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Waking Employees


Several years ago I was working with a company that was looking for some ways to turn around the performance of one of its divisions. The productivity,

STEVE SCHUMACHER

Several years ago I was working with a company that was looking for some ways to turn around the performance of one of its divisions. The productivity, quality of work, customer service and other performance measures had been slipping for quite awhile, as had employee morale. I teamed up with a regional vice president to form a strategy to get things back on track. We wanted to make the operation successful again, build a team spirit, and change the company management's perception of this division from being hopeless to being a rising star.

First, we spent two weeks meeting with employees and listening to what their issues were. We set up times for volunteers to show up in a conference room and vent their frustrations. Some employees wanted to meet one on one, which we gladly did. We felt like it was important to let everyone know that we cared about what they were going through and weren't going to make any changes without first hearing what they had to say. We wrote down every complaint and sent out copies of the entire list to everyone. We then asked for volunteers to work with us on a team to prioritize the complaints and design a course of corrective action.

We were overwhelmed with the number of people who wanted to get involved in working on the complaints. Just asking people to be on a team made it clear that one of the biggest issues that caused people to disengage was that they didn't feel like their opinions mattered to management. As we worked through the list, it also became clear that the next two issues were essentially: employees didn't have a clear understanding of the mission of the business, and they didn't have a clear line of sight between their job, the division's role and the company goals. With the help of the problem-solving team, we set out to correct those top three items, while simultaneously increasing employee involvement at all levels. Over the next year and a half, key division performance measures improved between 8% and 60%. Employee morale improved as evidenced by the results of an employee attitude survey administered every 90 days. And company managers actually looked forward to visiting the division once again.

Finding ways to re-energize employees may not be as dramatic or as big in scope as that, but no doubt most managers have the same challenges at times. If your company is starting to pull out of the recession, you may have employees who are still feeling a bit shell-shocked, and who's performance and attitude show it. Even in the best of times, there always seems to be a small percentage of employees who just put in the time necessary and no more ó you know, the man you have to put a mirror under his mouth to see if he's breathing. There are ways to get people motivated and fired up again, regardless of how your business is doing.

Research shows that employees' understanding of the business strategy and how their work contributes to the company is one of the top drivers of employee engagement. However, only 37% of employees understand what their organization is trying to achieve, and only 20% of employees have a clear line of sight between their work and organizational goals. Creating this line of sight can be particularly challenging in an environment where many organizations are undergoing significant change and employees may be receiving disjointed and even conflicting messages about the business.

To fix this, develop a balanced, clear, honest message about the business. Educate your current leaders on how to present this message face to face with employees. There must be a balance of the upsides and downsides of the business strategy. Ensure that you not only share what your strategy is but why you are pursuing that strategy. In the recent tough economic times, some of the trust that employees have for the company may have eroded. This type of setting is a good way to rebuild some of that trust through honest and open question-and-answer sessions.

Show each employee how their performance impacts the company. Keep in mind that lack of employee engagement doesn't happen overnight, nor will turning it around. We, as human beings, all want to feel like what we're doing makes a difference. Initiate a campaign to educate and involve all employees in establishing line-of-sight metrics for all positions in the company. Cascade these metrics from the very top of the organization throughout every level. Get employees involved in developing the metrics through work groups and teams. Ensure that supervisors are trained in communicating their priorities with employees. Share data on a regular basis using charts and graphs that show key metrics at all levels. Build those metrics into performance-review systems.

Meet with employees regularly to talk about progress. Open communication throughout the organization is vital to employee engagement and keeping employees energized. Don't use these meetings only when there is a problem. Certainly, people want to be involved in correcting issues, but involve them in celebrating progress and successes also. Look for creative ways to communicate constantly: intranets, videos, Twitter, and other electronic means are wonderful because of their speed and comprehensiveness. Face to face is most powerful though, so keep meeting with your employees in person.

Sometimes the jobs we perform can be a source of boredom and complacency. Doing the same thing, day after day, can create employees that simply go through the motions without a true sense of accomplishment. It can be a worthwhile investment to look at the jobs in your company and ask your employees some questions about those jobs. Ask if they know what it is about the job that makes it important to the company, what skills they use, what talents they have but don't use, what about the job is challenging and rewarding, in what areas they would like to have more responsibility, what they would like to be doing in the next three to five years, and what ways they would like the job to change.

If the responses tell you that there are opportunities to enrich the jobs that your employees do, there are some things you can do.

Form self-directed work teams. Allowing employees to make decisions about how they do their jobs, along with others, can add a whole dimension of autonomy and control that they have never experienced before. Push as many decisions as possible down to the team level. Give them the tools and skills they need to work in teams, and then let them go. Tell them the outcomes you expect, and let the employees figure out the processes for achieving those ends.

Increase employee involvement in all decisions. If employees are feeling less than challenged in their work, consider getting them involved in areas that have been left to management. Let them participate in some budget decisions, work scheduling, how work is organized, and hiring new employees. Employees will feel more empowered and energized when they have greater influence over decisions that impact their work lives.

Present the idea of moving assignments around in one of your employee communication meetings. Let them decide if it will work and how. The new responsibilities that come with a new and different assignment can make employees feel more valued. Employees will gain new skills and expertise that will assist you in developing bench strength for key positions.

It is important to increase quantity and quality of feedback. Look for ways to get employee feedback that go beyond the annual performance review. Put in place tools for peer feedback, customer feedback and feedback from other departments. We all thrive on feedback, and it's up to you to put processes in place to get your employees the feedback they want and need to keep their performance at high levels.

Feed and nurture creativity, because untapped creativity dwindles. If employees rarely think for themselves, they lose the ability to contribute their best ideas. They simply go through the paces, under-motivated and disengaged. You can help by asking for and rewarding creative ideas, by giving employees the freedom and resources to create, and by challenging employees with new assignments, tasks and learning.

New hires must fit the company's culture. Often, the lack of employee engagement can be traced back to the initial hiring decision. Many hiring decisions are made solely on the basis of whether the candidate has the right skills and abilities for the position. It's vital that the fit between the candidate and the company culture be addressed upfront. During the interview, break from the traditional skills and abilities questioning and ask questions like ìGive me an example of how you've had conflicting priorities, how you handled the situation, and the results,î or ìTell me of two instances where you felt overwhelmed with your workload and how you resolved them.î

Engagement means more than having employees who work overtime or who take on extra projects. An engaged and energized work force understands your organization's goals, can clearly communicate their roles in achieving those goals, and can discuss how they impact the overall success of your organization. Furthermore, engaged employees have a visible commitment to that success. Generally, companies with engaged employees have more satisfied customers, generate higher revenue and are more efficient.

Steve Schumacher has worked with mining and other industries for over 25 years, and is a frequent contributor to Rock Products. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.