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Employee engagement is not an ice cream social

I recently came across a listicle that shared over 40 employee engagement ideas. Wow! A cheat sheet with 40+ engagement ideas that your team will love! We'll have enough ideas to keep us engaged for a year!

I'll break it to you. Your team will hate it.

How do I know they'll hate it? Because they tell me. As an HR strategist, I often conduct an organizational analysis. This is a fancy way of saying I take the time to talk to your people and find gaps in what you think is happening and what's actually happening.

One of the biggest gaps between teams and managers is their definition of “engagement.” In 2015, the Jostle Corporation conducted research on “The Engagement Gap,” which is defined as underestimating or misunderstanding the practice of employee engagement and what is needed to cultivate it.

The results of this research were earth-shattering (to my little HR heart):

  • 99% of executives believe their employees have a major impact on company success

  • Executives ranked employee engagement at 8.3 out of 10

  • Employees rated their own engagement at 5.5 out of 10 (ouch!)

  • There was a 1.2 point difference between employers with an engagement program and those without (but that's a 25% difference!)

The results show that engagement is important, but the strategies aren't effective. What execs are doing to engage their employees isn't working.

To help bridge the gap between how execs rank engagement and how employees feel, here are a few examples of what engagement is and is not:

What employee engagement is not:

  1. An ice cream social. Yes, that great listicle I mentioned—forget about it! Engagement is not an event. Though your employees will enjoy the refreshing treat; they will still feel “meh” about their engagement at work. You see, the ice cream (insert any other fad idea) has nothing to do with them or their contributions to the team or organization.

  2. Forced/Mandatory team fun. Who doesn’t love mandatory fun? Everyone! This is often disguised as "team-building." There's nothing worse to a disengaged workforce than making them interact and "have fun" with people they don’t like or interact with. Before scheduling mandatory fun, do the work to help your team's relationships build organically. Scheduled fun tends to be awkward. Engagement isn’t a one-time activity.

  3. Stay interviews. I’ll tread lightly here because there's value in the concept of a stay interview. However, scheduling time with employees to attempt to figure out if they plan to leave the organization is not engagement nor a great retention strategy. Why? Because people lie—and nothing forces a lie more than a scheduled appointment to discuss my “development” and feeling cornered. Instead, leaders should use everyday interactions, like check-ins, team meetings, peer feedback, client feedback, to gain intel on their staff. If you take an opportunity to actively listen and observe behavior, you will have all the intel you need without ever having to conduct a “stay interview.”

What employee engagement is: 

  1. Communication. To know me is to listen to me! The best thing any manager or leader can do is create open lines of communication to express thoughts and ideas openly with no fear of judgment or retaliation. Creating an environment where team members feel valued for their inputs and accomplishments is the gateway to engagement.  

  2. Trust. Communication gets you in the door, but trust keeps you there. Building an environment where trust is the foundation is the most critical component of engagement. Be sure to create work environments that are accepting, fair, and open. Remember, trust is transparency.

  3. Customized. One size does not fit all! Recognition, mentorship, and training should all be individually tailored. Engagement is simple. It’s engaging-me! Engagement is individualized and intimate. Think of your favorite manager. You admired them because they saw things about you that you didn’t see. They never put you in a box. They made the impossible seem possible. And for all those reasons, you took orders like a soldier. You returned with solutions to your problems. You willingly stayed late or gave up your lunch break to give them your best. You were engaged with them; because they engaged you.

  4. Engagement is a relationship. And while we all enjoy free food, it doesn’t help leaders get to know their people. So, before we set aside a budget for ice cream, laser tag, or more gift cards, let’s connect with our teams and learn about their wants, needs, and desires. This strategy will cost nothing but time; but the time will be well spent and help employees to truly feel engaged.

Even if you have an ice cream social on the calendar, go anyway, but while you're there, focus your time on connecting with your people. Dig into who they are and what makes them tick, and listen more than you speak.

Does your business have an engagement problem? It might just be a communication problem. I'd love to hear about it, let's chat!

About the Author: Kelah N. Raymond is a sesoned Business + HR Consultant who helps leaders and business owners create happy and efficient workplaces. Wife. Mom. Veteran. Forbes Coach. Fitness Competitor.

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