Seven Keys to Worker Engagement

August 31, 2016 / Forck, M. Professional Safety

Gallup (2013) identifies engaged employees as those who “are 100% psychologically committed to their work.” Given that definition, one of my favorite one liners about engagement is, “He is about as engaged as a kamikaze pilot on his 18th mission.” Our team’s engagement will determine how quickly we achieve results (meet a deadline, hit that goal) and the quality of those results (completing the job safely). Results are directly proportional to the level of engagement. Since engagement is vital, leaders should be aware of these seven key points.

1) Engagement Is a Big Deal

When it comes to unengaged workers, the data can be overwhelming. One report estimates that disengaged workers cost the U.S. economy $350 billion a year in lost productivity (Dishman, 2013). But, just as unengaged workers hurt the bottom line, engaged workers dramatically improve that bottom line. A recent study in the healthcare industry found: Those who are engaged are safer, more productive, more likely to stay with the organization and more likely to provide outstanding patient care. For example, employee engagement and safety climate were inversely correlated with the incidence of needlestick injuries in nurses. (Thorp, Baqai, Witters et al., 2012)

2) Define & Policy Up

It’s been said that people play harder when they know the score. When it comes to engagement, knowing the score is having a firm definition of exactly what engagement means. To find the score, Robison (2012) identifies three types of employees. Not-engaged employees “are essentially ‘checked out,’ They’re sleep-walking through their workday, putting time - but not energy or passion- into their work.” She says that actively disengaged employees “aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engage coworkers accomplish.” Finally, she describes engaged employees, who “work with passion and a feel of profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.” There are complex ways to measure engagement, such as annual employee surveys or consultant studies. But Robison’s definitions are easy, and can allow any supervisor or manager to take the score at any time.

Next, I’d bet that your organization has step-by-step procedures on all-important safety-sensitive tasks. I call these the hard skills because OSHA, your industry, engineering practices or other disciplines have established hard facts and rules or step-by-step guides for these tasks. These hard skills are only half of the equation for safety results. People skills, or soft skills, include engagement, leadership, coaching and feedback. Each of these soft skills also needs a step-by-step, how-to outline, measurement tool and accountability element to ensure its success. Would you or one of employees enter a confined space without a written procedure? Why should engagement be any different?

3)The Goal is Peer-toper Feedback

With regard to safety, a study (Grenny, 2010) found that “93% of employees say they see urgent risks to life an limb, and yet less than one-fourth of those who see concerns speak up about them. Rather, they wait for bosses or others to take action.” The bosses can’t be everywhere, nor do we want them to be. Instead, one goal of engagement is to foster peer-to-peer feedback, also called accountability. Successful companies find that workers talk to workers, they don’t wait on the boss. Organizations in which peers coach peers find remarkable success - and not just in safety. “Those supervisors and manager wit the strongest safety records ere five times more likely to be ranked in the top 20% of their peers in every other area of performance. They were 500% more likely to be stars in productivity and efficiency and employee satisfaction and quality, etc. (Grenny, 2010) Can you say, engaged workers?

4) Give Workers the “Why”

Demonstrating the importance of mission to worker engagement, Milton (2012) tells this story: For years, a quiet orderly mopped floors, scrubbed patient rooms and cleaned up bodily fluids. Never complaining, always smiling. . . . At the end of one of his graveyard shifts, a cynical colleague asked him how he could be so happy about mopping the same floors every day. Puzzled, the orderly replied, “I’ve never mopped a floor a day in my life. I work here so I can stop deadly diseases from infecting others.”

The ever popular mission and vision statements have often failed to engage workers in the greater purpose, the “why.” For this orderly, his why was clear; he was engaged because he saved lives by stopping deadly disease. Your company might make a widget, but changes are that widget is part of larger whole that greatly contributes to humanity. Find your why and engage your people with it. Even the most unengaged worker will raise an eyebrow about saving a life. Milton (2012) says, “the best leaders make their company’s mission clear and help employees understand how their work contributes to a greater purpose.”

5) Make Caring Personal

Tony La Russa, the third-most winning major league baseball manager, says that leadership must be personalized. Making leadership personal to each player leads to engagement and results. When I was a safety supervisor for a major Midwest utility, I served more than 400 line workers, substation technicians and heavy equipment operators. With so many people in more than 20 locations, I could not see every worker each week or even each month. So I set up several ways to communicate. One way was the personal birthday note. For 2 years, I sent each worker a personal handwritten note on his/her birthday. Some years later, I was in a work group an saw one of my notes on the outside of a locker. I found the worker, a 30 year veteran who some would have labeled as “trouble” and asked him why he taped his birthday note to the outside of his locker. He said, “in 30 years of working here, no one has ever taken the time to write me a note, and say something so kind. I taped it outside my locker so I can see it every day.”

Myatt (2012) writes: Sure, people come to work for a paycheck, but that’s not the only reason. In fact, many studies show it’s not even the most important reason. If you fail to care about people at a human level, at an emotional level, they’ll eventually leave you regardless of how much you pay them. Zenger and Folkman (2013) offer some sobering numbers: Many people assume that it’s possible for a person to be an effective leader without being likeable. That is technically true, but you may not like the odds. In a study of 51,836 leaders, we found just 27 who were rated at the bottom quartile in terms of likability but in the top quartile in terms of overall leadership effectiveness - that’s approximately one out of 2,000.

When the veteran line worker talked, I heard, “No one had every tried to engage me on a personal level in three decades.” And given how he responded to just one simple note, I believe that consistent engagement would have easily moved him from trouble to contributor. Make engagement personal and your personal challenge. Leaders need to know their stuff and, for today’s leaders, their people need to know they personally care.

6) Engagement is Money

Captain D. Michael Abrashoff took command of USS Benfold, one of the worst performing ships in the Pacific fleet, and led it to the top of all measurable categories in less than two years. He retells some powerful stories in his best-selling book. One of my favorites shows the power of engagement: The ship needed to be recertified for battle readiness. At that time, certification was based on passing a week-long series of written and skills-based exams. To prepare, the Navy ordered all ships to complete 6 months of battle-ready training at sea. Due to engagement, Abrashoff’s crew had revamped the training practices, found ways to foster lower performing sailors, challenged top performs and spent time on realistic battle scenarios versus mindless training. They tested before launching for the 6-month sea-based training and passed the test. In fact, they aced the test, achieving the highest test score ever recorded, including ships that had tested for 6 months at sea. Abrashoff called his commanding officer, delivered the news and explained how they would not have to go to sea for 6 months. There was a long pause on the line before his commanding officer replied, “We’re not set up to do that, you have to do to sea for 6 months.” Abrashoff then explained how much money could be saved by not going to sea and it was agreed the crew of Benfold could make other training and educational arrangements. When I read, ‘we’re not set up to do that,” I read “we are not set up for success.” Engagement can lead to success, and also can save you a lot of money.

7) The Buck Stops at the First Line’s Desk

The complaint from most first-line supervisors is that everything gets dumped on them. Having held that role for 2 years while supervising electrical linemen early in my career, I agree that every good and not so good initiative lands on the first line’s desk. But, when it comes to engagement, the data seems clear. According to Nink (2012), “decades of Gallup research indicates that employee engagement, which is highly correlated with productivity and the company’s market value, will soar or plummet depending on the employee’s relationship with [his/her] manager.” Myatt (2012) writes: So, for all those employers who have everything under control, you better start re-evaluating. There is an old saying that goes: “Employees don’t quit working for companies, they quit working for their bosses.” Regardless of tenure, position or title, etc., employees who voluntarily leave generally do so out of some type of perceived disconnect with leadership. Here’s the thing - employees who are challenged, engaged, valued and rewarded (emotionally, intellectually, and financially) rarely leave, and more importantly, they perform at very high levels.

Sure, first lines have a lot to do, but engagement, tactics and leadership must be what a first line does before all else. The buck stops with engagement and with the first lines to engage.