The headline “Improve Employee Engagement” is everywhere in the business culture. Employee engagement is a term used by human resource professionals that represents the degree that employees are enthusiastic about their work, their willingness to learn, and their commitment to the mission of the organization. Essentially, it is a term that tries to capture how much workers are “into” their job, will persevere and work hard, and do what is necessary to help the organization succeed.
Employee engagement—both the degree (fully engaged, marginally engaged, disengaged) and the percentage of employees (25 percent fully engaged, 40 percent marginally engaged, 35 percent disengaged)—is a very accurate predictor of employee behavior and outcomes. The overall view is rather obvious. A company with a large, highly engaged group of employees will have higher production, better customer satisfaction ratings, and less turnover, and will generally function better as an organization.
The challenge leaders (and organizational consultants) face is to determine what increases employee engagement, and how to make it happen. As I discuss in my video, “Why Employee Engagement Isn't Really What You Want,” companies and organizations can “chase” employee engagement, when what they really want are the building blocks that result in employees being more engaged. And we clearly know (both from research and from observation) that a key way to get employees to be more committed to and excited about their job is for them to feel truly valued by those with whom they work.
We also know that despite companies spending billions of dollars on trying to improve engagement, the reality is that levels of engagement have largely stayed the same over the last three to five years. In my work with companies across many industries, I've discovered cost effective ways of creating a culture of appreciation.
Core Principles for Effectively Communicated Appreciation
Make sure your praise is specific and personal. The most common mistake organizations and supervisors make is that their communication is general and impersonal. They send blast emails: “Good job. Way to go team.” But they have no specific meaning to the individual who stayed late to get the project completed. Use your colleague’s name and specifically say what she does that makes your job easier.
Realize that other types of actions can be more meaningful than words for many people. Some employees do not value verbal praise (the “words are cheap” mentality). They have grown to not believe compliments from others, expecting them primarily to be an act of manipulation. Other actions can be more meaningful for these individuals, such as helping them get a task done.
Use the language of appreciation valued by the recipient. Not everyone likes public recognition or social events. For many introverts or busy people, going to a “staff appreciation dinner” is more like torture than a reward for doing a good job. They may prefer getting a gift card for a bookstore and staying at home and reading. Find out what they value and communicate in that language.
Separate affirmation from constructive criticism or instruction. If you want the positive message to be heard, don’t follow your affirmation with a, “Now, if you would only . . .” message. Don’t give a person a compliment and then tell him how he could do the task better. He will only remember the “constructive” criticism, and may not even hear the positive.
Be genuine. Don’t try to fake it or overstate your appreciation. People want appreciation to be genuine, not contrived.
Good things happen when individuals feel truly valued and appreciated for their contributions: Employee relationships are less tense, communication becomes more positive, policies and procedures are followed more, staff turnover decreases, and businesses report being safer. When supervisors and colleagues build a foundation of authentic appreciation, employees are more likely to be engaged and motivated to fulfill the mission and goals of the company.