7 Ways Business Leaders Can Create Employee Engagement

Employees collaborating at a table with laptop and mobile devices.

Half of adults have left a job to get away from their manager at some point in their career, according to a Gallup survey. And since 2000, when Gallup first began measuring employee engagement, less than one-third of Americans are engaged in their jobs in any given year.

This problem can have a significant negative effect on productivity, customer service levels and retention, OfficeTeam says. The staffing company found that more than one in four professionals said their company is not effective in keeping workers motivated. Sixty-one percent said they would likely leave their current position if they did not feel engaged.

Gallup estimates that the 18 percent of employees who are actively disengaged cost the United States $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year. Yet, high employee engagement increases profitability 16 percent, productivity 18 percent, customer loyalty 12 percent and quality 60 percent, Gallup found in a meta-analysis of 199 studies.

What steps can business leaders take to tackle the problem?

1.    Promote Open Communication

“A successful feedback loop measures and reviews employee performance in an effort to improve future productivity,” Entrepreneur contributor Andre Lavoie says. “Continuous communication in the workplace is crucial to developing employees, yet only 2 percent of employers provide ongoing feedback to their employees, according to a 2013 survey of 803 HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).”

Regular meetings in an informal, one-on-one setting can help improve communication and engagement. Gallup found that employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are nearly three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them.

2.    Let Employees Test New Ideas

“Many employees, by their very nature, are risk-adverse,” writes Inc. columnist Kevin Daum. “That’s why they are employees and not entrepreneurs. If they work in an environment where the boss is always correcting them before they have a chance to execute, they will constantly look for approval before taking action or, worse, simply avoid any new or dynamic action.”

Daum recommends giving employees the freedom to try new ideas in a way that doesn’t put the company in danger. Through the process, they’ll learn from their failures and successes, and become more engaged and innovative in their work.

3.    Budget for Personal Development

Opportunities for professional growth not only engage employees, but they help workers grow to pursue leadership roles within the company.

“Employees are an organization’s most important asset, so invest in them,” Lavoie says. Formal education, internal or external training, lunch-and-learn programs, professional development events and professional associations can help employees grow and advance.

4.    Help Employees Understand the Direction of the Company

Employees don’t always have all the details to take action and lead others, or to navigate tricky situations. Leaders can communicate with employees what will help them be successful and represent the company well.

“An employee who clearly understands the core values, purpose and direction of the company can easily make consistent decisions and take appropriate action at any junction,” Daum says. “It’s on you as the leader to impart your vision. That’s how you lead.”

5.    Establish Clear Roles, Responsibilities and Goals

If workers don’t understand what they are supposed to do, they can’t do it very well and it’s hard for them to get excited about it. Confusion can also cause redundancy and blurred responsibilities between employees.

“Clarity of expectations is perhaps the most basic of employee needs and is vital to performance,” Gallup says. “Great managers don’t just tell employees what’s expected of them and leave it at that; instead, they frequently talk with employees about their responsibilities and progress. They don’t save those critical conversations for once-a-year performance reviews.”

Sixty-nine percent of employees who strongly agree that their manager helps them set performance goals are engaged, according to Gallup. For employees who strongly disagree, just 8 percent are engaged, and 53 percent are actively disengaged.

6.    Let Employees Know That They Are Appreciated

“Don’t be shy about finding ways to say ‘thank you’ or celebrating the good things your employees do,” Daum says. “If they have to ask how they are doing, you are doing your job poorly as a leader.”

The best employees don’t work at a company for the money. They need to feel appreciated and that leadership values their participation. Employers and business leaders who demonstrate these values will help employees feel connected to the company and to their work.

Only 31 percent of employees feel strongly valued at work, according to an engagement report from TINYpulse. Respondents claimed that managers only let them know when they were doing something wrong or when they failed to do something.

7.    Focus on Strengths Over Weaknesses

“Gallup researchers have studied human behavior and strengths for decades and discovered that building employees’ strengths is a far more effective approach than a fixation on weaknesses,” the company said. “A strengths-based culture is one in which employees learn their roles more quickly, produce more and significantly better work, stay with their company longer, and are more engaged.”

Two-thirds of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged, Gallup found. However, 31 percent of employees who indicate strongly that their manager focuses on their weaknesses are engaged. Placing employees in jobs that allow them to maximize their natural talents is “the most powerful benefit a manager can provide,” Gallup adds.

Traditional management systems encourage mediocrity in everything and excellence in nothing, according to Peter Bregman in Harvard Business Review. Most performance review systems simply assess how closely employees match certain standards or competencies and focus on how they can improve their weaknesses to “meet or exceed expectations” in every area.

For a worker who excels with customers but struggles with spreadsheets, a manager should focus on client-based work and have someone who enjoys spreadsheets do them. That’s a better approach than discussing how that person can improve with spreadsheets. “He’s amazing with people, not spreadsheets,” Bregman says. “He’ll work hardest, derive the most pleasure, and contribute his maximum potential with the greatest result if he is able to focus as much time as possible in his area of strength.”

Excelling in Business Leadership

Connecting with employees and building an organization that is meaningful, exciting and fulfilling can help business leaders maximize employee engagement. Aurora University’s online MBA helps students develop the knowledge and skills needed to manage employees effectively. The programs cover current business concepts and take place in a fully online learning environment.