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Here's the Secret to Improving Employee Engagement That Every Company Can Afford

Everyone benefits from a values-based culture.

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This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Company Culture, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.

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Employers take note: you're not holding the attention or interest of your employees. Think you're an exception to the rule? Think again. Seventy percent of American employees report being disengaged at work, and three out of four are currently looking for a new job or are open to new opportunities.

While there is something to be said for optionality and hedging the risk of potential layoffs, this means more than half of your workforce is not passionate about what they're doing or committed to your organization.

Related: Is Poor Employee Engagement Management's Fault?

Disengaged employees are doing a huge disservice to every aspect of your business. Research suggests they negatively affect everything from team morale to productivity to your bottom line.

While this paints a dreary picture, the good news is companies can take steps toward boosting employee engagement. Traditional efforts include internal mobility programs, employee wellness initiatives and appropriately rewarding behavior. But these can be a drain on resources and cost a lot of money. So, what's the cost-effective secret to improving employee engagement? Building and maintaining a values-based culture.

A culture rooted in values is the recipe for success.

Workplace culture is often misunderstood and many measure it by the number of office nap rooms and ping-pong tables. However, at its core, a successful culture is a system of shared beliefs and behaviors members of the workplace use to interact with one another.

Values capture what an organization believes is most important, to the way it operates, such as teamwork, creativity or diversity. Values are open to interpretation and above all, dogmatic. So, a values-based culture exists when employees associate meaning to their behaviors based on specific company values.

Not sure if you have a values-based culture? Ask a few of your employees about a challenging decision they faced and which beliefs helped them reach a decision. Did they behave according to their own personal values? Financial goals? Emotional attachment? Or was the decision attributed to your company's values?

Related: Thanks to These 3 Values, This Startup Has Shockingly Low Turnover

Best of both worlds: Values set boundaries and provide flexibility.

A values-based culture relies on employee autonomy and empowerment to function. An individual is much more likely to drive better results when they feel ownership over their work. Values provide clear boundaries, but the space inside the boundaries is for exploration and innovation, allowing employees more freedom to shape the work they're doing.

The exercise of making decisions within a values-based culture fosters engagement. Conversely, making decisions solely based on a set of workflows, processes and calculations requires intelligence and attention to detail. But frankly it's boring and doesn't adequately capture and sustain the attention and interest of employees.

Large and small companies can benefit from a values-based culture. Moreover, the values from one organization to the next can be completely different.

Case studies: How companies fulfill business objectives through values.

McKinsey & Company, a Top 25 Places to Work, is a management consulting firm with more than 10,000 employees across 100 offices globally. The firm has three governing values:

  • Adhere to the highest professional standards
  • Improve our clients' performance significantly
  • Create an unrivaled environment for exceptional people

One of the ways McKinsey & Company reinforces its values-based culture is an annual event called "Values Day." On this day, each office sets aside time to discuss what the values mean, including role-playing scenarios where the values are tested in challenging situations. For example: "How can I maintain an independent perspective (Read: Adhere to the highest professional standards) when my client wants me to recommend his or her preferred project proposal?"

FreshBooks is a software company with 250 employees based in Toronto, Canada. The company has nine core values -- passion, ownership, respect, change, honesty, fun, empathy, strive and trust.

To bring these values to life, FreshBooks hosts an annual company retreat in honor of the values called PORCHFEST (the acronym is based on the first letter of each value) and offers an ongoing program called "Values Cards" encouraging employees to nominate each other for a gift card when their behavior epitomizes one of the values.

One card, for example, read "Samantha recently exhibited the value of Change by embracing a last minute detour in the launch calendar that resulted in more work for her."

Other examples aren't hard to come by. Union Square Hospitality Group, chosen as one of the original Small Giants, lives by four "Family Values" -- excellence, hospitality, entrepreneurial spirit and integrity. Southwest Airlines, with a full-time culture director and more than 50,000 employees, has four company values -- warrior spirit, servant's heart, fun-LUVing attitude and work the Southwest way.

Related: How Establishing Core Values Drives Success

Everyone benefits from a values-based culture.

In each of these examples, the values are drastically different. Yet, if values are instilled in the culture, they capture the essence of a company's way of living and represent the most effective way to engage employees.

More companies should take time to live and breathe company values. When values are written down and discussed openly and consistently, all employees can better engage in the company's future.

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