How can you tell when you've lost the confidence, commitment, and engagement of your employees? The signs aren't always overt, warn Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, co-founders of Barefoot Wine (now part of E&J Gallo), and co-authors of the new book The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People. You may not see people skipping meetings, sniping at each other, or updating their resumes. In fact, they may tell you that everything is fine.

It can seem like everything is indeed fine because everyone is coasting, doing their jobs and not much more. But your team or company may have disconnected from you and your company, Houlihan says. And you may not notice you have a problem until you start losing your best talent to other, more engaging opportunities.

Before that happens, keep an eye out for these telltale signs of trouble--and take action to fix them before it's too late.

1. When things go wrong, employees blame one another instead of finding solutions.

You know how that goes. "I wasn't told about that policy change!" "I was waiting to get the info by email, but it never came."

If you're hearing statements like these--rather than suggestions for how to solve a problem once it's happened--chances are it's because your employees are concerned about the consequences if they're caught making a mistake--most likely because they've seen those consequences in the past. When employees make mistakes, Houlihan says, "making an example of the culprit isn't necessarily the best way to go."

You can turn things around by celebrating employee screwups, he adds. At Barefoot, he says, the response was, "Congratulations! You found a new way to screw up, and that's a good thing. We didn't know that this could happen, but now that it has, we can keep it from happening again." An attitude like this gives employees the freedom to take risks, and encourages entrepreneurial thinking, he says.

2. Information is a precious commodity.

In some organizations, information is traded like baseball cards. Employees with an inside view to financial results, strategic plans, or info about who may be promoted--or fired--can use that information to get what they want.

Wrong! Houlihan says. Inside information should have no value because there shouldn't be any in the first place. All information should be freely shared across the whole company. "You may be tempted to keep bad news and problems to yourself," he says. "Don't. Be honest about the challenges your company is facing and ask the entire staff for solutions. You'll probably get them!"

3. Everything happens by email or on the Web.

If you notice that your employees are doing business via a computer or smartphone screen, or communicating with each other that way even when a phone call or face-to-face meeting would be almost as convenient, that's a red flag, Houlihan says. It may mean that they feel the customer, your company, or perhaps even their jobs aren't worth the extra effort that a face-to-face meeting--or even a phone call--requires.

Be cautious about jumping to conclusions. Use of text rather than phone call is partly a generational difference, and it's also possible your employees are communicating with customers in ways those customers most prefer. But face-to-face meetings are always the most powerful approach, so Houlihan recommends setting an example yourself by meeting in person whenever you can, and encouraging employees to do the same.

"Over time, your employees will begin to develop mutually fulfilling business relationships, and they'll probably see how much more effective communicating in real time can be."

4. Employees don't take the time to help each other.

Even the most burned-out employee will rustle up enthusiasm when talking to a customer, so don't use those interactions as a gauge of employee engagement. Instead, look closely at how they interact among themselves, Harvey advises. "Employees who aren't invested in your organization's future usually won't go out of their way to give pointers to the new hire or proofread a colleague's report, for example," she says.

If this is happening in your company or work team, start by matching up new hires with seasoned employees who can mentor and encourage them. "The rookie will appreciate the personalized guidance and will be encouraged to form meaningful bonds with colleagues right out of the gate," Harvey says. "Plus, all but the most cynical veterans will soften when they see how fulfilling it can be to pass on their knowledge and expertise."

5. Things just don't seem to get done.

When employees miss deadlines or other important benchmarks, your first instinct may be to dole out consequences. That's Management 101--right? Hold people accountable when they don't meet their obligations. But before you do, Houlihan warns, begin by examining how your own actions may have contributed to the problem.

"Do you find it difficult to delegate important projects?" he asks. "Do you insist on running every new idea through legal before letting an employee pursue it?" If you engage in behaviors like these, you may be a micromanager, and you may be making it hard for employees to own their own projects--or finish them on time.

If this sounds all too familiar, Houlihan advises, "stop, step back, and show your people that you trust them to make important decisions and do important work. When you do, you'll give your team the freedom they need to help move the company forward--and you'll free up a lot of time and energy for yourself, too."

Published on: Mar 31, 2015