In November 2015, in a bid to make myself seem smart and important, I delivered my very first TED talk. It was filmed in a dark room with theater-style seating (a TED requirement), and I wore the blue-jeans-with-sport-jacket combo that is one of the only two acceptable outfits for a man to wear. (The other, of course, is form-fitting turtleneck.)
I wanted to address a paradox of the business world. Years of employee surveys have repeated come to the same conclusion: most of us (roughly 65%) are satisfied with our jobs, and most of us (again, roughly 65%) are disengaged. How is that possible? How can most of us be satisfied and disengaged? At the time I argued (and still believe) that the answer revolves around leadership. Leadership is usually depicted as a binary system – essentially good leadership vs. bad leadership – and so most leadership education basically boils down into a very simple equation: “Do good leadership, avoid bad leadership things, and you’ll be OK.”
This, I contended, is a flawed approach. Effective leadership is comprised of two equally important pieces, which I dubbed (wait for the brilliance to shine like diamonds here) Good leadership and Great leadership. Good leadership focuses on the human element of leadership – in other words, making people feel valued and respected as individuals – while great leadership focuses on the vision and mission of the business itself. Most leaders concentrate their energies on being either good or great leaders, and that leads to satisfaction but not engagement. In order to have widespread employee engagement, I argued, the effective leader needs to employ both good and great leadership tactics.
My main piece of data to support this hypothesis came from an analysis that payroll processor ADP conducted on hundreds of thousands of employee survey results compiled by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM, which is pronounced ‘sherm,’ and which is fun to say). Their analysis finds the following 6 characteristics to be essential in the formation of employee engagement:
- The work itself
- Relationship with co-workers
- Opportunities to use skills and abilities
- Relationship with immediate superior
- Contribution of work to the organization’s overall goals
- Autonomy and independence
In 2015 I argued that two of these characteristics (#2 and #4) deal with the human side of leadership, two of them (#1 and #5) deal with the mission/vision side of leadership, and two of them (#3 and #6) are a combination of both. Therefore, engaged employees are becoming engaged employees because their leaders and practicing both good and great leadership skills at the same time. (You can see the entire TED talk here if you’d like.)
I still believe quite strongly that the central thesis of my TED talk is on the right track. However, in the 18 months since then I’ve realized that I didn’t do a great job of explaining how to put those good and great leadership skills into practice. Those of you who have seen my keynotes will know that I am a huge fan of trying to simplify unnecessarily complicated business practices, and this is no different.
So, how do you create employee engagement? I’ll show you in three sentences.
Sentence #1: I like you as a person.
People who say this to others on a regular basis – and who can convince their colleagues or employees of the sincerity of those words – will necessarily be building healthy relationships with their co-workers, superiors, subordinates, and everyone in between. Thus, #2 and #4 on our ADP list is satisfied.
Sentence #2: The work we do is important.
If you can convince others that your business is making a valuable difference in the lives of others, then they won’t feel like they’re wasting their time every day they show up for work. You might need to say how specifically your job/industry/vision is an important one, but that shouldn’t be complicated. And voila! You’ve ticked off #1 and #5 on our ADP list.
Sentence #3: I think you’re capable to doing that work.
If you really believe that your people can do the work they’ve been assigned to do, then you won’t be micromanaging them. You’ll focus more on outcomes than on process, which means you’ll allow them to work flexibly when necessary and give them the freedom to work the way that makes the most sense for them. And before you know it, you’ve checked off #3 and #6 on our list.
There it is. I like who you are, what we do matters, and I think you’re up to the challenge. Those are the three sentences that can turn your satisfied employees into engaged ones. If you’re not in the habit of saying some version of those three sentences on a regular basis, give it a try and see what happens. It won’t cost you anything, it doesn’t take much time, and it has the potential to completely change your business for the better.
Thanks for reading. And remember, I was wearing blue jeans and a sport jacket over a form-fitting turtleneck when I wrote this, so you know it’s worth paying attention to.
Jeff, I appreciate your blend of insight and humor. I think your simplification in this article is spot on. Here is my question, split into two categories: 1) What if, as the leader, you cannot sincerely say the three sentences to a member(s) of your team/workgroup/direct reports BUT you’ve either inherited this person(s) and/or you are restricted in your ability to adjust/replace them on your team? (Wow, three “/” in one sentence. I am working toward a record.). 2) Same question but from the perspective of a team member, not group leader?
Thanks for the comment! You’re asking a good, very difficult question that I imagine a lot of other people are also struggling with.
So, let’s assume that you do NOT have the option to get rid of somebody that you would really like to get rid of, so you’re trying to make the most of a bad situation. What you should do depends on which of these three statements (“I like you,” “The work we do is important,” and/or “I believe you are capable of handling that work.”) you aren’t able to say.
For starters, you should be able to say “the work we do is important” to everyone – if not, then you’re stuck in a job you consider to be meaningless and it will be virtually impossible for you to motivate anyone. If that happens to be your issue, then you probably need to spend some time thinking about the value that your job brings to the world. Focus less on money/prestige and more on meaning/impact, and you’ll help not only yourself but everyone you work with as well.
If you don’t think this person is up to the challenges required by the job, then your job is to retrain them or provide them with the ability to train themselves. This will almost certainly require a very difficult conversation where you’ll have to say, “Your current skill set isn’t up to par for what we need right now,” and that will not be easy to do. If you focus the conversation around the skills necessary for the work, RATHER than around the deficiencies of the person in question, it will go better, but it will still be tough. However, if you follow that by providing opportunities to improve and show that you are genuinely interested in helping someone get better, the good employees will rise to the challenge. The bad ones won’t and will probably still be resentful and non-productive, but you’ll have done everything you can AND you’ll have put yourself into a much stronger position to argue for this person’s firing or replacement if you can figure out how to have that conversation with whoever is in charge.
If you don’t like the person (I’m guessing this is the main issue), then you’ll just have to find ways to like them – not all of them, obviously, but certain things about them. For example, my guess is that this person is negative and says no to a lot of things. So the next time that you’re faced with making a decision, go to this person and say something like, “I’m thinking about making a decision about X. I know what I think is exciting about it, but I’d love to explain it to you and have you play devil’s advocate and tell me everything you think is wrong with it.” Then you’re leveraging this person’s natural tendency to find problems (which will actually be valuable in this instance instead of annoying), and you’ll hopefully be making them feel more valuable and useful. Also, allowing them to vent their frustrations first before you unilaterally make a decision is simultaneously more likely to get them to listen to your ideas and also less likely to complain if you end up overriding their concerns and doing it anyway, since at least they’ll know that they’ve been heard.
None of these approaches are perfect, and the examples I’ve used might not be perfectly applicable to you. But hopefully this has been helpful. Would love to know what you think or if you’d like to refine your question so that I can try for a different answer.