Employee engagement and morale are frequently dismissed as functions of HR and dealt with via team building days or by putting a ping pong table onsite. But is that the best way of getting the best from you people? Apparently not. Here are some pointers to achieving more beneficial results.
Struggling with employee engagement and motivation? Adam Mercer and Jason Adams of minMax consulting are experts in the team and leadership spheres and here share their tips on how you can create an environment to foster higher morale, stronger engagement, and better team performance.
1. Look for flagging morale
Take the time to walk around and observe your teams and people interacting, both in formal and informal environments. Look for:
- A lack of enthusiasm and engagement
- Fewer inputs and ideas from teams and individuals
- A reluctance to commit or ‘own’ work
- Slowing output and missed deadlines
- More emotional interactions or outbursts
- An increase in complaints or fault finding
- An increase in sick days or other absenteeism
The key here is to pay close attention to individual and collective behaviour and how it’s changed - or is changing. This does mean you need to also understand what your typical ‘healthy’ culture has been in the past!
You might be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs - a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self actualization. We’ve used these needs to structure the tips that follow, though we’ll assume that your employees’ physiological needs (food, water, clothing, shelter, and warmth) are met because if not, you have bigger problems!
2. Align expectations
Knowing what’s expected is critical in creating a stable space to work from. Somewhat surprisingly this is something that we frequently find is not aligned between employees and managers. Expectations need to be clear on: what work is to be done; how different work streams should be prioritised; what the definition of ‘done’ looks like; how work will be quantitatively measured; what level of autonomy the employee (really) has. If you’re not sure if you’re aligned, try doing a blind exercise where both the manager and employee independently write down what they think the expectations are and then compare.
3. Evaluate performance systems
As Eli Goldratt once said: “Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave.” The way you measure success and manage performance plays a large role in setting the environment your employees operate within. Ask yourself: what behaviours are encouraged by the way we measure performance - do we encourage collaboration where everyone can be successful, or do we encourage individual heroics and climbing over one another? If you can picture the environment you’re looking to create, check that the way you manage performance fosters that environment.
4. Address detractors
There’s a recurrent complaint from employees that managers are too slow to deal with heavily negative team-members. The effect of even one toxic employee goes far beyond just their own performance as they impact everyone around them. Our advice: deal with it, address it, it doesn’t work itself out. Don’t begin by focusing on and blaming the employee - performing employees don’t suddenly have a change of heart and becoming non-performing. Instead look first to yourself and see what - if anything - has changed in their environment to create this behaviour.
5. Foster genuine relationships
Healthy peer level bonds in the workplace can’t be forced. Employees don’t have to be best friends, but they do have to feel confident in each other’s capabilities, work ethic, and level of dependability. Activities like sending employees on rope climbing courses together, or having them paddle a canoe, are often a waste of both time and money when intended for team building. It’s almost impossible for the team to translate the lessons, and the feeling of camaraderie they feel at these events, back into the (very different and individual focused) office environment. Team activities need to be deliberate and aligned with the stage the team is at. Begin with activities that develop shared understanding of direction and purpose. Over time, move to activities that develop trust, individual understanding, and human connections. Then you can get to those celebratory activities that help kindle the team spirit. But, you need a team spirit first.
6. Keep teams together
It takes time for a team to bond, to understand each other’s strengths and challenges and understand each other as individuals. There’s a growing trend of companies flipping the way work is assigned and instead of building the team around the work, building the work around the team. For example: when a new project comes on the horizon, rather than creating a project team with a mix of individuals from across the organisation, you give the project to an existing team - even if some part of the skillset is missing from that existing team. That skillset can be grown (great!). Keeping teams together in this way allows them to grow together and nurtures that feeling of belonging that leads to highly engaged and high performing teams.
7. Cultivate team culture
Creating a real sense of ‘we’ within a team can start easily with the team space. Allow teams to make the physical space around them their own. Encourage the team to name themselves. Allow them to decorate their area to whatever level you’re comfortable with. Over time the team will create their own almost tribal ceremonies - encourage these!
8. Map the value
Knowing your work matters is a sure fire way to feeling valued. This needs to happen at several levels. First, the employee needs to understand their own (individual) impact to their team, what specific value they (and only they) bring to that team’s table. Second, they need to understand the impact their team has on the wider company, how their collective work fits into the larger organisational picture. Third, they need to understand how the organisation fits into the wider world. Take time especially on that first one. In large organisations it’s hard for employees to see the results of their work in any meaningful timeframe. Work with them to make this visible and then map out how it fits together for everyone.
9. Master recognition
Recognition isn’t about throwing company-wide celebrations with certificates and trophies, just like feedback isn’t about telling people they did something wrong. The concepts of feedback and recognition are about paying attention to your colleagues, team-mates, and those in your charge if you are a leader. Make an effort to genuinely recognise at least one person every day for something they did well through targeted, highly specific feedback.
10. Create feedback culture
Look for opportunities to both give and ask for feedback in the interest of growth and improvement. Your mindset around feedback is key. When receiving, it should be one of humility and gratefulness. When giving, it should be a gift given in the interest of helping another person improve. When giving feedback, be specific, and own the feedback as your own, not as what you think other people thought. When receiving, don’t challenge it immediately, say thank you, then go away and think about it. Even if you feel it might not be valid, it is giving you valuable information about someone else’s perception and perspective.
11. Define the sandbox
Everyone needs some level of control over their environment and their work, and ‘empowerment’ is a commonly used word. However it’s easy to ‘empower’ poorly and damage morale in the process. Empowerment should not be about dumping responsibility but about the growth of the employee - if the employee could already do it perfectly, you’re not growing them. Consider - can you allow some experimentation, which may mean they solve it in an entirely different way to you (and even teach you something), or possibly even mean failure? If you can, great, you can now help the employee develop and demonstrate mastery on their own terms.
12. Share the vision
Teams and companies exist to achieve something that a single person couldn’t. The more autonomous and independent employees are, the more important it is that they share a vision. If you have a hundred small boats all with their own captains then the closer they understand where they’re going and why, the tighter the formation is and the smoother the sailing. Don’t mistake a shared vision for grandiose posters around the office with catchy phrases. Whilst these can be motivational, it can be hard for employees to translate how that vision should be helping steer their day-to-day actions. Work with the teams to make that translation understood. Having a strong, shared vision gives confidence to decision making and autonomy.