In high-growth businesses, almost everyone is being called upon to do more, give more, be more than we feel capable of being. We are seeking to solve problems that feel unsolvable, at an ever-increasing pace. These problems aren’t all the same as they were 20 years ago, either. While we’re still trying to drive down customer acquisition costs and increase year-over-year growth, we’re also trying to give an evolving workforce what they need to be successful.
People used to say they were satisfied with what they took away from work (paycheck, benefits, pension), but today employees are demanding more. They want meaning, purpose, role clarity and/or professional growth, etc., and they expect their leaders to guide them there.
I spend my days talking to leaders about that last part, how to get their workforce not just satisfied, but engaged. It’s hard but necessary work, especially when the fight for talent is incredibly competitive. Glassdoor, a recruitment site driven by employee reviews, compiled and conducted study after study showing a correlation between employee engagement and company growth. Companies that are investing in employee engagement see higher revenue, lower turnover, higher productivity, faster growth, and all sorts of good stuff over and over again.
But is engagement possible for every employee, in every industry?
In my coaching sessions, leaders often come back with something like, “This employee is just crusty and bad-tempered. They’re always going to be that way and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
One, that’s a defeatist attitude if I’ve ever seen one.
But two, and more importantly, these leaders bring up a good point…
What is the employee’s responsibility in their own engagement? Does all of the onus fall on the leader?
Let me be clear: ultimately, leaders should be held responsible for the health of their organizations. However, many of my customers often struggle to communicate cross-functionally, much less understand how to diagnose and impact their level of engagement. So, how do you teach your team members how to take on some of this responsibility?
For employees to start owning their own engagement, I have found there first needs to be psychological safety within a team. In 2014, Google’s People Operations team found that the level of psychological safety in a team was the number one factor in determining eventual effectiveness. They defined psychological safety as whether or not “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.” Do you have psychological safety within your team?
Here are a few questions I coach my clients to ask to diagnose the level of psychological safety on their teams:
- What happens when someone disagrees with me or another team member?
- When was the last time I chose an idea that wasn’t my own?
- Does every team member speak during meetings or are there a few dominant voices?
- When was the last time I heard critical feedback? How did I respond?
If you have a hard time answering these questions, it might be time to have a transparent conversation with your team on what you need to be doing better to create this environment. If you seem to be on track, then on to the next thing.
Your next step as a leader is to help your team self-diagnose whether they’re engaged or disengaged. This starts with utilizing your feedback cadence to help your team members strengthen their emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence is an ideology made famous by Travis Bradberry and Jean Graves in their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0. If employees can understand their work habits, preferences, and skills, they can start to realize their full potential for the good of your business. However, it’s tough to self-actualize in a vacuum. As a leader, you can help your team members learn about themselves by asking good questions, sharing when you see them thrive, or giving hungry employees opportunities to stretch their skills.
This all comes back to the need for a semi-regular feedback cadence with your reports. Once an in-person or video meeting is on the calendar, what are you talking about? Are you only discussing necessary project tasks or are you encouraging your employees to self-reflect on their work? Could they diagnose what’s giving them energy and what’s draining them? Do they understand what makes them tick, so they can more readily offer up those skills for the betterment of your organization?
The key piece here is this: employees often can’t self-discover if they’re not taught how.
Warning: Enabling your employees to self-diagnose their strengths is a double-edged sword. If you’re teaching your team to figure out what they need or what they enjoy, then you need to be ready to listen and make adjustments. If you’re coaching on how to be in tune with what gives them energy, they may outgrow your organization. While with any change comes risk, I would argue the reward is far greater when you have an employee base that cares, that knows themselves, and gives their best selves to your organization.