car fleet to improve utilization. 

The hourly employee whose job it was to load the rail cars strongly advised against taking on that responsibility due to issues with repairing the cars, which would have required additional resources to manage. He said the customer receiving the shipments had the responsibility to manage and repair the rail car fleet and was doing an effective job. We decided not to assume management of the cars.

High-development cultures hold managers accountable

A cardinal rule of leadership is to never micromanage. One of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes is, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Empower your direct reports. Set expectations, jointly establish goals and cut them loose to do their thing. Hold them accountable for results. 

I would add to the Gallup list a fifth way to create employee engagement: 

Encourage employees to develop a sense of ownership in what they do

I have previously written about giving a production unit operator and a mechanic at our Toronto plant responsibility for expanding the capacity of their unit. By trusting the abilities of both individuals, it created a sense of ownership in them. They both took a genuine interest in continually improving the unit’s performance. 

Employee engagement is a source of competitive advantage. It’s free. All that is needed is a desire to do it.

 

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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