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by Stephanie Jones | May 11, 2021

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The research is conclusive: human beings are emotional creatures.

We shouldn’t need studies to confirm this obvious truth, but oftentimes work is seen as a dispassionate place where everyone is expected to make consistently calm, rational decisions. But this is a false choice. There is no reason employees should have to tell themselves, “This is what my work life looks like, but over here are the things I care about most.”

Employee satisfaction is heavily influenced by salary and benefits, of course. But respecting employees’ deeply held values, giving them opportunities to grow, and really listening to them will go just as far. Here are six ways you can help keep the fires of employee enthusiasm stoked in your company.

  1. Walk your talk.

Google’s famous motto is “Don’t be evil.” So when employees learned the company would be helping the Defense Department develop AI technology to facilitate drone strikes, they told their leadership in no uncertain terms that they wanted out of the warfare business.

Employees are far more likely to stay engaged if they believe they work for managers who walk their ethical talk. “Business and HR leaders must adopt an ethos of ethical leadership while thoughtfully implementing engagement strategies or risk losing top employees,” notes Nicole Alvino, co-founder, and chief strategy officer at SocialChorus.

As Google learned, you can’t expect employees not to notice when leaders aren’t living up to the company’s code of conduct. Nothing destroys engagement quite so fast as hypocrisy.

  1. Hire well.

One of the best ways to maintain an engaged workforce is to hire engaged applicants. There’s a world of difference between hiring someone who is able to perform a given role and someone who wants to.

As you interview candidates, look to gauge their level of internal motivation. You can ask questions about what motivates them, of course, but nonverbal cues may provide a better guide. Does the applicant lean forward when talking? Do they recall successes — or better yet, triumphant resolutions to problems — with gusto?

HR leaders like to talk about “discretionary energy” — that is, the effort an employee can decide to put into their job (or not). Candidates who exhibit go-the-extra-mile tendencies will arrive at your workplace pre-engaged. Sometimes the most highly qualified applicants aren’t the best pick. Factor enthusiasm into your decision-making.

  1. Invest in the leaders of tomorrow.

Ever been on the road to nowhere? How engaging was that? Employees who feel they have a career path ahead of them are more likely to stay motivated and eager to advance your company’s mission. Those who feel stuck in place will tune out or, more likely, bail altogether.

“Ensuring your leadership pipeline is ready for the future is critical to a successful enterprise,” says Jeff Bettinger, global CHRO at Nu Skin. That’s why his company created the Nu You University. “We were seeing a lot of data that strong employee-manager relationships lead to happy, innovative, and engaged teams.” Happily, this is a corporate investment strategy that rewards both parties. With career goals to work toward, employees stay engaged, while companies get leaders who already understand their business model.

Give your best people opportunities to lead by assigning them stretch projects or having them mentor a junior employee. If training or other professional development resources are needed to get your fledgling leaders to the next level, don’t hesitate to provide them. 

  1. Help employees get better at what they do.

Whether or not they’re being groomed for leadership, employees who believe they are getting progressively better at their jobs are more likely to stay engaged. Who hasn’t felt the glow of a tough task vanquished or a personal work process improved? If the answer is “most of your employees,” you’ve got trouble.

When managers work with employees to chart out a course for growth, they send a strong signal that they’re interested in the whole person. Conversely, if an employee does not have a clear path for improvement, they are likely to stagnate.

If there have been problems in the past, let the employee know exactly where they stand and what you expect. You won’t improve engagement by whitewashing someone’s record. If they’ve missed the mark, they know it. Instead, offering a truthful assessment coupled with specific ways to improve can help them keep their head in the game.

  1. Listen to — and act on — what employees are telling you.

Speaking of improvement, employees have opinions about how to make your company better. If you want them to stay engaged, you need to listen. And then you need to act.

A 2019 ServiceNow study found that 60% of employees had a “strong desire” to give leaders feedback if it would result in positive change. “Whether or not employees feel heard and listened to can have a major impact on their ability to work and engage effectively,” concluded the study’s authors. If your employees’ suggestions go nowhere, expect engagement to plummet.

Company-wide surveys should be a consistent beat in your workplace rhythm. Your “open door” policy needs to be more than a slogan. Affirm an employee’s willingness to speak up, and let them know what you’ll do in response. When you can’t supply an immediate answer, set a timeline by which you will.

If an employee’s suggestion is impractical, don’t just ignore it. Explain why it can’t be implemented — or can’t be implemented now. Although the employee may be disappointed, at least they’ll know you heard them.

  1. Foster friendship.

For 30 years, the Gallup organization has been asking the nation’s employees if they had a best friend at work. It may seem like an odd question, but Gallup has found that having workplace pals consistently leads to better business outcomes, not least heightened employee engagement.

Remember that thing about people being emotional beings? It’s hardly surprising that employees will be more enthusiastic about work if they have at least one friend at the office. While some managers might still believe that work life and non-work life should remain separate, the evidence points in the opposite direction.

While it won’t work to “mandate” office friendships, you can certainly encourage them by scheduling team lunches or volunteer opportunities every so often. Volunteering, in particular, gets people talking about what really matters to them. To avoid making these events engagement killers, strive to keep them low-pressure and — especially outside work hours — entirely optional.

Fostering employee engagement requires careful thought, but it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Sometimes it just takes a little heart.

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