Engagement Makes Good Business Sense

By Heather Hughes

The cost of even one disengaged or unhappy employee can drain valuable resources faster than a bottle of wine at a dinner party. It reaches far beyond one individual, often consuming a manager’s day, an HR advisor’s morning even turning a department meeting into a gripe session, stalling progress. The impact of one disenfranchised employee on a team’s productivity is significant; it frequently puts whole projects at risk, even a company’s viability AND can be changed through tried and tested strategies.

When working at a manufacturing plant that was struggling to rectify a labour relations issue, a ‘pocket of excellence’ was detected; where relationships were strong, productivity was high, safety was superb and people seemed upbeat. Here, surrounded by unrest, and hostility, engagement was overflowing. What made this department shine in the midst of frustration and anger? What contributed to the high level of engagement? Why did employees speak highly of their manager?

A discussion with the department head was revealing. He said, “It isn’t much; all I do is pay attention to the employees”. He continued, “After I park my car, I spend the first hour on the production floor chatting with the crew.” He told us he’d talk about the previous day’s results, the challenges facing the team that day, and he’d ask how he could help out.

He said, “Sometimes they need me to order some supplies, or change a procedure, sometimes it’s nothing more than listening to them talk about a trial run and the outcomes they achieved.”  He went on to say, “We discuss ideas together and I pay attention to what’s uppermost in their minds. One day I had to pull an employee off a job as I knew he was worried about his wife in hospital. If he’d operated that equipment under stress, he could have put himself or others at risk. I wouldn’t have known about his personal worries if I’d stayed in my office.”

This lone manager, unlike his office-bound peers, connected with his people personally – every day and operated ‘in service’ to his team. The result? Low absenteeism, no labour relations issues, high productivity and superb quality. All factors that impact the bottom line.

Remember the leadership mantra, Managing By Wandering Around or MBWA? Unfortunately some people thought that was all they had to do – wander around! Others thought it meant being cheery and upbeat – Hip, Hip Hoorah! Good Job! Well Done! More people felt ‘obligated’ to get out and talk with their people – a sorry sight of eye avoidance with a quick retreat to their office after the ‘obligatory walk’. Others took it to heart – as it was intended – like the manager in the production plant.

True employee engagement comes when leaders talk with employees – knowing that people want to be part of a winning team. They understand that at the end of the day employees want to go home, convinced they made a difference; that being there and doing their part advanced the goals of the organization. Those leaders understand it’s crucial for employees to get feedback, to hear their contribution was valued; to say thank you, and they recognize the gains made by asking questions to gain a deeper understanding. They ensure they have heard from the team and explored their ideas before giving their own perspective, to reduce the concept of ‘the boss knows best’. They give freely too; sharing as much information as they can. They teach, coach, cajole, laugh, provide challenges and raise the bar to get the team energized and excited. They operate with ‘being in service’ foremost in their minds; give encouragement and speak with pride about the results the team creates. The leader who cares about engagement says, “They did it.”

When employees work in that environment amazing results are obtained.

In a heavy equipment maintenance shop, mechanics were faced with layoffs due to an economic downturn and the lack of equipment to repair. They fretted about the situation; their need for employment and how the company could make payroll. These conversations led to an idea – instead of repairing logging trucks they wanted to build them – using the heap of old ones deemed too far gone to be repaired.

They added up the skills within the group, (from work and hobbies) they tallied the tools and equipment at their disposal, the raw materials on hand and those required. They researched the demand for re-furbished trucks, checked recent sales figures; they crunched numbers and finally developed a plan and estimate for launching a new business. Their homework done, they presented their plan to the manager.

The result?

The employees kept working; they obtained union approval to re-define their duties and operated a successful truck manufacturing facility. How did they get management support? The result was attributed to a management style that valued employee engagement.

Long before the economic slump, before the need for innovation, the manager noted his employees were curious about the business and his role as manager. At meetings they’d asked about business decisions and the future, about sales, revenue and marketing approaches – they questioned his ideas and challenged future plans. In these meetings the manager realized that most of the employees lacked business savvy. This prompted him lead workshops so employees could understand financial statements, he opened the books so they gleaned business insight, he brought in investment advisors, engineers, and sales and marketing teams – topics outside the ‘requirements’ for a mechanic.

He had regularly asked his crew to think, to be innovative and to challenge the status quo, which had resulted in some changes to the operation. But when the company was struggling, when sales were low and people were on the verge of layoff’s, his work paid off – in spades. That’s when those employees rose to the challenge, they were engaged, enthusiastic and optimistic – you could feel the buzz when you opened the door.

Engaged employees are happy and creative, they problem solve, work together across traditional boundaries, learn and apply their knowledge, listen, challenge AND sometimes it can be difficult for ‘the boss’ to deal with the changes that emerge. But these leaders frequently say, “The energy created by employee engagement is the life blood of the company, it can seem chaotic, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Heather Hughes, CMC is an employee engagement specialist.
Heatherconsults@shaw.ca
www.hhandyourcompany.com

(PeopleTalk: spring 2010)

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