5 Conversations Guaranteed to Improve Employee Engagement

In my role at TalentMap I present employee engagement survey results to countless HR and leadership teams. Inevitably, the discussion turns to what to do to improve employee engagement. While each and every presentation and discussion is unique, there is one element that is common throughout: the large majority of strategies and tactics to improve employee engagement come down to simply having more conversations with employees. What kind of conversations, you ask? Here are the five conversations I recommend most frequently, and also the ones which, if they actually happened, have resulted in significant increases in employee engagement.

#1. “Tell me how you want your career to develop”

(The Career Path Conversation)

Professional growth, learning and development are among the most important drivers of employee engagement. Simply put, the better an employee feels about how they are being challenged, learning, maximizing their potential, all with the prospect of moving up in their careers, the more engaged they are going to be. The entry of the Millennial generation into the workforce is fundamentally changing the expectations that employees have of their employer regarding performance and career. By now, we’ve all heard the stories of how millennials crave more feedback; however, it’s how that feedback is delivered which is the real key. Rather than sitting down at the dreaded performance appraisal meeting once a year, a conversation with the employee which is forward-looking; asks where the employee wants to be; and, then helps chart a path to get there by suggesting improvements in performance and augmenting various competencies through training, learning and development, is a conversation that will engage. Employees (not just millennials) want their managers to help them with their career path: “what’s my trajectory?”, and “what do I need to do to get there?”. Having these conversations several times a year (instead of performance appraisals which look at past performance) is guaranteed to be highly engaging.

#2 “Tell me about your idea”

Another key engagement driver in many organizations falls under the theme of “innovation”. In the context of employee engagement, innovation doesn’t necessarily mean your organization needs to be a tech-wizard. It does mean that employees want their ideas to be listened to and considered. In organizations where managers feel they have been there, done that, and seen everything, there is a strong tendency to rely on experience (usually bad experience), when someone brings them a new idea about how to improve how they work. In the moment, this doesn’t seem like much, but when many managers react this way (and they do), then the effect is to stifle innovative thinking, which results in an organization which stagnates. It also sends a clear signal that employees’ ideas are not valued, which is very disengaging.

So, when you hear that someone has a new idea, coax it out: “Tell me about your idea”. I can guarantee you that most ideas won’t be implemented as they are first created, but showing the employee that their idea is being considered, and they are being listened to, will encourage more and more ideas to come forward. I can guarantee two things will happen: you’ll have more engaged employees, and you’ll get some great ideas to improve your business.

#3 “What would you like this organization to look like in 5 years?”

Sounds lofty, doesn’t it? But we know that one of the most engaging aspects of an organization is its ability to inspire employees with a common vision of the future; and more importantly, make it clear to employees how they contribute to that success. Organizational vision is not just for the boardroom or the management table, all employees, no matter what their role in the organization, desire to make a contribution to something greater than themselves. They also want to have input into what that looks like. A periodic conversation with your employees around what that vision should be and how they contribute will cement their dedication to working towards the goals. Organizational goals become employees’ goals. Is there a better outcome of employee engagement?

#4 The Elevator Conversation

Most of us have heard about the 30-second elevator pitch. This is not what we’re talking about. How your employees perceive leaders and managers, and especially senior leadership, is also key to their employee engagement. In larger organizations, most employees never come into contact with senior leaders, or if they do, they don’t feel approachable. Senior leaders, for most employees, become an anonymous state of mind as opposed to a group of people with thought and feeling like their own. They probably own fancy cars and have nice houses, and they definitely have very little understanding of what we endure “on the front-line”. It becomes very easy, therefore, to blame them when things aren’t going well.

The antidote to this is improving senior leadership visibility and approachability. When leaders interact more and more with employees at all levels, they become human again. These interactions can be very brief, even fleeting, moments. So, the next time you’re walking down the hall, or in an elevator with an employee, avoid the temptation to look at your phone, and engage in conversation: “You’re in HR, right? How’s it going over there? I’ve heard you folks are doing some great work on the compensation file”. It might seem fleeting and inconsequential to you, but that short elevator conversation will send a strong signal that you, as a leader, took notice, and cared. Guaranteed: that’s a recipe for higher engagement.

#5 How are the kids/your mother/your partner?

Continuing from #4, a just as brief a conversation which begins by asking something about the employee outside of work (nothing too personal, obviously), demonstrates that most important consideration of all to engaging employees: showing that the organization cares about them as individuals, as well as showing your human side as a leader. Again, while asking someone about the family doesn’t sound like something your organizational development team would thinking about putting in the employee engagement action plan, I guarantee that this and the preceding four conversations, if repeated often enough, with enough different employees, will definitely improve employee engagement.

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