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    5 Powerful Action Steps to Increase Employee Engagement

    by Sara J. Baker, Ed.D.

    Low employee engagement rears its head in many ugly ways:  lost profits, high turnover, poor customer service, and faulty products. Expectations of leaders and managers in the workplace are changing as workers begin to ask for higher levels of fulfillment from their jobs. A paycheck is no longer enough, employees want to love their jobs.

    How do you lead your team so that they are engaged at work and so that they do, in fact, love their job? Follow these 5 powerful action steps to increase employee engagement on your team and start seeing positive results.

    It’s going to take a leadership reformation in how we currently function as leaders and managers in order to enact positive change in the workplace. Be part of the movement that is making a difference in how we approach our roles as leaders. Join us as we walk through practical solutions to real-world leadership and management struggles.

    Understanding the Problem:  Why are Employees Disengaged?

    Employee engagement has a new meaning and a new two-part definition according to a new Gallup study.

    • The workforce of today believes that the first part of employee  engagement requires having a boss who is SUPPORTIVE and works to DEVELOP individual employees.

    But that’s not all.

    • The second part of that new definition involves having a clear understanding of what the PURPOSE is in the employee’s daily work.

    In other words, workers want to know how their daily job tasks contribute to the greater good.

    If you’ve been a leader or manager for very long, then you have likely watched as the leadership trends tilted ever so subtly in this direction, culminating in this moment.

    Researchers Search to Define Leadership:  Employee Engagement Wasn’t Even on the Radar

    Our perspective on leadership and management has shifted over the last 100 years as we have evolved as a society.

    Molded by the repressive beliefs of our society during the last century, attempts to explain the “how” of successful leadership began with the theory of the “great man” being the ultimate leader. This “theory” explained that only a man imbued with innate characteristics and born in just the right heroic time could be a great leader.

    Then realizing the too-small scope of that theory and the fact that great leaders appeared to develop over time in some people, we moved on to thinking that perhaps it came down to a perfect leadership style.

    Researchers analyzed strong leaders who produced results and tried to come up with a common list of styles. And then we looked for attributes. Then we decided maybe it was a matter of leadership skills. Surely, we thought, if we keep looking, we will unlock the secrets to great leadership.

    After some time, we decided that for every different type of situation a leader should adopt different characteristics and respond differently to each need. We thought if we used a chart or a graph that explained our possible responses, we would find the perfect response and then we would be a great leader.

    Is Leadership Defined by Leadership Skills?

    How to Engage Employees

    Then we believed that specific leadership skills held the keys to leading every team to greatness.

    Researchers tried to pin down the complete list, the detailed skill set that would make all leaders successful at last. Instead, they compiled massive lists of characteristics and skills that great leaders exhibited. These overwhelming lists proved to not be very helpful to organizations and schools that were trying to develop new leaders.

    Closer to the Real Issue of Employee Engagement:  Maybe It’s Vision, Emotional Intelligence, or Authenticity?

    Later came the promise of transformational leadership, which describes a leader who instinctively inspires followers to give their all in pursuit of a higher vision. Unfortunately, it relies too heavily on the leader’s personality as the motivator driving team members to perform.

    We can’t possibly accept a situation where we can only hire people for leadership or management roles if they exhibit specific personality traits. Especially with what we know about the importance of a leader who engages employees. We need action items for leaders that take them from the point of bossing their teams around to leading their teams to engagement and fulfillment.

    Emotional intelligence brings us closer to an answer.  At least, it acknowledges that leadership is about complex interactions between people and that there really isn’t a graph or chart that will make it all easy to understand. Emotional intelligence basically comes down to being aware of your emotions and the emotions of those around you and then using that information to act in a manner that achieves your desired outcome, in a non-manipulative manner, of course.

    In recent years, authentic leadership has caught traction with its focus on being your real self, being self-aware of your values, being positive, honest and using emotional insights to know what to say and how to say it. This approach suggests that a leader must always act in alignment with one’s true self. It goes farther to suggest that the professional self, personal self, and private self should all be the same if one is truly being genuine.

    Why Leadership Theories Don’t Deliver on Results: the Missing Piece of Employee Engagement

    With all of our analysis and all of our theories, there remains no single way to lead.

    The reality of leadership is that we will not be able to identify a single theory of leading that will fit all people, all teams, all needs. Besides, finding out that innate personality gifts or triggering personal experiences from our lives is what makes us great leaders is not helpful if we cannot somehow transfer those gifts and defining experiences to anyone who wants to be a strong leader.

    So, what do we do?

    image of employee engagement leadership tips leadership development

    As the workforce begins to advocate for itself in search of better workplace environments, we are forced to consider at this time, RIGHT NOW, workers don’t feel engaged.  We have a definitive employee engagement problem.

    And to the workers right now, that means, in general, and en masse, bosses are not developing their teams and are not leading their teams in understanding how their work is meaningful and impactful to society as a whole.

    The question of the hour, then, is not “what leadership theory do we think fits this scenario,” but is instead a much simpler question:

    What behaviors do our leaders and managers need to engage in right now to make this better?

    The educational researcher in me wants to conduct studies (I have, in fact, begun drafting the questionnaire) and that is a worthwhile pursuit.

    But it doesn’t provide actionable, easy to implement plans for addressing the workplace crisis today.

    While the researchers work on explaining behaviors and trying to identify the causal factor of those behaviors, what can managers and leaders start doing TODAY so we can begin seeing POSITIVE results?

    What Will Work? Practical Leadership Development Focused on Taking Action to Engage

    In 20 years of leadership in for-profits, not-for-profits, the public sector, and the private sector, I have studied, reflected, practiced, failed, won and grown as I searched for this answer.

    We need to know:  Whether it’s Day 1 or Day 627, what can a manager or leader DO to set positive change in motion and MAKE THINGS BETTER?

    image of employee engagement leadership tips leadership development

    The good news is that there is an answer:  an actionable five-step plan that can transform ANY situation and start improving your employee engagement immediately.

    Regardless of whether upper management supports your positive change or not, whether your team is eager for improvement or not, and whether you have many financial resources at your disposal or not.

    This five-step plan is one that I wish I could tell my younger, 26-year-old self starting out as a first-time manager. It would have saved me a lot of heartaches, for sure.

    5 Steps to Ignite Positive Change Today and Engage Your Team

    As you read through the five steps, notice how positive, consistent language use undergirds everything.

    Step 1:  Provide Vision and Purpose

    To lead you need to know where you are going. First and foremost figure out where you are now, figure out the vision for where you want to be and then get everyone on your team aligned with that understanding. But a vision is pointless if the team doesn’t understand the deeper purpose behind the vision. Your vision can’t just be for the company to increase profits. That isn’t enough for today’s workforce. They want to know “why” the company’s work, and their individual contributions, are important in the grander scheme. It’s not about making more money, it’s about how you are helping the world to be a better place for your customers.

    Say out aloud to your colleagues, your boss, and your team members, “We are here and we want to go there.”

    Make it compelling and use words that make emotional connections. Help others to see that how you get from here to there is important and it is filled with daily tasks, decisions and projects.

    A compelling, emotionally connecting vision for the future is necessary.

    If you want to lead, this is step one.

    Vision and purpose matter.

    Step 2:  Empower people

    Leadership is about listening to people, finding out what they need to be their best and then helping them get what they need. It’s about removing red tape and senseless processes so that they can spend their time getting important work done. Leadership also means sharing the workload showing that you trust the performance and capabilities of your team enough to give them important projects or tasks.

    It’s about giving people a say in what their job tasks are, if they are talented in some area that doesn’t fit exactly within their job description then let them do something in that area anyway. Give them leeway to inform your processes and job assignments.

    Sure, everything must get done, but moving things around so that everyone has tasks or projects that they enjoy a little more goes a long way toward supporting individual growth. People enjoy things they are good at.

    The more they do things they are good at, the better they get at those things. See? It’s easy.

    Step 3:  Provide accountability

    Hold people accountable, not by scare tactics and not by hovering over their shoulders watching everything they do. Instead, be transparent about the current status (where we are) and where we need to be.

    The vision casts the poetic version of the greater good, but your accountability parameters, your metrics should all relate to that greater good and should show a data pathway from where we are to where we want to be.

    When you talk to your team about targets, goals, timelines and detailed plans relate it to why the targets matter and how they help achieve that grander vision or purpose. Update everyone on progress towards goals and put the effort into explaining why the progress is or is not on target.

    Meet individually with team members who are not meeting goals and figure out what resources or support they need to be able to meet goals.

    Usually people don’t meet goals because they don’t understand the expectations, or they need training in providing a missing skill that is essential to the completing the task.

    Presume your struggling team members need help, before you jump to imagining that they are intentionally messing things up.

    Also, provide accountability clarity to your team as it relates to you as their leader. If there are metrics that matter to you and relate to the greater purpose, then share those metrics with them and let them know how you are progressing toward the targets.

    It may seem scary, at first, but it will build trust with your team and you will be surprised by their efforts to support you in meeting your goals, when you also are supporting them in meeting their goals.

    Step 4:  Be Courageous

    Being courageous does NOT mean that you are not afraid. Showing courage means that even though you understand the risk, you move forward with difficult decisions and tasks anyway.

    In times of difficulty, provide reassurance to your team, communicating the realities of the situation while also focusing on the plan to get past the difficulty.

    I prefer to call challenges “opportunities.” This insistence has lightened many a difficult meeting with my team members as we laughed at the string of seemingly constant “opportunities” and problem-solved how to address yet another “opportunity.” I always smile as I say it, and it does catch on.

    image of employee engagement leadership tips leadership development

    A positive mind-set in the face of difficulties is contagious. Believe that together you and your team can overcome obstacles and come out as victors. Smile and be at ease. Show your team with your words and your body language that you believe you can get through this successfully. Otherwise, why are you leading?

    Hope and encouragement are powerful forces in the face of problems. Your team needs to find that hope by watching what you say and do in the face of challenges.

    Step 5:  Develop Others

    Spend time speaking with your team on an individual basis, ask them what their short term and long-term goals are (and not in a stuffy “what’s your 5-year plan” way). Find out where they’d like to be and make suggestions about where you see they could be.

    Oftentimes, we miss out on possible career paths where we would be exceptional because it’s something we never considered. Be the leader that tells that your team what you think they are good at and how that ties into other opportunities in your organization. Once you know their interests and strengths, make training part of your regular discussions.

    Developing others includes delegating important projects to team members where they can grow and expand their skill set.

    Yes, you could probably do it better, but that’s not the point. Let your team know that you think they are capable of handling important tasks and let them know how you think the skills they gain through a stretch assignment will help their continued growth.

    There may very well be times that you can’t delegate time sensitive tasks because the amount of training or support that you would need to provide means you wouldn’t meet the timelines. In that case, go ahead and do the work.

    But, opportunities will present themselves where you have the time and ability to delegate to your team so that they can help you with these important projects. If you are specific in delegating key projects specifically in areas of a team member’s strengths, then you also are helping to develop that individual by supporting growth and reinforcing of neural pathways in areas of strengths.

    Why Does This 5 Step Plan Matter?

    Why does this five-step plan matter? What’s wrong with just going along, continuing doing what you’ve always done? Actually, if your team isn’t performing well, then everything is wrong with just plodding along without taking action. You are the leader, after all, and you are responsible for changing the status quo if things are not working well.

    Your performance as the leader is based solely on the performance of your team.

    Read that sentence again and let it sink in.

    You could be a phenomenal individual producer. You could individually produce what three normal people produce. But…

    If. Your. Team. Sucks. So. Do. You.

    I know that sounds harsh but leading successfully is about how you as the leader can make your team be great.

    When your team is happy, engaged, doing great things, growing in ways they never imagined, and outperforming where they would be without you, only THEN are you a great leader.

    This reality is at the heart of leadership.

    You can do it. You can be a great leader.

    To be great:

    • You MUST develop others to help them grow and become better.
    • You MUST help your team find purpose in their work.
    • You MUST show courage and make difficult decisions.
    • You MUST embrace empowerment balanced with accountability, all while consistently intertwining results with purpose.

    You can be a leader who starts transforming the workforce and you can get started today.

    Shift the focus off of you and start reforming your everyday actions to lead your team to success.

    Purpose. Coaching and Development. Empowerment. Accountability. Courage.

    Dr. Sara Baker, Founder of the Leadership Reformation

    About the Author

    Dr. Sara Baker is an advocate for positive leadership and healthy workplaces. With over 20 years of experience leading private and public organizations, she understands the challenges that employees and leaders face every day.

    Sara is the author of Toxic Workplace Survival Guide, an essential resource for anyone who wants to thrive in spite of a toxic work environment. In addition to her writing, Sara provides online courses for leadership development and coping with a toxic workplace.

    Dr. Sara Baker, Founder of the Leadership Reformation

    About the Author

    Dr. Sara Baker is an advocate for positive leadership and healthy workplaces. With over 20 years of experience leading private and public organizations, she understands the challenges that employees and leaders face every day.

    Sara is the author of Toxic Workplace Survival Guide, an essential resource for anyone who wants to thrive in spite of a toxic work environment. In addition to her writing, Sara provides online courses for leadership development and coping with a toxic workplace.

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