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Employee Engagement: Ensuring They Stay Past The Honeymoon

Chuck Longanecker works 500 miles away from his employees so he stays in touch with a tech tool called 15Five. 15Five reports take employees less than 15 minutes to complete and five minutes for him to read, Longanecker told Inc. magazine.

He enters questions, like "What challenges are you experiencing at work?" or "What are your sales projections for next month?"

Every Friday, his employees get an email with a link to the online questionnaire. By Tuesday, he has their answers which prompt a phone conversation or an email with Longanecker's response, sort of a digital pat on the back across the miles.

"My favorite thing is that it lets managers escalate an idea or a concern from an employee's report by clicking a button next to the response," Longanecker told Inc.

The system costs $99 a month for up to 20 employees.

Engagement. Longanecker can do it long distance, and often, while many managers are still only engaging once a year at the review. Is it working?

Many professionals, employees as well as managers, strongly dislike the annual performance review. Yet, about 90 percent of all U.S. companies still use them. Luckily, there are now emerging strategies called "social talent" tools that help get staff to buy in.

There's no need to "friend" your employees on Facebook. But small, sincere bursts of feedback are increasingly popular methods that go beyond the formal review. Social interaction helps boost performance, provide recognition and reduce the risk of high turnover. It's called employee engagement.

Will The Relationship Last?
When someone comes to work for you, they'll spend as many or more waking hours with you as they do with their families. It's a compliment, and a commitment, when that special someone said, "I do. I want to spend lots of time with you."

In good times and bad, employees share their enthusiasm or share their complaints, maybe not to you but to a wide circle. They talk about their relationship with work in passionate terms: I love my job! I hate it! Or I could care less.

So let's pop the question. What makes motivated, talented and skilled employees excited about their jobs, the company and you, the boss? They're all fired up when they come to work with you. But will the relationship last?

Three Little Words
International keynote speaker and management consultant Rory Rowland has made it a practice to ask working people this: "Who is the best boss you ever worked for and why?" The insights he collected from personal accounts were enough to fill his book, My Best Boss Ever. And Rowland discovered that "the best bosses on the planet" share timeless and universal characteristics. The common threads are these three little words: respect, trust and admiration

"I have never ever heard anybody mention rewards and bonuses," he said. "It's always how the boss helped that employee improve or get better."
The most memorable and highly-regarded managers inspire employees by being "more interested in promoting others than promoting themselves," Rowland said. "They make employees feel important by helping them grow, giving them a dream of where they can be down the road. When they know you care about them that's what makes the difference."

Manage to engage
Rowland tells of an office best practice for engaging employees. In his book he relates the story of Carolyn Warden and the pressure she felt in her very first job and how the manager kept her on board.

Warden felt stranded by the stress and humiliation of that new employee "not-up-to-speed" phase. She said she "read the customer's minds" and imagined them thinking, "This rookie has no idea what she is doing." Further insult came from a co-worker who asked, "When are you ever going to learn this stuff? It's easy."

Management By M&Ms
Feelings of inadequacy sent her to the office of the woman Warden said was her best boss ever.

"If I had a problem and I went to talk to her about it, she would invite me to sit down to enjoy some M&Ms that were in a bowl at the desk," Warden recalls. "She would excuse herself because at that moment, she always seemed to have to make a short phone call. To this day, I really do not know if she was actually making a phone call. She could have been calling Time and Temperature for all I know."

The M&M management tactic was not merely sweet, it was smart. After Warden sat and relaxed and dipped into the candy dish, the environment felt safe. Her worries seemed less overwhelming.

The Payoff (Plus A Sugar Rush)
When the manager ended the phone call, she gave full, undivided attention to an entry-level employee's concerns, as if Warden was the most valuable employee on the payroll.

"Her listening skills were legendary with everyone who worked there," Warden remembers. "I could tell her anything that was on my mind. I didn't go to her office to talk; I always went to her office to beheard."

Listen. Really Listen
Can keeping employees engaged be as simple as listening to them over a bowl of candy, a cup of coffee or lunch in the cafeteria?

Yes, said F. John Freh, a partner in The Altitude Group. "Managers maintain good relationships with company stakeholders, from clients and vendors to board members and investors. But do they maintain good relationships on the employee side? The 'grab a cup of coffee' strategy is an easy way to correct that."

The simple act of sharing a coffee break is an opportunity to sit down, listen and learn. "Many managers surround themselves with people who think like they do. It is always helpful to get input from a fresh source," said Freh.

He cites a supervisor who frequents the employee lunch room and "buys" coffee for everyone at the table. He sits with them to talk and listen.
No phones. No Pagers. No distractions.

Coffee doesn't have to mean coffee, necessarily. It only needs to be something relatively inexpensive that is readily available and can be lingered over. That kind of relaxed conversation can be powerful employee motivation. It can head off conflict and it's a great chance to learn important information about yourself, your employees, your products and services, your company and even your competitors.

Remember, the reason for the chat in a relaxed atmosphere instead of in your office is to learn.

"The key element is you need to keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Listen. Really listen," Freh said.
"None of this is rocket science. Studies have proven that we need enough money to survive. You've got to make a living, buy a car... creature comforts. That's reasonable," said management advisor Rory Rowland. "But the real driver for employees is a sense of accomplishment and achievement. They want to know that they are making a difference. Managers who tie to that are going to be very, very powerful."

The Word Gets Around
Whether you share a handful of candy, a cup of coffee (or a brown bag lunch in the break room), "social talent" tools engage employees much more than the annual performance review. The reality is, employees evaluate you, too. So take a seat in the cafeteria instead of the corner office now and then, and reap the benefits.

The word will get around that the boss cares. The boss is human. The boss is cool.

Four Tips For Modern Managers To Connect with Staff
Every manager is faced with employees who are not fully engaged, so what should you do? These four tips enhance the "lamb" side of management and help keep employees in the fold:

Ask in a new way.

  • Gather your team
  • Hand out blank index cards
  • Ask each employee to answer:  What is our company or organization's mission?
  • Collect the cards and read them aloud
  • Analyze the answers

If answers are similar, that's a good sign. It shows that employees are aligned and share and understand your purpose (and theirs). If answers are all over the place, what does that tell you?

Listen in a new way.

  • Chat informally with employees and listen to the pronouns they use.
  • Do they refer to the company as We?
  • Do they refer to the company as They?
  • Do the refer to the company as Corporate, Management or The Boss?

This tactic is credited to former U.S. labor secretary Robert B. Reich. The differences are subtle, but significant. The "we" people feel they are part of something important. The "we" people will make things happen.

Get a BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goal

  • Make it tangible
  • Energizing
  • Highly-focused with clear objectives

"Most of all, you need to communicate so your team understands the BHAG and wants to buy in," said Jim Collins. In Switch: How To Change When Change is Hard.

Go Back To The Basics

  • Respect your staff and they'll reciprocate
  • Recognize that they may know something you don't know
  • Credit others generously and often

Face it: Money (usually) is not the number one motivator.