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Getting Your Employees Engaged

In the employee engagement surveys conducted by PSG the past few years, I’ve noticed six survey statements that consistently score the lowest ratings and contribute to low engagement. The low scores occur whether or not the organization is for-profit or not-for-profit. These statements are:

1. My company takes appropriate action with poor employee performance
2. I have opportunities for promotion
3. Leadership understands the concerns of employees
4. Quality of work is not compromised by volume of work
5. The environment at my company reflects openness and trust
6. Morale is generally high at my company

Let’s deal with the first two, and I’ll comment on the remaining four in subsequent blog entries.

Dealing with poor performance: Poor performance/bad behavior is frequently overlooked by managers for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their inability to handle difficult conversations. This is either through a lack of coaching skills and emotional intelligence or simply being too weak to deal with the problem. Then there’s the practical risk of losing people when when you’re short-staffed and managing heavy workloads. And, of course, it takes time that you don’t have when you have this pressure. The result is a manager who is conflict averse or unwilling to confront the issues.

While the excuses are many, the fact remains that countenancing poor performance sends a clear and unmistakable message — it’s OK to show up and not perform while everyone else works diligently to do his or her part and more. What’s more, “bad apples” undermine team morale and performance with their negative attitudes.

Simply put, companies need to have fair and consistent practices to handle such situations, including standard procedures for dealing with poor performance, use of performance improvement plans (PIPs) and, ultimately, doing what’s necessary when an employee fails to meet the requirements of the PIP. Empty threats only result in lost credibility. Actions count, even if they’re not visible to other direct reports. Over time, a manager’s style becomes obvious and it’s clear to all whether or not poor performance or bad behavior is being addressed or simply tolerated.

Opportunities for promotion: This is a universal issue, particularly in smaller businesses where the growth path can be limited. How do you deal with it? In a number of ways:

First and most important, promote those who are deserving and qualified, or clearly have the potential to succeed through demonstrated success.

Second, when career paths are limited, be upfront. Tell people directly where they stand and that there are no immediate prospects for growth or promotion. If necessary, you may have to help employees leave the organization and work with vendors and partners to find top jobs for them. It is clearly preferable to have friends in the industry through a positive and constructive transition than to build up the frustration, resentment and disengagement that result from vague and empty promises.

Finally, work to promote from within and create incentives for ambitious employees. This frequently requires a sensible talent management program. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated. It simply needs to recognize your high potentials and give them the training and professional development opportunities to grow, take on additional responsibilities and demonstrate their talent. It’s also a lot cheaper than having to hire from the outside.

What’s going on in your company with regard to these two issues? If you’re having problems, perhaps it’s time to sit down at your next leadership meeting and hash it out.

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