Employee Engagement Lies in the Little Things

by Todd Patkin

Employee EngagementTrue employee engagement needn’t be expensive or difficult to implement. Engagement is really just another word for on-the-job happiness, and we intuitively know that happiness is connected to the simple things in life. So why not apply that principle to the workplace? Over the years, I’ve found that simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far happier than, say, big salaries and corner offices. Best of all, these things are free and usually easy to provide. This might involve having to put some work into changing bad leadership habits that might be keeping employees beaten down and resentful, but doing that work is worth it. It’s the cornerstone of a cultural change that will naturally and organically lead to better employee engagement.

Here are eight inexpensive (or free!) strategies that you can use to start transforming your business’s workplace environment:

Catch people doing things right. Everyone knows how embarrassing and stressful it is to be caught doing something wrong. For most employees, those negative feelings can linger (and impact performance) for hours, days or longer. That’s why, if you don’t want your team to dread your presence in their workspace, you need to start each day with the intention of catching as many people as possible doing well. Not only can praise improve your employees’ perception of you, it’s also an incredible morale and motivation booster.

Praise them publicly (and then praise them some more). Even if they brush off praise or downplay their achievements, everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don’t stop with a “mere” compliment when you catch an employee doing something right — tell the rest of the team, too! Whether correctly or incorrectly, many employees feel their leaders take them for granted and point out only their mistakes in front of the group, so make it your daily mission to prove that perception wrong.

As president of Autopart International, when I saw that one of my people did something noteworthy, I made sure everyone else knew about it by emailing the story to the entire chain. I could literally see the glow on the highlighted employee’s face for weeks, and I also noticed that many of the other team members began to work even harder in order to earn a write-up themselves.

Handle mistakes with care. In business, mistakes are going to happen. What you can choose is how you, as a leader, handle them — and, by extension, what kind of impact they have on your company. Lambasting an employee who has dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it’ll negatively impact that employee’s self-confidence, relationship with you and feelings for your company for much longer.

Don’t get me wrong: You shouldn’t take mistakes — especially those involving negligence, incompetence or dishonesty — lightly. But when your employees have made an honest mistake, take a deep breath and remind yourself that the employee feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. Also, never forget that mistakes are an essential part of growth. You don’t want to create an environment where people don’t take potentially productive risks because they’re afraid you’ll get mad if they screw up.

Don’t be the sole decision maker. You may feel that, as a leader, it’s your job to decide what the employees’ tasks should be and how they should be carried out. But employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine. You might get the results you want, but never more than that — and often, your team’s performance will be grudging and uninspired. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by seeking out their opinions, ideas and preferences. They’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it.

Help your employees grow. As a leader, there’s a lot you have to deal with on a daily basis. But no matter how full of “stuff” your plate may be, don’t lose sight of the fact that a crucial part of leadership is developing your people — because, ultimately, the success or failure of your business depends on the people who show up each day to do the work. Get to know each member of your team and give each person progressively more autonomy, authority and responsibility when they show they can handle it. When they feel challenged and know their talents are being utilized, your employees will be more engaged. And avoid micromanaging, which can give employees the impression that you don’t trust them or have faith in them.

Remember that business is personal. People don’t care how much you know (or how good you are at your job) until they know how much you care. Your employees will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions. Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know. 

Make it a family affair. Whenever possible, engage your employees’ families in a positive way. In addition to holding contests with family prizes and inviting loved ones to company celebrations, make sure your team members’ families know how much they’re appreciated by your company. Having a leader validate all the hours each employee spends at work will be remembered far longer than a bonus. Plus, when spouses and kids know what Mom or Dad does at work and are “on board” with it, your employee’s performance will be buoyed by support from the ones he or she loves the most.

For example, if an employee did something really tremendous, I would call his home, generally trying to get the answering machine and not a person. Then I’d leave a voicemail like this one: “Hi, (name of spouse and kids), this is Todd Patkin from Autopart International where your husband and dad works. I just want to tell you that your husband and dad is incredible! He just broke our Nashua, New Hampshire, store’s all-time sales record. Guys, that is tremendous! So, please, kids, do me a favor. When your dad comes home tonight, everyone run up and give him a huge hug and tell him how proud you are of him and how great he is. And, (name of spouse), I hope you will give him a wonderful kiss to make sure he knows how much you love him and how much he is appreciated for all he’s doing for our company. Thanks, guys.

Years later, many employees whose families received these phone calls told me that although they didn’t remember how much their bonus checks were for that year, that extra-special homecoming was still clearly etched in their memories.

Re-recruit your best people. While it is your duty to help your weak links move up in (or out of) your organization, don’t allow them to distract you from your most valuable players. Actually, your efforts are best spent with your top people. Just think how much more impressive their already-great work could be with some more encouragement and guidance. Also, think of how far back your team would slide if these MVPs decided to hand in their notice and work for the competition. You should go as all-out in “re-recruiting” your top people as you would in attracting new talent.

Whatever your level of leadership and whatever your industry, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain — including an improved bottom line — by making your organization as happy a place to work as possible. While a lack of employee engagement is certainly a costly problem, its solution doesn’t have to be.

For nearly two decades, Todd Patkin was instrumental in leading his family’s auto parts business, Autopart International, to new heights until it was finally bought by Advance Auto Parts in 2005. One of his most reliable growth strategies was proactively nurturing his employees’ attitudes about their jobs. Now, Patkin translates that experience into consulting with organizations to help them build corporate morale and promote greater productivity. Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In is his second book, and a third is due out this year.


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