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Ten Leadership Tips That Build Employee Engagement

Engagement Tip #1 - Care about the growth of people

People can tell when you are for them and their growth. You can be very honest and direct with them, and people take the feedback in. You may even be inarticulate at times, but that is less important than a sincere care for their well being and growth.

Organizational engagement often starts with this kind of perspective. This is different than just being "nice." You have a mission to accomplish and there will be difficulties along the way. But when people know that their leader cares about them, they go further than they otherwise might attempt.

But it has to be sincere. Everyone has a sixth sense of when someone is just saying the right things but it doesn't quite add up in follow-up actions. Care, be sincere, engage others in conversations about their hopes and missions. Engagement in a larger mission can begin here.

Engagement Tip #2 - Know your mission

This is not an easy one. I have found consistently that people struggle with mission - both personally and professionally. But it is critical to engaging others.

You have to start with discovering a stronger sense of personal mission. Brenda Corbett of Sherpa Executive Coaching calls it your "Why it matters." Gap International has termed it "What do I stand for?" You can hear it in others just by listening to their words - what they are willing to truly engage and defend. But for ourselves, it is harder because we can't see ourselves clearly.

Try this - write down a few phrases that represent what you really care about in your work setting - and then consider what your teammates might say you bring to your team. Then test a phrase or two with someone you trust - and see what emerges. Ultimately you want to gain a stronger sense of who you are and what your personal mission - regardless of organizational setting - is.

Then the next experiment is to bring your daily words and actions (as Gap would say) closer to your mission. And that should be fun - because it will bring your passion more to the surface, and others will respond.

Try it. It may clarify your daily mission and give life to your daily conversations.

Engagement Tip #3 - Get out of your office

Offices can be good for hiding. Sometimes that's good - you need to think, or recover, or communicate on a larger screen than a smart phone. But engagement often takes place outside of your office - in the hallways, in other folks' offices, with the field team, with non-team members. And that means getting up and out. I have often found that wandering about and sitting in on someone's office or meeting solves two problems - it gives you insight into what people are thinking about, and it allows you to share issues you may be wrestling with. Either way it increases engagement! (and if people wonder what you may be doing, my Dad gave me a tip decades ago - grab a folded document and walk briskly through the buildings - it makes it look like you are on a mission!)

Find ways to "get out" and among your people!

Engagement Tip #4 - Set the tone

Sometimes I get the chance to visit folks in long term care facilities. One of the things I notice is the difference in each facility's atmosphere. You feel it the moment you walk in. Things are either well kept and the staff upbeat or the place is struggling and the staff down. They have the same mission. It has to be the tone set and the engagement of all the stakeholders. So we have to set the tone. I served with a ship captain who from day 1 said "let's go!" And off we went meeting all of our operational commitments for the next 2 years. He also took time to play basketball with the junior officers in port. Now that's someone who set the right tone. Hope we all can do the same.

Engagement Tip #5 - Laugh at yourself

I have always enjoyed working with technology organizations. There is something about the technologist's mindset that enjoys life and finds the humor in it all. Maybe they see the bigness of life and see just how we can't take ourselves too seriously.

But I was rediscovering the other day Aristotle's concept of virtue. He categorized areas of being or action that should attempt to find the "golden mean" or the virtuous path to follow. One of those areas of behavior was apparently "conversation" (I used Spark notes, not having the time to read Ethics in its complete form - I'll put the link to the notes below if interested). And the virtuous mean for conversation was "wittiness."

Can we be witty? Witty to me does not make fun of others, or does not involve crudeness, but rather creates genuine humor that pokes fun at ourselves most of all. People can be witty in difficult circumstances. As a matter of fact, I've consistently seen it improve the outcome of a team under stress. Some of the most brilliant scientists and engineers I have worked with consistently made fun of themselves.

Sometimes people say to me - we remember your laugh. I still find that surprising. Not hard work, not genius ideas, not great leadership (darn, foiled again), but my laugh. The more I've thought about it, the more permission I've tried to give myself to laugh in the workplace. It does seem to bring people together.

So, Tip#5 - find a way in your work to laugh at yourself. Maybe your virtuous wittiness might make a difference today.

The golden means - look at the table a few paragraphs down. http://m.sparknotes.com/philosophy/aristotle/section8.rhtml 

Engagement Tip #6 - Learn to ask "what's missing?"

Many years ago I picked up a technique from a consulting group - to ask the question - "what's missing?" It is a powerful way to zone in on critical missing parts in our work, our lives, and our teams.

I can't fully explain how it works, but when I step back mentally in a meeting or a moment, and ask myself "what's missing" inevitably it becomes evident. It could be that the present conversation has headed down one path, and needs to be balanced with a different direction. Sometimes it could mean that someone in the room is very quiet and needs to be drawn out in order to get their unique perspective. Maybe it's my own over-focus on one issue that has clouded my judgment.

I think this kind of stepping back can help to de-stress us a bit. The Center for Creative Leadership presented some great tips for managing stress, and included in that piece is a tip to stop "perseverating." Us worriers tend to focus on one detail and then go to deep for too long on that one issue. Good for research, bad for health. Stepping back a bit can help back out of a dead end and regain a better view, a greater balance, and a bigger picture.

Maybe today, take a moment in a meeting to ask yourself "what's missing from this discussion" and I bet you will come up with some very good insights. Throw it on the table and see if it changes the direction of the conversation. Secondly, and maybe even more important for increasing engagement - ask the people in the meeting "what's missing?" See what they say!

Hope this is helpful to your leadership!

Engagement Tip #7 - Slow down and look for moments...

Recently I dropped by the head of a large organization, just to say hello. We know each other from outside of the business community and I admire his work as well. He took the time to sit down with me and explain various aspects of his business world, and I truly enjoyed the moment.

What is it that keeps us from finding those moments? Certainly we are all busier than ever in our daily tasks. Technology has actually raised expectations for all of us to achieve instantaneous productivity, and the complexity of our global awareness creates what we might call super-stress.

But the moments we remember in our careers are timeless. They might be a conversation in the hallway, a meeting with colleagues your valued, or a moment when you were in the presence of a great decision being made.

I recall several of those moments. One for me was when I bumped into a newly appointed president and I took the moment to ask him, "so, what are you going to do?" He thought for a second and then said "tear down these walls" meaning break down the barriers between departments. I watched him do that for the next several years.

Another was when I took a chance to give direct feedback to a strong rising leader, expecting the worst! To my pleasant surprise he responded with "thank you, that is exactly what I want to hear, you have an open invitation to continue that honesty." I never forgot that and it has been my standard for leadership coaching ever since.

So, what are we to do?

Maybe this - slow down just a bit today, and look for those moments. Or create one when you see the opportunity. Take a chance and connect to others on a deeper level. You and they may remember the moment for a lifetime!

Engagement Tip #8 - Find organizational metaphors to help lead

Gareth Morgan wrote a wonderful book called Images of Organizations (2006) in which he describes a number of models or metaphors that describe how an organization may work. The metaphors range from organizations that could be described as "a machine" to " a culture" to "an organism" to "a brain" etc. Another great author, Margaret Wheatley compares the organization of today to the emerging concepts of quantum physics!

And how might you describe an organization that you belong to? Does it tend to operate with more distance and mechanical tendencies, or does it flow with an organic movement of sorts? Does it communicate through rapid networks, or does it value long-term relationships?

If you can describe a metaphor that seems to fit your organizational behavior pattern, you now have a window into understanding how and why your teams may operate. Maybe ask a few other colleagues to test your metaphor - it needs to fit the pattern well enough to be trusted as a window to team or organizational behavior. And with that metaphor, you can better predict, or even better, effect change.

For instance, if your organization works organically - plant idea seeds to effect change! If more mechanically - find the missing parts!

Take some time this week to be an ethnographer in your organization - and find a useful and fitting metaphor to help you enact positive change!

Engagement Tip #9 - Accountability revisited

I have heard the word accountability used for many years. Often, the intent is for someone to hold someone else accountable for results. When individuals take personal accountability things do change. But I think we would do well to go deeper.

There is a great line in the poem "If" by Kipling that says "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same;"

That quote was on a advertisement picture of Roger Federer about to enter the court at Wimbledon. I kept it in my office for years. I played tennis competitively in college (no Roger Federer, trust me) and remember that feeling of walking on the court at the beginning of the competition. Roger epitomizes concentration - to succeed you have to ignore the fanfare around you - both good or bad. And the photo reminded me often - don't worry about either triumph or disaster, and focus on what simply is in front of you. I think that is the beginning of accountability.

But there is another side as well. Your teammates. I often enjoyed doubles more than singles because doubles partners helped each other out when either player became discouraged or distracted. And in tennis, like business or life, you can get distracted quickly by a thousand things - often your own inner concerns. Good doubles teammates could sense when the other person was down, and picked them up.

I think these two sides to accountability can help engagement. Engagement starts when individuals take accountability - but not just for themselves - for each other when they are down. And notably, real enthusiasm begins when a teammate realizes they have help.

Consider both aspects. Focus on what matters, and when you notice a teammate down, pick them up. That way, maybe we increase our greater accountability.

Engagement Tip #10 - Uprooting fear

Many of us have been thinking about ways to help each other in tough times.

I was returning from a business trip, and as I drove home, I saw a car pull over with a flat tire.  It was an older car, the occupants were outside the vehicle, I am a terrible mechanic, yet I felt I must stop.  I recall that as I started backing up to get closer, the instinct of fear hit me. Fear always makes you stop, or run, or do nothing. Sometimes it's a good thing - like keeping you from driving too fast! But I think fear is becoming epidemic. Anyway, I talked to God, and said, ok, here we go, and got out of the car.

It turned out great. I was able to help them with AAA to fix the tires, and get them on their way. And while we waited together, a lady pulled alongside the road and gave us all fresh water bottles!

Now I'm not recommeding we jump into every situation, but I think fear is deep and dangerous when it overcomes us to the point of becoming either frozen or reactive. The opposite is faith. Looking up.

On an organizational basis (or country for that matter) employees are sometimes frozen in an atmosphere of fear. They have been hurt before, and stop contributing as they had once done.

The opposite of fear for leaders is approachability. When we are approachable by being close to people, fear recedes, and faith (in an organization, in a nation, in each other) resumes.

Maybe all of us can help each other uproot fear through faith and slightly more approachability.