Want to know how committed your employees are? The real test of employee engagement, says serial entrepreneur and author Kevin Kruse, is “discretionary effort.” Connecting through the Miami airport last October, Kruse – author of the new Employee Engagement 2.0: How to Motivate Your Team for High Performance saw it firsthand: “The US Airways ticketing terminal was all decorated for Halloween, and you looked down at all the others, and none of them were. Maybe there was an order that every ticket counter for US Airways had to be decorated for Halloween, but I don’t think so. I think employees at this location were engaged, and said, wouldn’t it be cool to decorate?”
How can you tell if your employees are engaged? Companies can start with a simple survey (big firms may want to hire consultants, but even a free SurveyMonkey questionnaire will do). “I like to ask questions about pride,” says Kruse. “When there’s a job opening at work, do you tell friends and family about it? Do you feel your colleagues are performing at a high level of quality and service? They’re proxy questions, but what you’ll see is discretionary effort in the kinds of areas that the average employee wouldn’t do.”
The insights can be revealing, but too many firms fail to share that data with employees. “The secret is to push it down to frontline managers and ensure they’re measured on it,” says Kruse, a fellow Forbes contributor. “As a manager, you should get your scores, share them with your direct reports, and they’ll tell you how to improve. If we’re not doing a good enough job on communication, ask them what they want – a weekly huddle, or more face-to-face meetings? Let [your frontline managers] decide what they want, and then implement it and hold them accountable for that implementation.”
Companies who fail to prioritize employee engagement often cite financial reasons – but Kruse says that’s a mistake. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money,” he says. “People will feel engaged with their boss and their company if there’s a feeling of growth, appreciation, and trust.” Growth may include promotions or raises, says Kruse, but there are also other considerations: “You don’t have to get promoted to feel like you’re being challenged and advancing on the right career path.” Similarly, recognition isn’t just about cash bonuses; sometimes a handwritten thank you note or public praise from the boss can be just as meaningful. And trust, says Kruse, is based on an employee’s belief that his or her leadership team is headed in the right direction: “I know there’s a plan, and I fit in.”
Successful employee engagement initiatives don’t just offload all the work to the HR department, says Kruse: “The keys to unlocking engagement are in the hands of frontline leaders. Are they having conversations with their direct reports about how they’re going to get their goals, including their career goals, accomplished? Are they asking, how can I help you do that?” And if leaders set the right workplace climate, employees may just dive in. After all, says Kruse, “The individual employee has a role in it, too. It’s not just the manager’s job to make them engaged at work. You can engage others on your team; you don’t need a title to lead.”
The dividends, he says, can be major: “Your emotions at work, whether good or bad, spill over into other areas of our lives. If you’re more engaged at work, the better spouse you’re going to be at home, and you’ll be a better parent to your kids, a better friend, and physically healthier. It’s not just about the business benefits. The real ‘why’ of leadership and engagement is that you’ll be happier and healthier outside of work, as well.”
What’s your company doing to increase employee engagement? Do you feel engaged at work? Why or why not?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on August 23, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.