Unleash Productivity and Engagement by Focussing on This One Surprising Factor

By Heather Campbell

There’s a growing unease amongst many of the senior leaders I’m working with about strong business headwinds in the year to come. Many leaders are feeling extra stress as a result. More than ever, they’re seeking to build high levels of engagement across colleagues and employees as everyone works together to navigate potentially stormy times. And, even if you’re in the fortunate position of seeing only calm waters ahead, I’m sure that increasing employee engagement is an ongoing goal for you and your organisation.

That’s not surprising because high levels of engagement translate into measurable business impact. In 2020, Gallup carried out a meta-analysis of the benefits of employee engagement across 276 businesses in 54 industries and 96 countries. The analysis found stark contrasts between those business units in the bottom quartile and those in the top quartile of employee engagement – 81% difference in absenteeism, 64% in safety incidents, 18% in productivity, 23% in profitability. Who wouldn’t want the benefits that increasing employee engagement can bring?

Of course, there are many ways to build employee engagement, and it can feel like it’s HR’s job to do so – after all, HR usually ‘owns’ the annual employee engagement survey, don’t they? Only joking 😊 – as a seasoned leader, you know that employee engagement is your responsibility. It’s just that it can sometimes feel like it’s just one more weight to carry. But building employee engagement doesn’t have to be weighty. Indeed, it’s something that quickly repays itself and the burden disappears.

What, then, can you do?

Let’s look again for guidance from Gallup, this time in partnership with Workhuman. In 2023, they identified one key factor that significantly increased employee engagement. Increasing this one key factor resulted in:

  • 9% improvement in productivity
  • 22% decrease in safety incidents
  • 22% decrease in absenteeism

These are impressive statistics. But even more impressive, in my opinion, is what led to these results.

The contributing factor? It’s simply to increase employee recognition and praise.

While the report recommends organisation-wide changes, this is also great news for individual business leaders wondering how to achieve more with less because you can increase employee recognition and praise with zero budget and (almost) zero extra time.

You don’t have to wait for the roll-out of major HR initiatives, or the introduction of company-wide targets.

It’s within your grasp.

    So how can leaders increase recognition and praise with no budget and little extra time?

Here are five key actions that you can take, starting today.

1. Implement regular one-to-ones

Set aside time to meet with each of your direct reports individually at least once a month. This is one of the most valuable investments of time any leader can make in terms of increasing recognition. Use it as an opportunity to talk about the topics your direct report really wants to discuss with you. Don’t make it all about completion of work tasks and action planning.

This doesn’t mean the conversation has to be about deeply personal stuff either – it’s simply about letting the person talk about what matters to them.

Begin your one-to-one with ‘What’s on your mind?’ and take it from there.

Chances are the conversation will still be mainly work-focussed – the key difference here is that the individual is at the centre of the conversation, rather than your priorities. Putting the individual at the centre of the conversation is a powerful way to show genuine recognition.

2. Catch people doing things right

One of those jokey statements people often make is: “I must be doing things right because I haven’t been told I’m not.”

But this statement is no joke. People who say this are not getting the benefit of regular feedback from their manager and have no idea if their performance is good, bad, or somewhere in the middle. Regular, constructive feedback builds energy, motivation and commitment. Its absence does the opposite. Regular feedback and acknowledgement of an individual’s contribution is a great way to demonstrate recognition.

Your regular one-to-ones will give you an ideal opportunity to provide genuine feedback. But catching people doing things right doesn’t have to be about the scheduled feedback moments. All those thank-you’s, great job’s, and well done’s add up too.

3. Listen to understand, not to problem solve

When you’re busy, it is tempting to half listen to a story, then suggest a solution to a half understood problem. Leaders are naturally predisposed to do this because so much of their time is spent fixing things. However, it leaves people seriously disengaged and wastes everyone’s time suggesting and implementing solutions that are unlikely to work.

Instead, take the time to understand what the person is telling you, and why, before you jump in with your advice. Truly listening to what someone has to say is one of the most powerful ways to show your genuine recognition for them.

4. Trust people with the truth

Most leaders expect the people they lead to behave like adults. But, when it comes to sharing what’s really going on, treat them like children who can’t handle reality. But keeping people in the dark – as the saying goes, treating them like mushrooms – isn’t a great way to show that you recognise and value them.

While there may be legal reasons that prevent you from sharing on occasion, this isn’t the most common cause for keeping people in the dark. More often it’s to do with a fear of disappointing people if something doesn’t work out, or of getting people worried before they need to be, or of leaks and the power of the grapevine.

Yes, these are all risks but they’re risks that honest, empathetic communication will minimise.

And not trusting people with the truth has far more negative consequences. People will feel excluded when the truth comes out and confused when they see things happening that they don’t understand. Excluded, confused people don’t feel recognised or engaged. Leaks and grapevines are required only when people don’t hear the truth from their leader.

5. Share the problem, not the solution

You know the saying, take a solution to the boss, not the problem. Well, that’s still good advice so stick with it. But I’d add ‘Take the problem to your team, not a solution.’ Yes, share a solution upwards, but make your team part of creating that solution. Far too often I see leaders beavering away to figure out a solution to a problem, and then investing lots of time and energy trying to get their teams to buy into that solution. This often alienates the team members because they find a solution being imposed, and often one that won’t work particularly well anyway.

It also tells the team that you didn’t trust them to solve the problem. Only your mighty brain could do this 😉. Actually, it’s rare for leaders to come from this arrogant position. It’s more that it can feel safer to share a shiny solution.

Sitting down with your team and sharing the problems that matter to them, then engaging them in creating the solution, is a powerful way to create an environment where people feel recognised and therefore valued, respected and engaged.

Next steps

Now, you’re a seasoned leader, so I’m sure you’re already implementing one or more of these. But maybe you’re not implementing them all, or maybe you do so inconsistently. Take a quick stock take whether you need to increase employee engagement to weather the stormy – or sail the becalmed – seas to come.

Which of these are you already implementing? Which can you introduce? And which do you do sporadically? How can you be more consistent?

And whatever the conditions that lie ahead in 2024, you’ll find it’s all easier if you observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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