There’s a lot of talk about employee engagement in any industry, in any business. It’s an often-discussed topic in healthcare as well. It makes sense that engaged employees are more likely to try to do the right thing, are more likely to provide excellent service (patient care, support service), and are more likely to try to fix things that are not working.
In some organizations, leaders’ view of employee engagement is to behave like a cheering section. One colleague of mine in the Midwest mentioned an incident when a company’s IT department received industry recognition and a couple weeks after the announcement, but all within about an hour, every executive sent a broadly distributed email saying something like “Great job!”, or “Way to go!” My colleague reported that this had exactly the opposite effect than intended. This didn’t impress anyone in the department because it appeared to be a disengaged, rubber stamped effort. The overriding sentiment with staff was that the executives were not really even trying hard and they felt insulted at this half-hearted attempt to "engage employees."
And that's one of the dangers. To use phrases like "employee engagement" or "engage employees" sounds like an item on a To Do list that is simply another compulsory task. I prefer to "engage with employees" - that's a more accurate description and actually describes what works.
Let's talk about a positive example now - one that really points out how this should and does work.
Another colleague of mine, this time in a Northwest location, shared this story with me. One large segment of the IT department had completed a large, difficult project. There had been setbacks and delays, a fair amount of re-work due to some very challenging and changing dynamics, but the project completed on time and in scope (we won't discuss budget, that was the variable on this project). Twenty four hours after the successful Go Live, the CEO sent out a congratulatory email, with some specifics – “I’m truly impressed with the work you did to overcome the challenges you faced….” it began. Specific. Factual. Informed.
The CEO then appeared at the project close out meeting the following week to reiterate her praise with specific details. The teams were thrilled with the recognition and were fired up to keep delivering at that level. They were flattered that the CEO herself made time to come talk at their meeting and that she clearly had enough command of the details to speak to the specifics. More impressive still was that she asked questions of the team with the intent to learn more. Not the kind of questions that corner, trap or badger. The kind that reflect genuine interest and curiosity.
Though that type of interaction with that CEO was not uncommon, it was relatively rare. Enough so that it made a huge impact on the team. They were flattered at the attention, but more importantly, they felt genuinely appreciated. At the end of the day, when you go home feeling like you've made a difference and someone actually appreciated it, work feels pretty satisfying and you're much more motivated to continue, especially when the going gets tough.
So, here’s the takeaway. In order to have engaged employees, you have to engage with employees. It’s a reciprocal relationship. That doesn’t always mean large, grand gestures. It can sometimes be a quick email to a front line employee do did a good job solving a problem or delivered excellent service. Here are the five simple keys to making an impact as a leader to engage with your team:
Pay attention. Find opportunities for genuine, specific praise. Avoid generalities – even a small task, like clearing a priority trouble ticket, can be addressed with “Good job, thanks for the fast response, I appreciate it.” You might be surprised by how powerful a genuine, simple, specific thank you can be.
Show up. Having director, VP or C-suite presence at celebrations or at meetings during difficult projects can be powerful. Showing up, asking questions (genuine, information gathering questions) and providing input can not only help the leader gain perspective but show tangible support as well.
Be specific. General “good job everyone!” emails or comments are ignored by just about everyone. If you find yourself tempted to send that email, stop and ask yourself "what was good about it?" Use the answer to that question as the basis for your more specific praise.
Be genuine. There is very little that will cause people to disengage faster than false praise. Along these lines, praise should be proportionate to the effort. Glowing, over-the-top praise for routine work is inappropriate and signals just about everyone that there’s no real connection to the work effort. Similarly, if the team worked really hard to deliver an incredible result, a simple "Thanks for the hard work on this difficult project" also won't play well.
Make it a habit. Get in the habit of engaging with employees in small, meaningful ways. Yes, your day is crazy busy and filled with meetings. So what? Your job is to produce results through the efforts of others, so those 'others' are pretty key to your success. If you shift your perspective a bit and understand THAT, you'll find time to engage more often. Unless you know what’s really going on - what the challenges and triumphs of your teams are - you will be unable to fully achieve your objectives at the highest levels.
Job satisfaction typically comes primarily from three things: working in a job you enjoy, working with people who you mostly enjoy (there’s almost always someone who will bug you, that’s life), and being appreciated for the work you do. As a leader, if you’ve done a good job hiring competent people and placing them in the right roles, then the third magic ingredient is all up to you.