Three ways to actually engage employees

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Nobody washes a rental car.

People will go the extra mile only if they feel they have ownership. It’s much the same in the workplace. Employees who take ownership of their work – and who feel that what they are doing matters – are far more likely than others to feel engaged on the job.

You can have great talent that is appropriately teamed. You can eliminate structural barriers to effective collaboration, and you can design meetings and other interactions so that people can actually get things done. But if your company’s employees don’t have a sense of ownership and engagement, all the other steps won’t make much difference. By the same token, if you can increase the average level of engagement in your organisation, you will likely see the productivity of your entire workforce increase.

How powerful is engagement? Look at DaVita, a market leader in providing dialysis treatments for kidney patients. Fifteen years ago, Total Renal Care (as it was then known) was unprofitable and short on cash, and half of its executives had recently quit or been fired. So new CEO Kent Thiry set about building a different kind of company.

He began to speak of DaVita as a village and himself as mayor. He involved employees in changing the culture (a group of 800 representatives chose the new name.) He made a point of recognising hundreds of employees every year who went the extra mile for patients. DaVita’s ‘wildly spirited nationwide meeting, in which thousands of employees celebrate awards, mourn the death of patients, and connect with the emotional side of their work, is truly something to behold’, reports one journalist. At these meetings, Thiry often hollers out three questions for attendees to answer; one is ‘Whose company is it?’ The huge audience yells back in one voice: ‘Ours!’

Fueled by this kind of engagement, DaVita’s performance over the past 15 years has been truly remarkable. Revenues have risen from $1.4 billion to $11.8 billion, earnings from $30 million to $663 million. Patient outcomes have improved, employee turnover has declined, and DaVita has consistently been listed on Fortune’s annual compilation of Most Admired Companies.

Not every company is going to take DaVita’s route, but nearly every organisation can foster greater engagement. Here are a few tips that often escape the conventional wisdom on the subject:

Talk about your company’s impact, not its financial results. Shareholders may care about financial performance, but employees are more often motivated by the impact their organisation has on the world around them. That’s particularly true of younger employees, the Gen Xers and Millennials who make up more and more of today’s workforce. At a recent conference, Dell founder Michael Dell spoke of the billions of patients who received better health care and the billions of students worldwide who had access to better education as a result of Dell’s information technologies. He said nothing about the benefits to Dell’s bottom line.

Reward inspirational leadership as much as effective task management. Research shows that people who work for inspiring leaders are more committed, satisfied and productive. They are also less likely to leave their jobs. In short, employee engagement is directly related to leaders’ ability to inspire people – and it is pretty much unrelated to leaders’ effectiveness at assigning and managing tasks. So foster inspiration. Reward executives for raising people’s eyes to the horizon as much as you reward them for holding their noses to the grindstone.

Cultivate employee advocacy, not employee satisfaction. Employees who say they are ‘satisfied’ may or may not feel engaged. Satisfied employees come to work every day, put in their time, and may even enjoy themselves, but they aren’t always willing to go the extra mile. A much better measure of engagement is how likely employees are to recommend their workplace to a family member or friend, a metric known as eNPS because it’s a sibling of the well-known Net Promoter System. Just as Net Promoter gathers regular, direct feedback from customers, eNPS gathers regular, direct feedback from employees, enabling managers to take action to boost engagement and advocacy. Bain research shows a direct relationship between employee advocacy and customer advocacy, so there is likely to be a payoff in customer loyalty as well.

Executives often think of engagement as ‘soft’, but it’s both measurable and powerful. And it’s the often missing link in companies’ attempts to increase the productivity of their human capital.