Employee Engagement Is Worthwhile But Elusive

There is a buzz now about Employee Engagement in all industries. Thought leaders in Human Resources are centered on the idea that engaged employees are more motivated, effective, and productive, and therefore can do more with less.

And that sounds like a good thing—doesn’t it? I want that. You want that. We all want that.

As a HR software executive, it’s no secret that I have a keen interest in all things Human Resource related and especially those that have the potential to change the way that employees’ are engaged. But what does Employee Engagement really mean? And how do we know when we’ve achieved Employee Engagement? Of course there are companies who provide nap rooms, free meals, and onsite daycare, but are the freebies the key to Employee Engagement? Those are nice perks, but is it really necessary to go over the top with giveaways to employees to get them engaged? Those questions are what I’ve decided to explore.

To begin, I needed a solid working definition of Employee Engagement. While I have heard the term itself for more than a decade, it often is used with varying meanings. It was surprisingly difficult to find a definition that focused on what the employer can do and what the results of Employee Engagement are. So, for the purposes of this blog, I created this definition of Employee Engagement:

Employee engagement is leadership communicating strategy and embedding goals to a receptive, motivated, and well-recognized workforce who in turn creates customer loyalty and satisfaction resulting in exceptional business results.

As my definition suggests, my thoughts on encouraging engagement do not involve giveaways and freebies but rather they center on leadership behaviors.

Principle 1—Good leaders communicate with their employees.

A good leadership team articulates strategic objectives and promotes processes that successfully embed those goals at every level of the organization. The idea here is that managers align goals to specific objectives for each of their direct reports and, at the same time, allow employees to participate in the strategy and planning related to achieving their assigned individual, team, and organizational goals.

Employees must clearly understand what they are supposed to do and what success means to them individually and as a team. They also need know the organization’s goals and more importantly what the organization stands for so they can be aligned with its intentions. This is important so they can reinforce and promote its culture inside and outside of work. Some organizations, such as Southwest Airlines, go so far as developing and promoting compelling customer service stories that intentionally embody and reinforce their culture and customer service philosophy.1 Those of us that have enjoyed Southwest’s unique style of customer service have witnessed how well this philosophy has worked for them.

Principle 2—Empower employees to do the right thing.

Providing an environment where employees are able to exercise judgment in doing their day-to-day jobs is a must-have for an empowered workforce. It’s not enough for your managers to provide leeway for direct reports to do their jobs effectively and efficiently. Employees must feel safe in taking calculated risks, possibly breaking the rules, so long as those decisions result in serving customers better. Top managers and executives must be receptive to upward feedback. Good ideas cannot be ignored. When procedural or system changes are necessary to improve efficiency, accuracy, or customer service, your Engaged Employees should be leading this effort.

One caveat…while encouraging empowerment behaviors, emphasis should be maintained that employees are still responsible for maintaining direct and frank communication with their supervisors and keeping them in the loop at all times. An empowered employee is not an unsupervised employee.

Principle 3—Happy employees are positive and strive to do their best.

How happy are you? Thirty years ago, an employer would not likely ask that question. Today it is more common since happiness has been linked to productivity, so measuring and promoting happiness has been gaining favor with Human Resource practitioners. Tony Hsieh, the CEO and founder of Zappos.com, is going so far as to develop his own “Unified Happiness Theory.” 2 Tony may be uniquely qualified to undertake such a task since his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose is a #1 book on the New York Times© Best Seller list.

Happiness is the most subjective of my four Employee Engagement principles, but I have seen that it is an important one. Happy employees are positive employees that strive to do their best work. Here, we are focused on getting employees well-placed in their roles with a good sense of purpose and meaning for the job they do. Employees must be given the needed training and tools to be successful. They also need to be satisfied with their work environment and compensation. It is essential to foster participation in collaborative teams where all are invested in the successful outcomes of the team and are regularly communicating, sharing information, and sharing knowledge.

Happy employees routinely speak highly of the organization to coworkers, potential coworkers, and customers. Surveys are good tools in checking your organization’s progress in this area. Of course, the ultimate test of happiness is retention. If your organization has a retention problem, then you likely have some work to do on the happiness front.

Principle 4—Team recognition keeps the team spirit alive and well.

Teamwork is the most important aspect to high productivity: http://richardcangemi1.com/?p=89.

People naturally gravitate toward teamwork, but when the reward system is improperly designed teamwork is quickly snuffed out. Teamwork thrives when recognition is evenly and fairly distributed to all contributors.

Good coaches instinctively listen and recognize players’ contributions. They know that those coaching behaviors foster a loyal, motivated, and productive team environment with individuals working toward a common goals that are aligned to make the team successful. A winning football team’s quarterback and running backs naturally receive recognition as they are performing in highly visible positions. The same goes for salespeople and product engineers since they are recognized by virtue of the exposure that the job that they do affords them. Good coaches and managers fairly share successes with all contributors so everyone is recognized for the outcome of the team effort. Shared recognition is what keeps team spirit alive and well.

My four principles of Employee Engagement are simple enough. It is an elusive but worthwhile goal since achieving the kind of Employee Engagement that results in exceptional business results is easier said than done. Good luck!


1 Kelly, Gary, “Gary’s Greeting: Happy Holidays!,” Spirit,  Dec. 2013, http://www.southwest.com/assets/pdfs/about-southwest/garys-greeting.pdf (accessed 10 Dec. 2013).

2 Max Chafkin, “The Zappos Way of Managing,” Inc., 1 May 2009, http://www.inc.com/magazine/20090501/the-zappos-way-of-managing.html (accessed 6 Dec. 2013).

Highly Productive Teams

I have been fortunate to participate in teams where members engaged each other in an inclusive way that energized, inspired, embraced change, and just plain made work more productive and fun. I refer to these teams as Highly Productive Teams. These teams always seem to position the rewards and accolades of success with the team and never the individuals involved. They keep their eye on the ball and collaborate instinctively to achieve the project vision. However, I’ve also seen firsthand organizations that don’t collaborate and have a silo mentality, hoard information, and resist change. They assign blame or success to individuals and in doing so they often neglect the overall goals and vision for the project.

I view the Highly Productive Team as the Holy Grail of productivity. At the centerpiece of Highly Productive Teams is workplace collaboration—the act of harnessing the collective intelligence, ingenuity, energy, passion, and creativeness of an organization to result in innovative and successful team effort driven toward achieving a common vision. Highly Productive Teams are inspired organizational efforts that transcend mediocrity and go on to achieve greatness.

Teamwork and collaboration are high on the list of reasons that top-performing companies give for their success. In 1999 at the height of HP’s reign as one of the most successful and innovative companies, it published the Rules of the Garage[1], a framework for innovation. HP’s framework heavily weights teamwork in its list of organizational success factors. Similarly, Google’s Susan Wojcicki’s Eight Pillars for Innovation[2] attributes collaboration within five of her eight pillars.

Do a little research on teamwork and workplace collaboration, and you’ll find a consensus of opinions centered on a close knit work environment promoting regular communication and sharing amongst team members: A team with a high trust quotient, common interests, vesting in the successful outcome of the project, and leadership that is clear on goals, objectives, and vision.

Just a few simple rules that should be easy enough to implement, right? The million dollar question is: “Why do so few teams click, collaborate successfully, and become highly productive, and the bulk of the rest, not so much?”

At Mangrove we pride ourselves on doing more with less, and I attribute our highly productive teams as a big part of the reason why. I wish I could say that every project or endeavor falls into the utopia of the Highly Productive Team, but we’re there more often than when we’re not. So what are we doing specifically at Mangrove to build Highly Productive Teams?

Our leadership model is open, inclusive, passionate, results-oriented, but flexible with deadlines.

  • We paint the big picture and are realistic and forthright with the project objectives.
  • We engage the team to discuss, challenge, contribute, and ultimately be a part of the solution-creation process.
  • We instruct the team on what not to work on, and prioritize the issues that require creative solutions.
  • We communicate flexible target dates, success criteria, and levels of authorities; we never sacrifice innovation, forward momentum, and morale for the sake of meeting short-term deadlines.
  • We are passionate with a singular focus on the delivery of high quality results.
  • We are generous with praise.
  • We size the team with just enough resources to get the job done.
  • We provide adequate time to be efficient with resources as compressed projects tend to get sloppy.
  • We ensure that the entire team has a vested interest in the desired outcomes.
  • We guide collaboration and keep things moving to be sure that collaboration does not go too far where things get bogged down.
  • We promote an experimental philosophy where calculated risk-taking is encouraged and a failed effort is acceptable. We, however, never give in or concede defeat. Obstacles are opportunities and not roadblocks.
  • We help each other be right and not wrong, and we act as though the team is counting on our individual contributions.

Our teams are small, agile, aligned with vested interests, and are given adequate time.

  • We size the team with just enough resources to get the job done.
  • We provide adequate time to be efficient with resources as compressed projects tend to get sloppy.
  • We ensure that the entire team has a vested interest in the desired outcomes.
  • We guide collaboration and keep things moving to be sure that collaboration does not go too far where things get bogged down.
  • We promote an experimental philosophy where calculated risk-taking is encouraged and a failed effort is acceptable. We, however, never give in or concede defeat. Obstacles are opportunities and not roadblocks.
  • We help each other be right and not wrong, and we act as though the team is counting on our individual contributions.

As Mangrove has grown, so has our distributed workforce. We’ve seen firsthand how contributors working in different physical locations and different time zones can slow down collaboration and challenge productivity.

We connect the team with technology.

  • We invest in video conferencing and document sharing capabilities, and now we engage our remote team members equally with our resident team members.
  • We use automated tools to track open items, record resolutions, and communicate progress frequently in terms of project deadlines and milestones.
  • We embrace a regular rhythm of social activities and informal meetings that promote trust and accountability among team members.
  • We encourage the use of social media tools to facilitate information broadcasts, knowledge transfer, recognition, and real-time communication.

Our approach to workplace collaboration is one that instinctively works for us, and it is becoming engrained in our culture as a company. I’ve seen both side of the coin, and there’s no question in my mind that organizations that collaborate earn the right to remain relevant while those that don’t eventually face tough times. In 2001, Apple’s iPod device was a runaway success that challenged Sony’s Walkman product line into obsolescence. Sony was unable to collaborate to counter with a viable iPod-iTunes alternative because of too much internal competition; they instead went to market with two competing products, and both failed.  Apple on the other hand, parlayed its previous iPod success by collaborating and sharing designs from the iPod team with the iPad tablet team, and the iPad became another runaway success.

So the rewards for assembling highly productive teams are obviously great. Getting your team there is a matter of finding the right balance of leadership style, and a having a good, solid framework for collaboration in place.