November 2018
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TD Magazine

Just CARE More

Thursday, November 1, 2018
Just CARE More

Employee engagement made simple.

I've come to find that employee engagement seems to be an elusive topic for many leaders. Even as a chief learning officer of a global organization, I struggle with it too. I don't claim to have a magic anecdote, but I do have an approach that I've learned during the past 15 or so years of working in leadership development, coaching, and talent development that could help. It's the CARE approach:

  • Create, communicate, and implement a vision.
  • Ask questions and listen.
  • Respect and value others.
  • Encourage and support growth and development.

Engagement starts within an employee, and it starts with the organization's leadership. If you and leadership are not engaged, how can you expect your people to be? Gandhi had a great saying: "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." If we as leaders wish to have more engaged organizations, then that change must begin within ourselves.

Take time to self-reflect and explore what makes you engaged. What motivates and inspires you? What times in your life and in your career have you been most engaged and passionate? How do you want to contribute and make a difference? What values are you living and fulfilling every day? Taking time for self-reflection may yield valuable insights for how to better engage your people or at least what questions to ask them.

Create, communicate, and implement a vision

An organization without a vision and a clear plan for achieving and measuring it is dead in the water. It is critical in any company to build and maintain momentum, and leaders at all levels are responsible for driving that. When creating a plan and strategy, approach it as a process. Often, groups and organizations participate in team building and strategic off-sites only to have that momentum lost because there is no plan for ongoing follow-up. It devolves into another management exercise or paper exercise that leads to disengaged staff. Be intentional, establish expectations, and have a clear plan and process for how you will create your vision and plan, and a strategy for ongoing engagement to continue the momentum.

People want to contribute and make a difference, know that what they do matters, and be involved in something greater than themselves. These are all human desires that, at a fundamental level, all people want. As a leader, your role is to create a vision and environment that will enable people to contribute their talents to the mission and where both the individual and organization will thrive.

Take time to have conversations with your employees to learn more about what matters most to them. Conduct listening sessions, stay conversations, or listening tours to hear firsthand what your direct reports are thinking. Don't merely listen; also act and follow through. Individuals want to know that their leaders not only hear them and understand their views and concerns but that their leaders also will do something to address them.

It is essential to implement and follow through on promises and commitments and to be open and transparent. Otherwise, trust will erode within the organization, which will make it impossible for even the best leaders to lead. Explore ways to build trust with your people and within your company. Be more aware of when you or others are either building trust or eroding it.

Trust is delicate to manage within any workplace. It can take a long time to establish but only moments to destroy. Be mindful of the promises and commitments you make to yourself and to others and where you are not following through. Own where you have fallen short and then recommit to being more accountable to honoring your word.

Failing to act, waiting for others to act, and stagnating will demoralize any organization. Set audacious and inspiring goals and pursue them with passion and vigor. If the company's leaders wait for others to act or wait too long for new leadership to arrive, then the organization will go nowhere and, even worse, deteriorate.

Be strategic—create a compelling and inspiring vision that people and the company can rally around and that people are excited to be a part of. Organizations without a clear vision or plan will end up anywhere or nowhere—and fast.

Ask questions and listen

People generally aren't the best at listening. Let's be real, many of us stink at it. We're often waiting for our own turn to speak or to insert our views or opinions. Oftentimes, we've already made up our minds, or we're listening through our own set of biases, filters, and beliefs, which leave us closed off to other perspectives, ways of thinking, and possibilities. I can say this because even as a leader and coach, I'm guilty of this too. We're all human and imperfect. To be better, start with a basic step of asking your employees open-ended questions:

  • What do you want? For yourself? For your career?
  • What do you enjoy doing the most?
  • What gives you satisfaction and makes you feel alive and inspired?
  • What do you enjoy doing the least?
  • What do you resist or procrastinate doing?
  • What frustrates you?
  • What challenges do you face?
  • What keeps you from being empowered and successful?
  • How can I help and support you?

After you ask the questions, listen intently for your staff's values, talents, concerns, passions, motivations, and interests. And when you think you've heard it all, it never hurts to ask, "So, what else?" or "What else is on your mind?" Then listen more deeply and reflect back on what you hear so that you're clear on what your employees are saying so they feel heard and understood.

To really feel that another individual has listened to and understood you is truly an amazing gift. For individuals who have experienced it, they can attest to the fact that it's an incredible experience.

Your role as a leader is to listen to your people—truly and genuinely for your employees' values, concerns, challenges, frustrations, talents, strengths, goals, fears, and passions. Reflect your observations back to demonstrate you understand. Listening at that level will enable you to connect with people at a more profound level beyond the day-to-day noise.

Listen deeply and intently for not only what they are saying but, more importantly, what they are not saying. Be curious and probe for deeper meaning. Often, what is at the surface is not the issue; it's only the tip of the iceberg. If you explore the true meaning, you will often find that it's many layers deeper than initially thought.

Respect and value others

People want to be valued and respected, so get to know your people. Understand what makes them tick and what's important to them. Help them discover their talents and nurture them into strengths. This takes time, and leaders must care enough to make the time to do this. Find ways to foster a sense of community through team lunches, morning coffee, community service days, team building sessions, organizational socials, and events. These are opportunities for people to engage with one another and connect in ways that are not always work related.


Understand that, generally, people are good and want to do the right thing. Realize we're all human and make mistakes. Create an environment that encourages learning and risk taking. The more and faster you fail, the faster your organization will learn and adapt to current and new challenges. If you're not failing, you're not learning.

Reward your people in meaningful ways. All employees are not equal in terms of performance, talents, or strengths. Their uniqueness is what makes them special. Find ways to reward them in ways that matter to them and where they feel valued and appreciated.

Encourage and support growth and development

Last, employees want to be challenged and know they are growing and developing both personally and professionally. They want to know that their workplace and its leaders genuinely care about them and their careers. Spend time finding ways to grow and develop your employees. If they don't have individual development or career plans, then work together to create one. Explore ways your people can use their talents in service of the mission and then get out of their way.

Contrary to some beliefs, career growth and development doesn't necessarily equate to promotions. I regularly speak with staff who feel stuck in their jobs and careers and who don't feel challenged. At the end of the day, it isn't always about the money; it's about feeling as though they matter and that their organization cares enough to invest in them. Companies that don't invest in their people will find that their top talent will leave or become disengaged.

Employees don't want to get stagnant or feel stuck or trapped. They want to know that even if they can't go up the career ladder, they can still grow and develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities in other valuable and meaningful ways. When they feel stuck, employees become restless and less engaged. Worse yet, they may become disengaged or actively disengaged to the point where they become toxic to others and the organization. Be observant and mindful of this happening, and be quick to address it.

Provide funding and allow staff time to do training and development and developmental assignments either inside or outside of your organization. Too often, I hear complaints about workload and funding and staff shortages in organizations. I find that the best leaders and managers proactively plan and still find ways to grow and develop their people despite these constraints.

If leaders simply CARE more, they will be more likely to see and experience a more engaged, inspired, and productive workforce. Genuinely caring takes time, effort, commitment, and focus. By focusing on these four areas, you will transform your organization and see improved results.

About the Author

Brian McNamara is chief learning officer for the International Trade Administration.

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