As you might suspect, I wrote a book on employee engagement. It’s called Who the Hell Wants to Work for You: Mastering Employee Engagement. It’s been on Amazon and other bookseller sites since April 1, 2018. As of Jan 23, 2020, I’ve sold around 10,000 copies, but there’s plenty left for you, if you’d like one. :)
Since the book came out, I’ve been talking to journalists who like to interview authors. I get the same questions again and again, so I put together a cheat sheet to cover the main points. Then I thought to myself: why wait for another journalist to ask these questions? Why not give them the answers ahead of time? And while I’m at it, why not give the answers to everyone? So, here you go, six transformative Q&As about employee engagement. Enjoy! And please ask me new questions.
Tim: Employee engagement is getting people to work for you, as though they were working for themselves, doing something that matters to them and brings them joy. If I, as manager, have complete trust in my employees—if I trust their intentions, their abilities, and their judgment—then I have done my job of engaging them.
Tim: In the book, I distinguish three main sources of engagement:
Tim: Obviously, if everyone in the company works hard, helps each other, focuses on the customer, asks questions, listens, solves problems, and so on, engagement won’t be a problem. Culture is what people do when no one’s looking over their shoulder. If the culture supports the business and strengthen relationships, people become engaged by default.
Here’s where it gets tricky: companies LOVE to put up make-believe cultures. Look on anyone’s website. What do you see? Smiling faces. Handshakes. Words like: excellence, quality, commitment. Great! You join this wonderful company and work with real people. What do you see now? Is management approachable, or are they aloof? Are people working together, or are there silos and turf wars? Almost every company has not one, but two cultures going on at the same time. One fake and one real. Fake culture doesn’t engage anyone. It does the opposite, because it tells people that everything’s fine as is. So, if management is serious about engagement, it needs to connect with the real culture. What are things really like at my company? What is it like to work here? What do my employees think of their jobs, management, each other? When you stop pretending and signal to others that it’s safe to express their real feelings at work—that’s when engagement starts.
Tim: Ultimately, engagement and motivation come from relationships between people. Even if I work for myself, what motivates me are my customers, my employees, my family, someone, anyone who appreciates what I do. Everyone is passionate about something, and there are moments in every person’s life and work when they are engaged. So, everyone has potential to be engaged. Whether this potential is realized in the workplace depends on many factors. In the book, I give 23 principles any employer can use to see a dramatic change. In one way or another, all these principles are not just about the employee or the employer, but the relationship between the two. Think about any relationship you have in your life. We don’t always want to hear it, but to improve your relationships, you need to start with yourself.
So, before you even open the book, I recommend doing a little exercise. Imagine, there’s no engagement problem at your company. None. All your employees are willing and ready to do their work. They love what they do and they’re eager to please you. The only problem is... you! We’re not pointing fingers, we’re just playing a game. Of course it’s not true, but imagine you were the only obstacle to the happy productive team you wish you had. What would you do differently?
Tim: We start with the individual employee. We talk about hiring, orientation, goal-setting, focus, and networking among employees. Next, we move on to the relationship with the boss and the seven deadly sins of people-management. Lastly, we talk about company culture: leadership, transparency, communication, work environment, gratitude, and fun, to name a few topics.
Some of these principles are super obvious. For example, “Say thank you.” You can’t argue with that. However, how many managers remember to show sincere gratitude when they are under pressure? How many do it in a way that makes employees feel special? And what are the costs of taking employees for granted? In the book, we look at specific steps companies take to bring gratitude into the workplace.
Other principles, like transparency, are more controversial. What does it mean for a company to be transparent with employees? How much transparency is enough? How much is too much? This is a difficult step for many employers. What do they gain by opening themselves up to scrutiny? How does transparency change the way your company operates? And what kinds of systems and policies do transparent companies use to communicate with employees?
You might think. “Okay, I get it, I’ve heard these ideas before.” But the ideas are useless until they’re in your company’s DNA, and everyone is practicing them by default. I can tell you that in order to win a basketball game you need to throw the ball into the basket. But you’re not going to be a good player until you’ve learned and overcame your bad habits and blind spots. Corporations have blind spots and bad habits too. That’s exactly why, as a nation, we’re not engaged at work. You may have heard of gratitude, but you may not realize it’s your blind spot. Once you do, you have a new way to frame your problem and a new tool to solve it.
Tim: I’m not actually an economist. Gallup claims that an actively disengaged employee costs his company 34 percent of his salary. I’ve also seen an overall figure for the US in the hundreds of billions of dollars. But I will give you a simple example from my company.
We had a sales guy who wasn’t producing. He kept telling us there was something wrong with our product. And we believed him. We tweaked our features this way and that way. Still no sales. In the end, we had to let him go. What we needed was not different features, but a better way to qualify leads. Once we stopped wasting time on unqualified prospects, we started making sales.
Doing research for the book helped me realize the mistake I made. I violated my first principle: hire traits and behaviors. First, I didn’t know what traits and behaviors were essential in my salespeople. Second, I hired someone based on his resume, not his character. He turned out to be a poor match for the job. I believe he worked hard, but he couldn’t handle rejection. Eventually, he disengaged, and instead of improving his process, he just blamed our software.
The cost to us was a year of lost sales, plus his salary and benefits, plus the cost of recruiting and training a new employee, not to mention what it did to morale. We are a small company, and we get really pumped when we sign up a new customer.
Tim: First, managers and business owners, like myself. Second, anyone who wants to become one. If I hadn’t done all that reading and research—and put myself under a microscope—we might still have no sales. At best, my sales hires would be hits or misses. Studying hiring practices gave me the perspective I needed to become a better hiring manager—something I'm constantly working on improving. Writing the book helped me become a better overall manager. And I'm sure it will do the same for anyone who reads it.
If you're nodding your head in agreement with anything I said above, then you might like my book, because it's a fast read with lots of takeaways.
If you disagree with something I said above, you might like my book even more, because it will challenge your thinking—the first step to improving engagement.
Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.
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