It’s Time To Talk

Focused conversations can foster a workplace filled with engaged and motivated employees who are less prone to jump ship.

Disengaged employees are a lot like clogged sewer lines: They don’t work very well. And if national surveys are correct, your workforce probably needs a powerful bit of waterjetting, metaphorically speaking.

Before you launch into an impassioned hey-my-workforce-isn’t-like-that protest, let’s consider the facts as outlined by a recent Gallup poll: Only 30 percent of employees in the United States are engaged at work, meaning they’re committed to their jobs and are positively contributing to the organizations for which they work.

That leaves 70 percent of employees disengaged. Even worse, the survey shows 18 percent of them are what’s known as actively disengaged, which is the equivalent of a fully clogged line as compared to a partially blocked pipe. Actively disengaged employees are defined as unhappy and unproductive ­— and they’re most likely spreading negativity to co-workers like a bad flu virus.

Equally disturbing is the estimated cost of all this disengagement: $450 to $550 billion worth of lost productivity. Yup, you read that correctly; that’s “b” as in “billions.” And if that isn’t enough to make you sit up and take notice, consider another ominous cloud on the horizon: a workforce that’s rapidly shrinking as Baby Boomers retire, and much fewer Gen X and Gen Y cohorts available to take their places. In other words, competition to hire great employees in the next 10 to 15 years will rise to unprecedented levels.

“So we have a perfect storm of issues in play — low employee engagement and a horrendously high threat of a global labor shortage,” says Kim Seeling Smith, the founder and chief executive officer of Ignite Global (, a management consulting firm. Seeling Smith is also an expert in improving employee engagement and productivity, as well as the author of “Mind Reading for Managers: 5 FOCUSed Conversations to Increase Employee Engagement and Productivity.”

“And if you won’t be able to hire the ones you need, you’ve got to love the ones you’re with,” she continues. “Human capital has indeed become the most valuable capital to organizations, and companies that don’t understand this – and don’t make changes to engage and retain their employees — will suffer dramatic hits to market share. It might even be their death knell.”

Start the conversation

So how do managers begin to get listless employees motivated? Seeling Smith suggests something very simple: a conversation — five of them, to be exact. And we’re not talking about small talk around the water cooler or an office cubicle. Instead, managers should engage their direct reports in periodic discussions in five different areas during the course of a year.

“The answer to the question of how you engage disengaged employees is communication,” Seeling Smith asserts. “Most managers don’t sit down and talk enough to their staffs. And if they do, they often don’t know what to talk about.”

For managers who fall into that category, here are five things Seeling Smith suggests you FOCUS on:

1. Feedback. One of the most effective things managers can do to motivate employees is also the simplest: provide positive feedback — simply give praise where praise is due. But avoid generic blanket statements like, “Great job on that mainline-cleaning project.” Instead, Seeling Smith suggests that you specifically cite details in their performance that specifically contributed to the project’s success.

“Truly effective praise needs to be specific enough that employees can model that behavior in the future,” she says. “It really makes a ton of difference because it engages the employees’ brains and gives them specific things to hone in on. If you’re not specific, employees might think you’re praising them for something you’re not actually praising them for.”

2. Objectives. Annual goal setting that’s developed with employee input is a valuable engagement kick-starter because it tells employees exactly what they need to do to be successful as well as how their success will be measured. It also gives employees a sense of where they fit into an organization and why their job is important, says Seeling Smith.

“But true objectives shouldn’t be tasks, they should be outcomes,” she notes. As an example, she cites a receptionist who’s given job objectives such as answer calls at a switchboard and greet office visitors. “That doesn’t tell her anything about how to be successful,” she points out. Instead, tell the receptionist things such as how you want the phone to be answered, within how many minutes guests should be greeted and within how many rings phone calls should be answered. “That gives the employee something tangible with which to measure their performance and makes them feel more important, too,” Seeling Smith observes.

3. Career development. More than ever before, employees want to know the path they need to take to advance within an organization. “It’s now the No. 1 or 2 concern for employees,” Seeling Smith notes. “People want to know how they can learn, grow and develop in a career.” Another factor that has changed: how career development is defined.

“Conventional wisdom says that development must be vertical, but that’s not true in the social age we live in, where not everyone is interested in climbing the corporate ladder,” she explains. The bottom line? Don’t think about career development as a succession of jobs that leads to a specific goal or destination, mainly because things change so fast these days.

“Instead, think of career development as a collection of experiences designed to equip employees for a future role or that helps them grow and develop professionally,” she suggests.

Too many managers avoid the career development conversation because they typically have small staffs. And if a manager has no plans to retire soon, they don’t see any benefit in talking about career paths because opportunities seem limited. But using this different paradigm, which focuses on experiences rather than promotions, gives managers more options.

“And having that discussion, in turn, engenders employee trust and loyalty,” Seeling Smith adds. “So they’ll work for you longer than they normally would.”

4. Underlying motivators. Managers also should talk to employees about what motivates them to stay engaged and go the extra yard. For example, ask them how they prefer to receive recognition. It might sound like a minor thing, but it’s not, Seeling Smith notes.

“The old adage about praising in public and counseling in private is not always the best approach,” she says. “Some people don’t like to be praised in public.”

Most managers would be shocked at what really motivates employees to work at peak performance. It may sound counterintuitive, but studies have shown that many employees value things like autonomy, flexible work hours, work/life balance, setting and achieving goals, and intellectual challenges much greater than more money and bonuses.

“Ask most managers what motivates employees and they’ll tell you it’s all about the money,” she points out. “But that’s actually so far down the scale it’s not even funny.”

5. Strengths. After working with employees to analyze and understand their strengths, managers can increase engagement by incrementally shifting employees’ job responsibilities so they spend more time playing to those strengths rather than trying to shore up weaknesses, Seeling Smith says.

“The reality is that most people are good at doing some things and bad at doing others,” she explains. “It’s better if you allow them to concentrate on what they do well and mitigate their weaknesses. I’m not talking about making wholesale changes to their jobs, but rather just changing their focus for a few hours a week.”

Conventional wisdom holds that working to improve weaknesses is a good technique for improving job performance. But in fact, some studies show that people who are already great at something can get exponentially better by working on improving that skill, while similar efforts aimed at improving weaker skills don’t yield the same dramatic improvements, she says.

It’s not rocket science

Why don’t managers already hold these kinds of conversations with employees? After all, it’s not rocket science, right? Seeling Smith agrees it’s not, but notes that most people are promoted to managerial positions because of their experience/seniority and technical skills, but don’t receive any training about what it takes to be a great manager.

“We still use industrial-age practices to hire and manage social-age employees,” she explains. “A lot of the practices, polices and procedures — the very cultures of organizations — are built around policies developed during the industrial revolution. We hire people for their innovation skills, then treat them like they’re making widgets on a factory floor. In other words, the very policies and practices that many organizations have established are diametrically opposed to engaging and facilitating the type of work we need from our employees.”

So go ahead and start having some conversations with your employees. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, the benefits that await — engaged, motivated and loyal employees who work as smoothly as a freshly cleaned sewer line — are well worth all the effort.


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