Full Engagement: Why Your People Want to Work Harder (Smarter, Faster, etc.)

Who would be willing to walk into a car dealership and leave with half of a car? Could you imagine going to a grocery store and having to pay full price for a half-empty carton of milk? Then why are companies paying for employees who only engage with half (or less) of their potential?

There is no question that employee engagement, or lack thereof, is a huge factor in the productivity of any organization. The problem is how to engage; how to fire up the interest and reach the potential of people who all bring their own issues, history and challenges to the job. This is not a new problem; there are no end of books, seminars and training programs dealing in communication, personality types, motivational speaking and a vast array of other techniques meant to engage employees.

Why then does the problem of employee disengagement continue to plague so many employers? They say a chronic problem is one to which the wrong answer has been consistently applied. That is certainly the case here. Techniques applied extrinsically from even the best trained motivational coach will not have a lasting effect, except to the training budget.

The irony is that we all feel so much pressure to get results immediately that we miss the opportunity to get the results we want. Yet the answer is deceptively simple. If you want to engage the whole person (and in today’s global economy I would argue that you can’t afford not to), if you want a return on investment that far exceeds what you’re currently getting, listen. This single act will have a more profound effect than all the employee engagement books, seminars and techniques put together.

We all have a deep need to be heard, to connect with others and participate in something larger than ourselves. It is part of the human condition. That connection only happens when the speaker knows that they are being listened to. Not just superficially, not just having others waiting for their turn to talk, but honestly and with the intent to understand; the listener open to the possibility that they might learn something new. We have all seen it, probably even felt it, those who are able to give us their full attention and thereby really show us respect are the people we seek out when we want that connection.

Though the answer is simple, it is not a quick fix. The key is building real, effective listening skills as a central tenet of an organization’s culture. As Steven Covey so adroitly wrote in his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (Free Press. 1989. Print.) This intent to understand will in turn build trust as employees learn that their voices are heard. Then, instead of a workplace full of people waiting for someone else to think for them, they are engaged, thinking for themselves. Those are the employees who seek to share their insights on how to improve the process, cut costs, or whatever it is they know can be done better as only the person who does it every day can know.

To those whose eyes are rolling at the thought of a long line of employees waiting for an opportunity to tell the boss just what they think, let me just say that in no way am I advocating turning the C Suite into therapy offices. The conversation can and should be work related. Nor do I believe that every employee can be redeemed in this way; some need to be shown the door as the return is not worth the investment. But that is a very small minority.

Done without conviction or training, listening as a “technique” will just add another layer of cynicism to an already leery staff. But if the investment is made, the time and effort put into building the skill and creating the expectation that everyone can and should be heard from, if we let people participate meaningfully they will jump at the chance to bring their “A game” and participate as a whole person. The difference is remarkable, it is the difference between resources and resourcefulness.

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