Tiffany Sauder: Four ways to develop elite employee engagement

When top talent walks into your office and says, “I’m going to leave,” you have a choice to make as a leader. Make the employee the problem or listen closely.

Every leader I know wants to build a company where employees feel valued and desire to get out of bed and be challenged with the work of the day.

But wanting to build a business that values people first isn’t the same as knowing how to do it.

After nearly 20 years, we’ve achieved a moment in our business where we can claim “world class” employee engagement. By Employer Net Promoter Score measurement, our score places us at a level where less than 5% of companies exist.

Our journey started five years ago with a wake-up call. These were the themes we were hearing from our team: little accountability, poor communication, unclear on company purpose, deteriorating work quality, pressure to perform with no tools, and, “I’m confused.”

These are the five strategies that took us from “this is a disaster” to “world class.”

1. Level-set with the truth.

Honesty starts with leadership. If employees believe one truth and leaders are behaving a different one, the tension between the two creates an immense amount of distrust. How can people follow someone they do not believe has the courage to admit the real problem?

No matter how embarrassing, raw or uncomfortable the whole truth is, you have to say it. It’s ground zero for trust to form.

When we were struggling, I told the company, “We know you are not happy. We know you are frustrated. We know it’s too hard to get work done. This is not OK, and it’s my job to fix it with you.”

Is there something in your company that has been unsaid for so long that you now spend hours driving around it to be able to have a conversation?

2. Decide, document and bring to life where you’re going and why it matters.

Where are you going? Why does it matter? These questions must be answered to move people toward an intended future.

I made the mistake of believing I was being clear. I wasn’t. I framed our future in a way that made sense to me, but others could not easily picture it and commit to it. And they didn’t know what would happen in their life if we were actually successful.

Decide your intended future. Where are you going, and why does it matter to the world? What happens for each individual if you make it happen together?

Document the decisions. Use the same words every time you talk about the future. This creates accountability and forces shared language around the plan.

Create experiences. Show your team what change is going to look, feel and sound like. We remember through experiences.

3. Bring attention to priorities and publish the progress.

When working through cultural change, there are problems everywhere. Publish to the organization your highest-priority challenges so employees can see the problems are getting solved. If individuals are looking only at the universe in front of them, they make the assumption that nothing is getting fixed.

A “nothing in my world is changing” mindset will become a cultural cancer. Focus on the highest-priority challenges, publish the progress and celebrate the wins. Momentum and belief that “we can change things around here” becomes a powerful force for good.

4. Hold people accountable.

Accountability gets a bad rap—that somehow it’s related only to punitive action. I believe we all inherently want to know that our time and talents are valuable. Accountability is a key component to knowing you are winning as an individual.

Top performers want to know, “Am I winning?” The ability to answer this question is directly related to an organization’s ability to retain its rock stars.

Individuals also need to know if training, mentorship or support is needed for them to contribute at a high level.

The simple stuff, over and over: If a leader values truth over politics. If the entire team is clear on where they are going and why it matters. If the biggest problems are being solved and celebrated. If each individual knows how to win, you can’t help but have an environment where people are engaged and excited to win.

In our journey, I’ve learned it isn’t a complicated path. But it is hard. It takes discipline to stay focused, courage to stand up and say the hard things, and patience to build trust and bring people along.

And it’s worth it.•

__________

Sauder is CEO of Element Three, an Indianapolis-based marketing consultancy, and host of the podcast “Scared Confident.” She is also owner of Share Your Genius.

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