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5 Ways Leaders Achieve Genuine Employee Engagement

As a leader, when you combine L&D with a culture of trust, the results are a high performing, highly engaged workforce. Here's how.

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Employee engagement can look like a random effort to keep workers happy. Should we invest in tuition reimbursement? Re-examine our core values? Order another ping-pong table?

While general employee satisfaction is important, employee engagement is not about delivering a slew of eclectic activities. When done well, it zones in on what really motivates high-potential people to remain with their employer, deliver innovative products, or go above and beyond in customer service.

Download this free guide to learn the 10 HR metrics every company should track—plus 5 bonus metrics.

Research has revealed a strong link between personal learning and motivation. As highlighted in Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 study, Deckers Outdoor—the maker of Ugg footwear—considers “all learning programs to be programs to engage people and drive the corporate culture.” The company has one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry.

But without an environment of trust, all the effort that goes into creating effective learning programs may well be for naught. As a leader, when you combine learning and development with a culture of trust, the results are a high performing, highly engaged workforce. Focus on the following key areas:

How to Build a Culture of Trust

1. Be Open About Your Expectations, Successes, and Failures

To build a culture of trust, there should be no surprises. You need to discuss and share plans, business objectives, and financial results with employees at all levels. While you don’t need to invest a great deal of time discussing every single line item on the profit and loss statement or balance sheet, give your teams enough information so they can understand the firm’s financial health and how their contribution impacts the future success of the company.

Nothing breeds mistrust like a leader who provides a rosy financial outlook, then turns around the next quarter to impose new budget restrictions or worse, layoffs.

2. Encourage Dissent

It is important to give employees a voice in the direction your company takes. Genuinely listen to and consider their views. Even avenues for constructive dissent should be available. Employees working on the front lines of the business often know better than management where the real problems lie and how to fix them. People assimilate knowledge and learn to accept direction by questioning, arguing, and offering alternatives—and, through these processes, gaining emotional connection with the goals.

As a leader, if you are not willing to effectively listen, you will have a hard time getting your teams to align and deliver the performance your company needs to meet its goals.

3. Share the Profit, Share the Pain

When times are good, be generous. Provide employees with a bonus that is tied to revenue and profit goals. This will help your teams understand that their efforts, compensation, and profits are directly linked to corporate success. Ultimately, people will feel responsible not just for their personal success, but also for the overall health of the company.

When times are bad, have the courage to share the pain. It can be very humbling to stand up in front of a group of employees and explain why revenues fell short of plan or why you lost a customer. Make sure executive compensation suffers at least as much as the rank-and-file employees will.

It may be tempting to avoid this conversation entirely or to start looking for scapegoats, but it is important to show confidence that you and your team can and will make better decisions to avoid a similar problem in the future. Such leadership behavior will gain respect.

4. Avoid Stratospheric Executive Compensation

Carefully manage compensation differences between different levels of employees and management. A very large gap between the average employee and the executive team encourages envy and corrosive competition among management levels, and breeds cynicism in the employees—especially if their own income is constrained by limited profit margins.

All of this creates workplace distractions that hurt the firm’s ability to innovate and execute on its business plans, not to mention pointed questions from the investors.

5. Give People the Flexibility to Wear Multiple Hats

When a leader trusts employees to set their own career path, they are more likely to meet and exceed their performance goals. For many professionals, it is nearly impossible to accurately predict what kind of opportunities will be available down the road. Consider all the currently hot jobs—social UX designer, data scientist, and big data architect, to name a few—that barely existed in 2010.

To help with this dilemma, help people progress along two dimensions—the constant evolution of the professional qualifications required in their function, and the soft skills that make them better leaders or team players. Having a road map that evaluates the relative importance of the different paths that addresses both dimensions is critical. People want to grow, and growing in any direction is positive. Stronger soft skills develop better future leaders, and deeper professional skills make people more valuable as employees.

Whenever possible, allow people to wear multiple hats, or perform different roles, to gain perspective on several functional areas in parallel. They will be in a better position to own their careers, seeing where their skills can be of greatest benefit and how they can further their own growth. Besides, they will learn how to prioritize and multitask, which is all good.

Ultimately, leaders who empower employees with development opportunities will gain respect and better results. Allow people to make mistakes, but set up mechanisms that give you alerts to recognize problems early and minimize their impact, sometimes called fast-fail process. Stay connected to coach and guide employees along the way. This requires investment in building a culture of trust and it takes time—but these investments will reward leaders with bold new ideas, better performance, and commitment to the business.

John’s article first appeared in Fast Company on April 27, 2015.

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