This statistic from Gallup business should give leaders great pause: 85 percent of workers are either not engaged or actively disengaged in their job.The State of the Global Workplace report drilled into the numbers, finding that 18 percent of employees felt actively disengaged and a whopping 67 percent said that they were just muddling through their days. Look at it another way: if your department has 20 employees and only three are giving it their all, that’s a big problem.
Employee engagement is essential to organizational success, yet many companies struggle with inspiring and positively challenging their workforce to not only do good work, but also go above and beyond. Here are four lessons and activities from Berrett-Koehler expert authors on promoting career development, receiving feedback, and, ultimately, boosting employee engagement:
1. Prioritize employees’ career development
Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni are employee engagement experts and authors of Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want. In the book, Kaye and Winkle Giulioni detail how failing to develop employees can cause them to leave or, possibly worse, disengage. They write, “Even during challenging economic times, your best and brightest have options. Failing to help them grow can lead employees to take their talents elsewhere … But what can be equally as damaging as this sort of talent drain are the employees who stay and become disengaged. Their bodies remain but their commitment has quit.”
A solution to reengage these employees—or prevent them from disengaging in the first place—is to focus on career development that is tailored and specific to their interests and passions. Everyone has goals for their job, and though some people are content to stay in their current roles, many look to the future for new challenges, added responsibilities, and career advancement. Business leaders are in an optimal position to foster this development and increase engagement. No two conversations will be the same, but it’s nevertheless critical for managers to continue to open up these conversations with employees so that they feel invested in and valued, which will inevitably lead to higher engagement.
Kaye and Winkle Giulioni emphasize that conversation is at the heart of employee development: “Whether it’s a formal individual development planning (IDP) meeting or an on-the-fly connection, it’s the quality of the conversation that matters most to employees. That’s how they judge your performance and their development. That’s also how they make the decision to go or stay—or to stay and disengage.”
2. Effusive feedback
In Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, Kaye and Winkle Giulioni also introduces the concept of feedback in a novel way: “How appropriate that the word begins with feed. Because for many employees, information from others about how they’re perceived and how they’re doing is currently a severe source of malnourishment in today’s workplace. Yet in study after study, employees in every sector are starving for feedback. And, it’s a pretty human response. We spend 40+ hours each week at work, dedicating our bodies, minds, and souls to the cause. A little attention is not too much to ask.”
Unfortunately, managers have often said that it is difficult to make time for attention. Even though, as the authors note, feedback doesn’t cost anything, can be shared in any setting, and isn’t reserved to managers, some leaders aren’t comfortable offering constructive feedback—and some employees aren’t comfortable asking for it. According to Kaye and Winkle Giulioni, withholding feedback can lead to stunted growth, lack of clarity, loss of talent, missed opportunities, and, of course, disengagement.
The authors recommend feedback not be limited to just assessing job performance. “Opportunities for feedback abound,” they write. “And what probably comes to your mind first is performance feedback—job-related information about an employee’s behavior or results that helps to drive improvement. That’s certainly important—but it’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a broader and more expansive dialogue that drives development.”
Incorporate feedback—all kinds of feedback, in any situation—to inspire employees and drive engagement. Framing feedback positively, or effusively, can also create a positive workplace culture, one in which employees and managers feel more open to building feedback into every interaction and system.
3. Nurture varied opportunities
As we’ve already alluded to, each employee’s career development arc and path to engagement will vary. In Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility, Kaye, Lindy Williams, and Lynn Cowart write, “The definition of career success is up to each one of us.” Discovering what success means to each employee is a challenge that ultimately pays off with added engagement.
Employees who feel limited by a certain career track—or don’t see a track at all—have no incentive to put their best foot forward. In Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, the authors compare the multiple choices to a rock-climbing wall, rather than a ladder. They write, “The career-climbing wall is expansive, offering a wide selection of spots to explore and enjoy, and a nearly unlimited combination of moves in every direction—around, up, over, and down—toward one’s vision of success.”
When you encourage pursuing a variety of opportunities, employees have less reason to disengage. What’s key is providing and nurturing those opportunities. Not every career path is linear, and not every employee is looking to advance upward. Investing your time and enthusiasm in your workers will help you better understand and facilitate their varied paths. Even assigning small projects and initiatives promotes an employee’s value and can lead to bigger, better achievements for all parties.
4. Engage and recognize
Beyond career development and dynamic feedback, employee engagement activities present further opportunities to keep workers connected, focused, and happy. In her book Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works, Cindy Ventrice details a variety of ways recognition can spur engagement and vice versa, including:
- Informal peer recognition
- Symbolic rewards that represent your message
- Team and company self-recognition
- Linking goals to performance
- Clear, specific recognition of behaviors
Make Their Day! delves into more employee engagement strategies that inspire workers (as well as managers and executives) to become and stay engaged.
Remember, engagement isn’t about what your employees can do for you, but what you can do for your employees to make them want to do good work for you. Honest, open feedback and career development conversations are key drivers of that engagement—something to keep in mind the next time you connect with your employees.