Boost employee engagement with these key people skills

With all the talk about “employee engagement,” it’s only fair to ask, “Can I really get all the people in my organization to give their best – every day?”

The short answer is probably not “all.” But with the right amount of effort you can get “most” of them to give their best … most of the time. And that’s a lot better than where most companies are right now.

Boiled down to its simplest parts, employee engagement is about connecting with employees and getting them focused. It requires an ongoing and consistent effort by managers to bring out the best in people.

Employee engagement takes practice

You don’t need to be good friends with every employee – but it does help to build cordial relationships. That makes working with people more productive and cohesive.

People get more engaged in their work when the work means something to them, when they understand their role in the organization, and when they can see and appreciate the results of their own efforts.

Here are some “hands on” ways leaders can work to improve interactions and create a deeper connection with employees and colleagues:

  • Make it personal. Use people’s names when talking to them – from the janitor to the CEO. Even better, use the names of their significant others – spouses, kids, parents – when possible.
  • Say more than hello. Sometimes it’s necessary to cut to the chase and get to the business at hand – a project, deadline, important question, etc. But in other circumstances, there’s time to show interest in employees’ and colleagues’ lives. Instead of a generic “How are you?” ask about something that affects them.
  • Talk about their interests. People surround themselves with hints of what interests them outside of work (for instance, sports ticket stubs, photos of beach trips, logo T-shirts from local events, race medals, certificates of appreciation from philanthropic groups, etc.). Look for those hints and ask about them. Once you know a little about what they do outside work, you have a starter for other conversations: “How did your son’s soccer game turn out?” “Where did you volunteer this weekend?” “Planning any vacations?”
  • Show appreciation. Avoid waiting for the end of a project or annual reviews to thank employees and coworkers for their contributions. And it’s OK to say thanks for the little things they bring to the table – a good sense of humor, a sharp eye for errors, an impeccable work station, a positive attitude.
  • Make others feel important. Feeling important is slightly different than feeling appreciated. Employees need to know they’re relevant. Let them know you recognize their contributions by referring to past successes when you talk to them personally and to others in meetings. Explain why their work was important.
  • Recognize emotions. Work and life are roller coasters of emotions. Leaders don’t have to react to every peak and valley, but they’ll want to address the highs and lows they see. For instance, “You seem frustrated and anxious lately. Is something wrong that I can help with?” Or, “I can sense you’re very excited and proud. You deserve to be.”

Building morale

The best morale exists when you never hear the word mentioned. If you have employees, you’ll have morale problems. No matter how thorough a company’s hiring process is, at some point leaders will have to handle morale issues because employees get stressed, are overworked and deal with difficult people.

The good news: Most of the time, employees won’t be down if their managers build and maintain morale. To stay ahead of morale issues:

  • Communicate. Employees left in the dark will become fearful and anxious and likely make up negative news to fill the gap. This can be avoided by regularly reporting information, changes and company news.
  • Listen. While sharing information is a must, employees must also be heard. Give them different options to share their concerns and ideas. Offer the floor at department meetings, have regular one-on-one meetings, put up a suggestion box or anonymous e-mail account for submissions, invite executives to come in and listen, etc.
  • Appreciate. People who aren’t recognized for their contributions may assume they’re not doing well. Leaders should take the time to thank employees for their everyday efforts that keep the operations running smoothly. In addition, extra effort should be recognized and rewarded.
  • Be fair. Nothing hurts morale like unfair treatment. Leaders can’t turn their backs on poor performances, and they can’t play favorites. It’s best to document what’s done in response to good and bad behaviors so leaders can do the exact same thing when the situation arises again – and have a record of it.
  • Provide opportunities to grow. Growth is often equated with moving up the career ladder. But it doesn’t have to be. Many employees are motivated by learning and creating a larger role for themselves. So if people can’t move up a career ladder (because there aren’t positions available), encourage them to learn more about the company, industry or business through in-house or outside training. Or give them opportunities to grow socially by allowing them time to volunteer.
  • Create a friendly environment. Research shows people who have friends at work are more motivated and loyal to their employer. While this can’t be forced, opportunities to build friendships can be provided through potluck lunches, team-building activities and requesting staff to help in the recruiting process.
  • Paint the picture. Employees who know their purpose have higher morale than those who are “just doing the job.” Regularly explain to employees how their roles fit into the company’s mission and how they affect the department and the company.

Praise what you want to see repeated

Handing out recognition takes a little more skill than just saying “Good job” and giving a pat on the back, though that’s a good start.

Giving recognition well is a skill all leaders could improve upon to keep their employees encouraged and productive.

Here are five guidelines for recognizing good work:

  1. Make it a policy, not a perk. Set rules for different types of recognition. For instance, recognize people for tenure and meeting goals – things everyone can accomplish.
  2. Stay small. Handshakes and sincere appreciation are always welcome (especially since 65% of employees say they haven’t been recognized in the past year, according to a Gallup Poll). Leaders need to look their employees in the eye, thank them for specific work and explain why it made a difference.
  3. Add some fanfare. Recognize people at meetings when others can congratulate them.
  4. Include the team. In addition to praising individuals, recognize a whole group for coming through during an unexpected hard time, meeting a goal, working together, etc.
  5. Make it personal. When recognizing employees, match the reward and praise to the person. One person may like a quiet thank-you and a gift card to a favorite store. Someone else might thrive on applause and a certificate given at a group lunch. Find out what people like and cater to them when possible.
Rich Henson
Rich Henson, a member of the HRMorning staff, has spent the past two decades developing potent HR and Management content that helps guide successful leaders forward with confidence. He is a former editor and reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer.