The economy essentially flat-lined in the first quarter with a growth rate of 0.1%, notwithstanding the addition of 288,000 jobs in April and the fact that the overall outlook for 2014 remains positive.  In this slow recovery, the sense of frustration experienced by many businesses calls to mind a scene from one of those adventure movies with tall ships from the 18th or 19th century, such as Master and Commander, one of my favorites.  We have been sitting in dead air for a long time; the only option is to lower the landing boats, tie them to the hull with a towing line, and row until the sails begin to fill.  What tedious and arduous work for the crew!  What a challenge to the captain and other officers to motivate the crew to put their backs into it and just keep rowing, as hard as they can!

     Your own employees who have to “pull the oars” even more strenuously than ever before may be dispirited from meager or flat wage growth that wide sectors of the economy have experienced over the past decade, and they may be numb from the frequent departures of their co-workers due to staff reductions.  In such circumstances, generating employee engagement, which leaders are constantly exhorted to do, can itself seem to be tedious and to be so pre-2008. 

     Numerous surveys have shown that only about 21% of workers are fully engaged, 71% are partially engaged, and 8% are fully disengaged.  And these numbers reflect the general situation in good times!  If only 21% are fully exerting themselves at the oars, and nearly 10% are just going for a ride, your ship is in trouble, especially when another ship—the competition—is chasing you.

     To save the term “employee engagement” from becoming one more vague business cliché, it is worth looking at its original meaning.  It contains four elements:

  • A sense of urgency
  • Feeling focused
  • Feeling of intensity
  • Enthusiasm.

     Why is this important?  The Gallup organization in 2009 estimated from their analysis of nearly 200,000 individuals from 8,000 companies that organizations with high levels of employee engagement can achieve the following:

  • 12% higher customer satisfaction/loyalty
  • 18% more productivity
  • 12% greater profitability.

Other studies have shown similar results, plus the increased physical and psychological well-being of employees who are fully engaged.

     So when everyone has to “just row,” what are some strategies for having a focused, enthusiastic, intensely energetic team show up every day with a sense of urgency?

PRIVATELY AND CANDIDLY EVALUATE YOUR OWN LEVEL OF ENGAGEMENT.   In general, the crew or the team will be no more committed than the leaders.  You set the high mark.  When was the last time you did some self-reflection regarding your vision for the organization, thought about how it relates to your core values as a person, and expressed why your objectives and goals are worth pursuing, and what the future might hold once the winds fill your sails again?  A disengaged crew indicates a disengaged or only partly engaged leadership. If the business generates your enthusiasm only when times are good, chances are you do not find its vision or purpose compelling for your life. 

COPY SPACE X—PROMOTE CEASELESSLY YOUR VISION AND VALUES—An intense sense of engagement and pride is easily recognizable with a quick tour of the headquarters of SpaceX in Hawthorne, California.  A major reason is that founder Elon Musk uses every forum he can to communicate his visions—the overarching one being to make the human race a multi-planet species by sending humans to Mars, sooner and for far less cost than anyone else.  Space X achieved the goal of sending the first commercial supply ship to the international space station—and the only one in the world that can bring cargo back.  Musk’s company is refining the Dragon Capsule for eventual human flight, which will eliminate the necessity of the U.S. paying Russia for rides to the station and back for our astronauts, a most unreliable arrangement now that the U.S. is placing sanctions against Russia for invading and annexing Crimea.  A similar sense of high engagement is also expressed at many other more mundane businesses that are deeply committed to a widely-shared vision and set of values, including Starbucks, In-n-Out Burgers, Samaritan’s Purse, Lexus service centers, Trader Joe’s, and DIRECTV customer service.  Employees at these companies are not just rowing; they are helping to fill their own sails!  Do your vision and values energize your employees this way?  More fundamentally, do they energize you?

INVOLVE, LISTEN, UTILIZE OTHERS’ IDEAS, APPRECIATE, CELEBRATE, RECOGNIZE, REWARD.  When employees complain about not getting respect, as they often do, it is because they receive the benefit of too few of these listed behaviors.  There is no need to belabor them in detail here, since most leaders who are readers know exactly what they are.  Ask your colleagues—and especially your executive assistant if you are lucky enough to have one—how you could do more of these.  Then follow at least some of their suggestions.

DON’T SETTLE FOR MEDIOCRITY—IT UNDERMINES THE SENSE OF URGENCY.  Some employees who are disengaged say that not much is asked or expected of them.  Your job is to inspire outstanding performance and enthusiastic contributions—it is not to try to be popular.  Research has shown that leaders who want above all to be liked rather than respected end up being neither respected nor liked.  They are seen as gutless, inconsistent, and unfair.

EMPLOYEES WANT TO KNOW HOW THEY AFFECT THE CUSTOMER—NUMBERS ARE LESS IMPORTANT.  Most employees won’t get very excited by EBITDA, enterprise value, key ratios, or even stock prices.   They take much more pride in their work and workplace when they know and see how it improves the lives of customers and the community.  Complaints are widespread today among consumers regarding the general decay of customer service across the economy.  If you do not care about your customer, your employees will not care about you or your company.

BE OPEN AND CANDID; TREAT EMPLOYEES AS ADULTS, in regard to competition and finances.  If times are tough and you need their help more than ever, let them know as many details as you can without divulging sensitive, competitive information.  Explain your tough decisions and the role you need for them to play in the weeks and months ahead.

GET RID OF THE ACTIVELY DISENGAGED, AFTER FINDING OUT WHAT BUGS THEM. The well-known advice from Good to Great to get poor performers “off the bus” has its place, yet they can be a source of valuable insight. Presumably they seemed motivated when they were hired.  What happened afterwards?  Is it something you can correct?  Is your company inadvertently discouraging engagement?  Executives often rationalize terminations with amateur psychological analysis such as, “he was overwhelmed” or “she couldn’t handle the stress,” or “it just wasn’t a good fit.”  Why speculate when you can get the facts from just asking?

TELL THEM ABOUT YOUR PLANS FOR REACHING BETTER TIMES.  Are they rowing toward stronger winds, more dead air, or do you not know?  It is your job to figure it out and tell them the direction in which to row.  Current unfavorable conditions are more tolerable if put in context.  What future do you realistically plan for your organization and for them?

LET THEM SEE YOU ARE NOT ABOVE PULLING AN OAR YOURSELF. Unfortunately, in the movies we never see the ship’s captain in the tri-cornered hat and gold epaulets—or any of the senior officers—climb aboard one of the boats and start rowing beside the crew.  But recall a different kind of movie, Patton, and the scene of the outraged general, oblivious to danger, jumping into the middle of the street to fire his pistol (!) at German bombers strafing his base.  This scene provides insight into why so many formerly demoralized American soldiers became willing to follow him anywhere at any time on to victory, no matter the personal cost.

DON’T MISTAKE GIMMICKS FOR SUBSTANCE.  Imagine again the ship in dead air being towed for hours by its crew.   Suddenly the captain decides to give them some organized fun with party hats and some cake, when what they need is deep rest, gallons of water and real food.  Would their motivation for the job and respect for him go up or down?  I think they might be grumbling, “Why are we breaking our backs for this clown?”  Similarly, picnics, company parties, holiday events and the like have their place, and when they used as opportunities to recognize and celebrate achievements they can be high points of the year.  But they have little intrinsic motivational value in themselves.  Often they are a feel-good cover-up for the lack of the real thing.  In reports about companies selected as the best to work for, among the reasons listed you will scarcely find such things even mentioned.  When employees are deeply engaged, they will generate their own ideas as to how to laugh together, enjoy each other’s companionship, and have fun on the job.

TAKE A LOOK AT GLASSDOOR.COM.  Employees post anonymous comments about their employers for the world to see on this site.  Is your company among those “reviewed”?  If it is, what are they saying?  You should know.