How To Foster Outrageously Awesome Employee Engagement

In "Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk," coauthors Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden argue that your people are your biggest competitive advantage.

At its very core, the whole notion of people being a distinct source of competitive advantage hinges on the way organizations and individual leaders perceive their workforces and the nature of the employment relationship. Do you see people on the asset or the liability side of the balance sheet? Are employees an opportunity—that is, a source of strategic advantage—or a cost to be reckoned with and minimized whenever possible? Are they viewed as little more than plug-and-play cogs in the operating process? Or do you see them as real, pulsating, thinking, idea-generating, responsibility-taking assets?

There is a reason that the crowds drawn to parades consistently outnumber those that attend funerals. Most people are far more attracted by hope, optimism, and freedom than by negativism and restriction. I want to work with and for people who believe that together we can do great things that matter.

People will not follow a pessimistic leader for long, nor will they perform particularly well for that person. If you truly expect to get the benefit of a person or team's best effort, each person needs to sense that you have faith that he or she can and will deliver. Otherwise, all bets are off.

This example is indicative of the wider problem at all levels of business: you are likely to get just the kind of behavior from employees that you expect. And, paradoxically, they will either live up or down to your expectations because your policies, procedures, and employment practices had at their bedrock those same assumptions.

Create core beliefs

Organizations operate on a limited number of core beliefs and assumptions that are "burned in" to the very fabric of the business. Here are a few you should adopt and begin operating on today.

The Rule of Common Purpose

You should run the organization in a way that permits all legitimate stakeholders—managers, employees, owners, and customers—to benefit, each in their own way. In other words, we must take care to ensure that the interests of each core constituent are meaningfully represented. Of course, this doesn't make everyone an equal equity partner. But we need to recognize that, regardless of the endeavor, each of us is silently (usually) asking the question, "What's in it for me?" (Or "WIIFM?") Until you satisfactorily address that question, you really can't unleash much productive effort.

The Rule of Selective Membership

Since the beginning of time, winning organizations the world over have recognized and held dear the notion that membership is a privilege (a rare one, in fact), and not a right. The U.S. Marines boast about it externally in their branding ("The Few, The Proud, The Marines") and internally as a way of maintaining esprit de corps. American Express has anchored its brand on the notion that their "members" or cardholders earn more—and thus spend more. Each is intended as a sign of selectivity, denoting membership among an elite cadre of people.

The foundation of every smart recruiting process is the axiom that "our organization may be a great place to work, but it's not for everybody. In fact, it's not even for most people." Contrary to popular belief, there really is an ample supply of talented, hardworking, honest people available—some of whom already work for you. Your job, your most important job in fact, is to find others like them. Of course, you've got to expend a little effort doing it, and find them one at a time, because eagles don't flock, but they are out there. Get started today!

The Rule of Omission

Your employees, customers, and, yes, owners will usually be less inspired by what you do for them than by what you don't do to them. If, for example, you expect them to believe in you and stick with you, never, ever, ever deceive or take advantage of them! If the company conducts its business in a satisfactory way to the people who work there (you don't have to be Mr. Wonderful), most employees will produce more and better stuff.

What Employees Want

Progressive leaders understand that although their people have individual preferences, there is a common list of things they want (and deserve)—things that are necessary to encourage employees fully engaging with the enterprise:

Meaningful Work

People want and need to be proud of their work. They want suitable challenges and the freedom to pursue them. They want to be in the game, not on the bench.

High Standards

They don't want to associate with losers. We all tend to moan and whine about high standards, but deep down, every one of us realizes that these standards are a necessary component to winning.

A Clear Sense of Purpose and Direction

People want to read mysteries, not live them. Timely, relevant, and meaningful (i.e., truthful) information is a must. Where are we going, and why? Why does it matter? How does my role fit in?

Balanced "Worth-its"

Managers must demonstrate a commensurate level of interest and investment in employees. We must provide internal systems that support rather than impede their efforts and give them the freedom to pursue some things that are important to them. Two of the most powerful motivators in today's workplace are (a) having the opportunity to learn and build skills (and your résumé) and (b) being able to do your very best work. We want to see some progress made at the end of each day, and it drives us crazy when silly, systemic obstacles keep us from doing our best.

A Level Playing Field

Employees want reciprocal caring, coupled with some sense of justice and an assurance they won't be taken advantage of.

To Be and Feel Competent

We don't really need to explain this one, do we?

Adapted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, Revised and Expanded: The Plain Truth about Employee Engagement and Your Bottom Line by Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden (c) 2012 Contented Cow Partners, LLC.

[Image: Flickr user Artnow]

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  • Nikhil Khanna

    Agreed to the fullest and just the single line can effectively summarize the article and it is "Managers must demonstrate a commensurate level of interest and investment in employees."

  • Alex Raymond

    This is a great post on an important, and terribly misunderstood, topic. Too often executives just focus on the results of employee engagement surveys without thinking about what the data means to their business results. 

    Engagement is a means, not an end in itself.

  • Rene Schlegel

    As brief as it is excellent and rich. 
    With one (only semantic) exception: 
    -People are NOT assets (or resources which need to be exploited, nor talents for whom wars should be fought). 
    -They can neither be owned nor be won over for good as machinery, land or treasures. And attempts to write them down or off are met with corresponding "feedback". But they can be, as the most liquid of assets, easily lost.

  • Holloway Young

    Bill Catlette is always spot on and is light years ahead of conventional wisdom in the art of engaging corporations and team members.  

  • RSperoff

    This article (and book) hits the target and shoud be common sense to anyone who manages people in any setting. Employee engagment is not only the key to individual satisfaction but it is also a bridge to greater effeciencies and productivity for the organization. Effective organizations must meet the needs of a "generation challenged" society and engage team members in  meaningful ways in order to maximize the return on their human capital investments and customer satisfaction.  Once you drink the milk you realize the potential.   

  • Ann

    Agreed, we are beginning to realise that future value is driven by the connections our people have and the collaboration we create, rather than the systems we have become slaves to. Successful leaders are recognising that as controls loosen their grip, brands will need to create a strong sense of purpose and belonging. The superglue that holds brands together in the future is people not process. That requires a whole new re configuration of the business model and structure.

  • Jrogala

    Outstanding article.  It is a practical, realistic approach to leadership that works.  The "Contented Cow" lives on!  I wish more managers understood this simple truth and then followed the admonishment of Aristotle...The first attribute of Leadership is Courange.  The world will be better for it.

  • Maire Reed

    Wonderful perspective. I am sharing this with my principal as soon as I hit send here. bravo and thanks for the positive message in this world and times of such negativity. This SO applies where I work in a middle school. Thanks!

  • Matt

    these guys have it together and are a valuable resource to any organization wanting to do more with the climate and employees

  • Tpsnowmobile

    Spot on. Today's employees are at a level of intelligence that they clearly see and appreciate integrity. It's no secret that if the pay is acceptable, their motivation to be productive is meaningful challenges, honesty and appreciation.

  • Ben Simonton

    Also feel that it is great to see Fast Company promote the concept of engagement.

    Based on my four successful attempts to turn disengaged workforces into fully engaged ones, I believe creating engagement is far simpler than this article would lead you to believe. All people have five basic needs: to be heard, to be respected, and to have competence, autonomy, and relatedness (purpose). The extent to which management meets these needs dictates, repeat dictates the extent of engagement of the workforce and a "fully engaged" workforce is at least 300% more productive than a mostly disengaged one, the norm today in big business.

    How to meet those needs is relatively simple and if anyone wants to know, please just ask.

    Best regards, Ben Simonton
    Leadership is a science and so is engagement.

  • tobybarazzuol

    Agreed! It's great to see Fast Company promoting the concept of engagement.  Also, as you've stated, engagement doesn't have to be complicated.  In fact, it tends to happen more when things are simple and easily understood.  I would also add the need to be recognized and appreciated as one of the basic elements of engagement.

    Looking forward to learning more about your experience with employee engagement.

    Best regards, Toby Barazzuol
    "Don't go where you are tolerated, go where you are celebrated"

  • Kevin Kruse

    It's nice to see Fast Company spread the gospel of employee engagement. There are well known benefits to the company from engagement (higher sales, profits, shareprice), but what also needs to be acknowledged is the benefits to the individual. Disengaged workers weigh 5 pounds more, are at greater risk of heart attack, have less sex, and even their children are more likely to misbehave. This is all from the spillover and crossover effects--our emotions at work, good or bad, spill into our personal life and crossover to those around us.

    My own research and experience suggest that you get massive employee engagement when "GReaT leaders communicate Growth, Recognition and Trust."

    Kevin Kruse
    NY Times Bestselling Author
    Employee Engagement 2.0