Employee engagement concerns continue to plague employers the world over, but a common-sense solution exists, according to Chester Elton, author of several leadership books.
Engagement comes down to the simple appreciation and value of employees, he said at a recent SCNetwork event in Toronto. And research shows that companies with engaged, enabled, energized employees have higher operating margins.
“Does it make business sense? Absolutely. All of this is common sense,” said Elton. “It’s common sense, but it’s uncommonly practised.”
And it is great managers who create a culture of belief and drive results, he said.
“Are you all in, and is your team all in? You, as the leaders, if you don’t set the tone… if you can’t answer yes to the first question, you’re never going to get yes to the second question,” said Elton.
“It’s not ‘Do as I say’ it’s ‘Do as I do.’ That’s where culture starts.”
Establishing high performance
Recognizable brands such as Amazon, Apple and Disney are well-known for great workplace cultures, he said, and their brands elicit an emotional connection from clients and employees alike.
In that respect, logo matters, said Elton. “It is inexplicably connected to your leadership brand.”
“Think of your logo,” he said. “What is the visceral reaction of your customers to that? Does it represent your culture, whatever it might be? On-time delivery, quality, coming in under budget, or keeping your promises?”
“Culture is an everyday thing,” said Elton. “It’s not once a quarter or once a year.”
It is important for HR leaders to create a culture where employees love coming to work, and that is best completed through engagement, enablement and energizing staff, he said.
Elton’s research revealed the top pre-drivers of engagement are development and well-being, trust, and pride in organization. Furthermore, the top driver of development and well-being is appreciation, he said.
It is near-impossible to have a highly engaged employee who doesn’t feel valued and appreciated, said Elton.
Good companies pay attention to the little things, enabling employees to offer the best experience possible to clientele, he said.
To do this effectively, team leaders need to break down organizational silos and include all employees in the corporate mission.
There are five practical disciplines HR can implement to promote high performance, said Elton.
They are: understanding the multi-generational workforce, managing individuals, speed to productivity, encouraging challenges, and keeping customers front-of-mind.
For example, millennial employees are known to job hop every two years, he said. Millennials balk when they are micromanaged at work but simultaneously prefer micromanaged careers.
HR leaders need to be aware of internal biases and recognize that not all employees are driven by the same motivators, said Elton. Individual development plans should be encouraged.
“Old school used to be: ‘We treat everybody the same — that’s fair,’” he said. “New school is: ‘I’ve got so much diversity. I’m not talking about race and gender, I’m talking about tradition and language and culture… If I’m treating everybody the same, I’m an idiot.’”
Rather than annual or semi-annual reviews, managers should be encouraged to have aspirational conversations with employees more often, said Elton.
“As a manager, your job is to listen to the employee, help them grow, share feedback, ID resources and have a balanced approach. It should only take about 10 or 15 minutes if you do it right.”
“Different generations communicate differently,” he said.
“Instead of sitting down and saying: ‘What have you done for me lately?’ The question is: ‘Have we kept our promises to you as an organization?’”
For employers urging innovation, start by fostering collaborative teams and psychological safety, said Elton.
“I think my mom told me that when I was five years old: ‘Be nice,’” he said. “You give good ideas because you’re not focused on self-protection. When you’re thinking that, you’re not thinking about solving the problem.”
High-performance cultures do not fear challenges from employees, according to Elton.
“There’s no success without some failure,” he said. “I’m willing to bet that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes, because that’s when we take the deep dive.”
While researching the science behind work culture for his books, one theme became abundantly clear, said Elton.
“As we took a deeper dive into recognition, it became really obvious that if you didn’t get the culture right, the recognition didn’t matter.”
Citing as an example the Hard Rock Café, Elton said an appropriate workplace cultural philosophy needs to be unified “from the C-suite all the way down to the dish washer.”
“When the dish washer gets it, everybody gets it,” he said. “When he’s rocking in the basement, you think the rest of the house is bumping? Absolutely.”
“The little things make all the difference… When teams get it, everybody gets it, right down to the dishwasher.”
In terms of culture, the soft stuff is often most difficult, said Elton.
“The difference between good team leaders and exceptional (ones) is that the extraordinary leaders had really good soft skills,” he said.
“Once you get the soft stuff right, the hard stuff gets easier. This isn’t anything that’s a revelation. This is stuff your moms and dads taught you when you were five, six years old.”
Manager-employee critiques work best at a positive-negative comment ratio of five to one, said Elton.
“Be specific and sincere,” he said. “General praise has no impact… The closer the recognition is to the behaviour, the more likely it is to be repeated.”
And while it’s not all unicorns and rainbows, employee engagement benefits when goodwill is established, said Elton.
“The more you do it, it’s what you become, and that’s what culture is. It’s who you are,” he said. “You know how to do this. The more you do this, the better you become at it.”
Transformation often comes down to the smallest interactions, said Elton.
“Everybody has the big things,” he said. “The difference between good and extraordinary? It’s the little things and it always will be.”
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