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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