Employee Engagement

5 Things Smart Entrepreneurs Can Do to Engage Their Workforces

Leaders usually do a better job of telling employees what they do wrong than championing the behavior they want to see.
5 Things Smart Entrepreneurs Can Do to Engage Their Workforces
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Having worked for a global corporation, a university, a local government, a nonprofit and several startups over my 20-year career, I've noticed one thing in particular that's increasingly clear: Company leaders can have very different ideas of what constitutes success.

Related: Employees Are What Make a Company Valuable

Some focus on maximizing profits or advancing technology over building a great culture. Others are more mission-focused, working to solve societal problems.

However, no matter what they’re striving toward, most agree that success begins and ends with a highly engaged workforce. So, why, then, are so few employees engaged?

Not because companies don’t care -- they spend billions on wellness, engagement and professional development programs. Forward-thinking managers at Deere & Company even measure their teams’ morale and motivation every two weeks.

You probably don’t need to survey that often to reap the rewards. But looking at -- and acting upon -- engagement metrics is as critical to success as the analysis of any financial or production data. That's why, for so many companies, conducting and then ignoring these surveys represents a gigantic missed opportunity. The reason: Keeping teams engaged requires a dynamic approach and close attention to this data.

Strong-willed leaders, in fact, devote as much energy to building a sound culture as they do to driving performance. As an entrepreneur leader, you should emulate their example.

Which came first: performance or engagement?

Although employee engagement is tied to culture, many leaders struggle to understand how to use engagement data to grow a sustainable business.

In The Living Company, Arie de Geus wrote that the average life expectancy of a corporation is less than 20 years. A preoccupation with profits over people leads companies to die prematurely -- they calcify culturally by focusing too heavily on financial metrics. And while, certainly, a well-managed, incentivized sales team is critical to the success of any company, it is no more so than the other parts of the organization.

The roots of the engagement problem are key: They may well extend beyond management to the investor marketplace and to boards that are heavily pressured to push revenue. While short-term financial performance may result, it’s often at the expense of long-term (and often more significant) gains.

Companies can reach their full potential only if leadership values all people.

Related: How to Make Employee Engagement a Top Priority

Thriving organizations value all members

Some companies defy the 20-year lifespan de Geus described. Recognizing that fact, de Geus identified a key characteristic of those that thrived for decades or even centuries: Each completely altered its business portfolio.

Take 200-year-old DuPont, for example: a manufacturer that started out making gunpowder and gradually evolved into specialty chemicals. Mitsui is even older. It began as a shop selling drapery, became a bank, operated mines and eventually went into manufacturing. The products and even the types of businesses these companies offer have continued to evolve.

But what these companies have in common is that they value people more than assets; and that's an even more important concept now than it was centuries ago. In a digital, knowledge-based economy, technology and processes are commodities. People are the competitive differentiator.

Here are five ways to effectively engage your own employees and see positive returns on the investments you make in your company’s greatest resource and asset: its people.

1. Define and champion the behavior you want to see. 

Positive reinforcement makes people feel noticed and valued, compelling them to repeat what they do well. But leaders usually do a better job of telling employees what they do wrong.

More than 70 percent of employees have never even heard their bosses say “thank you.” Modeling desired behavior can be as easy as minding your manners.

2. Give everyone a trophy. 

Recognize a broad range of efforts and activities to avoid breeding resentment among employees contributing smaller amounts. Not everyone should receive the same recognition, but each employee should receive some.

A recent survey found that 40 percent of employees would put forth more effort if they felt recognized by their bosses -- but 82 percent said they didn't. Acknowledgment isn’t about offering carrots; it’s about bringing out the best in people.

3. Create culture metrics and share them. 

One study found that 64 percent of employees surveyed didn't feel that they had a strong work culture. That might be because engagement isn’t being measured correctly to begin with. Ninety-eight percent of CEOs surveyed said they look at annual employee engagement surveys only once a year, and many acknowledged not even discussing them with their employees.

Becoming more transparent can be tricky for some organizations, but digging into this data with your team is a great way to reinforce the importance of culture.

4. Broaden the conversation.

In our hyperconnected world, people expect to have a say in the things that affect their lives, and their work lives are no different. Example: Foodpanda in Singapore pushed its average delivery time down to 30 minutes by zeroing in on its employees’ mental and physical well-being and offering rewards for their hard work.

So, don’t give up decision-making; just include more people in the process to broaden buy-in. The impact can be astounding.

5. Promote informal communication to strengthen social connections. 

When people feel connected socially, they’re not only more likely to stay at your company, they’re also more productive, collaborative and open to new ideas.

More than just distributing information, this tactic is about encouraging interaction and discussion so that employees feel a strong connection to your company and one another.

In the end, it’s not an either/or. All types of organizations, no matter their mission, have to deal with financial realities. As Mark Wrighton, chancellor at Washington University in St. Louis, said, “We are a not-for-profit, but that does not mean we are for loss either.”

Related: How to Thank Your Employees Like You Mean It in 3 Simple Steps

In sum, profit and loss isn’t just an item on a spreadsheet. And the sustainable growth of your company doesn’t rely on sales and accounting teams alone. To grow a business positively and organically, tend to the soil, not just specific plants.