It's no secret that, as a business owner, your venture is your baby. It's needy, it's frightening, and you're completely devoted to it. If only you could make your employees feel the same way. Well, at least the devotion part.
The first step to getting employees pumped about the company's direction is to examine what employee engagement is. Peter Stark, a management consultant and the author of Engaged! How Leaders Build Organizations Where Employees Love to Come to Work, defines it as a state in which, "employees are connected both at the head and the heart and they are willing to give what I call discretionary effort, meaning willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done." A lack of employee engagement can manifest in the form of poor customer service, low morale, and missed business opportunities.
On the flip side, if you can sell your employees on the company's future and the importance of their role in it there are numerous advantages. "People are more likely to generate their own ideas, to contribute with enthusiasm, to keep slogging when it becomes unpleasant, and also to experience a sense of camaraderie and togetherness," says CV Harquail, author of the blog authenticorganizations.com.
Keep reading to learn how to measure employee engagement, communicate your vision to employees, and scale engagement as your business grows.
How to Get Employees Excited About Your Business Vision: Clear Communication
The crucial first step of sharing your business vision with the company in order to get people to buy in seems like a no-brainer, but especially at the lower echelons of the org chart employees are often clueless to the machinations of the top brass, and it's bound to hurt engagement and productivity.
"There's a lot of leaders out there that take the employees, blindfold them, spin them around 10 times, and then want them to go hit the tail on the donkey and they can't do it," Stark says. Workers need to have a sense of how their roles interweave with the larger goals of the company in order to take pride in the importance of their work and to do the best possible job on every project. Stark advises tapping as many methods of communication to reach out to employees as you can, including e-mail and phone blasts, Facebook, Twitter, and even texting.
But sometimes it takes more than communicating through different media and helping employees relate personal goals to company goals. Stark notes that some people will be swayed by rhetoric while others want cold hard facts before they buy in and you have to cater to both groups.
"You say, ‘Do I have to be the charismatic leader who's going to get up and give a speech in front of the company?' There's a bunch of employees who're going to hear that and are going to hear that charismatic, dynamic speech and say this is BS," Stark points out. For the skeptics breaking down quarterly efforts and the results they achieved and where they could be improved will go farther than a joke-filled speech.
Dig Deeper: How Poor Communication Hurts Morale
How to Get Employees Excited About Your Business Vision: Keeping an Open Ear
But wait, you've been so busy talking to your employees that it's easy for their voices to get lost in the shuffle. "Make a commitment to list to your employees when they talk about the product and to listen to your employees when they talk about what's going on in their organization," Harquail advises. The best news for the state of your employees' engagement is if they're constantly complaining.
"People, when they complain, are actually showing you that they're engaged, oddly enough," she adds. "The challenge is to take those complaints and those glimmers of pride and enthusiasm and actually hear them" and turn them into suggestions for change.
Dig Deeper: How to Handle Employee Complaints
How to Get Employees Excited About Your Business Vision: Measuring Engagement
You've just come out of an all hands staff meeting, your speech went off without a hitch, but did it help get employees engaged? It can be hard to step back from your intimate perspective of the business and try to accurately gauge how your employees feel about it.
While Harquail points out that there are a slew of tools consultants use to measure engagement, she feels that, rather than taking a quantitative approach, the best tool is simply to observe the human interactions that go on every day at your company. The level of engagement is revealed in "the very subtle things," she says. "It's the feeling, it's the spirit, it's the warmth, it's the level of concern in people's voices. That's the stuff that's the indicator of engagement.
However, there are times when the tools at a consultant's disposal come in handy. Stark's consulting firm, for instance has run 250 organizations through its engagement survey, which asks employees questions such as "Do you feel that your supervisor respects you?" "Do you have a clear sense of what your personal goals and responsibilities are?" and "Does your supervisor give you praise and recognition?"
Stark then created a benchmark of the top 25 percent of companies and charted how they responded to the queries differently than their less successful competitors. The biggest distinction they noticed is that, while intradepartmental (within a department) teamwork didn't differ much between the best of the best and the rest, interdepartmental (involving different departments) teamwork spiked 15 percent among the most successful companies.
"Why would that make a difference to an employee's engagement?" Stark asks. "Because it makes it a lot easier for them to get their job done."
Though probing employees with a battery of questions can yield some answers some times, a high tech experiment can reveal even more. Harquail referenced a study where 80 employees at a Bank of America call center in Rhode Island were given "sociometers" that measured which co-workers they spoke to every minute for a month. The MIT researchers conducting the study found that employees who talked to their co-workers more were working faster without a dip in their approval ratings and feeling less stressed. The center decided to stop staggering employee coffee breaks to allow them to communicate more often and more organically and they estimated productivity gains of about $15 million a year.
"They were venting steam about bad call situations that they had, and they were also sharing advice with each other about how to do [their jobs] better," Harquail explained.
Dig Deeper: How to Get Feedback From Employees
How to Get Employees Excited About Your Business Vision: Are All Businesses Created Equal?
Non-profits have notoriously high employee engagement. How else can you explain the dedication people show to their personal and organizational goals in the face of that sector's equally infamous salaries? But even if your business isn't saving the rainforest or building orphanages you can still cultivate a sense of pride in your employees and a belief in the importance of your missions.
Harquail gives the example of a company she's worked with that reclaims unused gas from construction sites, then cleans and filters and repackages it for resale. Not the work of Mother Teresa, but it's also not the work of greedy financiers. What's important, Harquail explains, is that "the way that this small business constructs their task is what they're doing is a really valuable benefit to the environment."
She says critics could easily downplay this narrative and question how substantial an environmental impact the company's work actually has but it still gives employees "big picture perspective that makes it matter to them."
Dig Deeper: Why is Business Writing So Awful?
How to Get Employees Excited About Your Business Vision: Maintaining Engagement as Your Business Grows
When you're making your first hire you have more time and energy to persuade them of the unassailable merit of your business vision and see if their ideological background matches your own. As your company grows however, and you relegate a portion of those decisions to an HR department or a manager, it becomes harder to both find that match for and make that pitch about your vision.
"I'm fond of saying that 70 percent of an employee's level of engagement or excitement about the job or the company they work with is in direct relation to their immediate supervisor," Stark relates. "People come to the company because they need a job and an immediate paycheck; they usually leave the company because of the supervisor." If you make sure to hire quality supervisors who can create an atmosphere where employees feel valued, it should reduce your growing pains and turnover.
Dig Deeper: How to Build an Onboarding Plan for New Hires
How to Get Employees Excited About Your Business Vision: Is Employee Engagement Exploitative?
Is Employee Engagement Exploitative? Not inherently, but it can easily be abused by employers who seek to strengthen the commitment of their employees without giving them anything in return. Harquail says that this incentive can take a financial form such as a future bonus or raise, but just as easily it can come from giving employees the opportunity to shape the product or service and in other ways have a greater influence on the direction the company is taking.
"It's one thing if you're engaged in something that somebody else has already defined and constrained," she explains, "but it's another thing if you get to participate and get involved in it in a way that you can help to create."
The engagement of the employees and whether or not they feel exploited depends heavily on the attitude of the founders and the top executives. Why are they in business? "If the person is doing this business because they want fame, they want money, they want influence it's unlikely that members of their organization are going to want to get engaged."
Stark, however, contends that there is a difference between motivating and manipulating employees. "I believe in my heart that when people feel that they've made a significant contribution, or done really great work, most people go to bed feeling better about themselves," he says. But like Harquail, he feels there must be some degree of exchange of power and information if a company wants to boost employee engagement. "The only time you're ever going to get points for being honest or trustworthy is when it costs you something," he opines.
Dig Deeper: Are Our Health Plans Fair to Employees?