3 Steps to Stronger Employee Engagement Jonathan Herrick We all know what it looks like when employees are disengaged. You call customer support at a company you once loved and the rep you get rushes you off the phone. The servers at your once-favorite restaurant deliver your meal an hour after you ordered it—and get your order all wrong. Or it takes three phone calls to correct a simple billing error at your doctor’s office, because the billing clerk can’t seem to be bothered to fix it. Many of us have a breaking point after a few interactions like this, where we can’t take the frustration of dealing with a particular business or practice anymore and decide to move on. It seems obvious that the owners should get to the bottom of what’s wrong and figure out some way to inspire their teams to do better so they don’t cause lost business, but that’s not so simple. Employee disengagement is not an easy problem to fix if you’re a business owner. For one thing, it’s an epidemic. In 2017, Gallup found that 85% of employees are either not engaged at work or actively disengaged. That means most employers are not beating the odds. If you’re finding your own employees are disengaged to the point they may be driving business away, it’s time to take action. Here are some things you can do to turn things around. Take stock of your management team. You’ve heard the saying that employees don’t quit companies—they quit bad bosses. That doesn’t happen in an instant. Prior to saying goodbye to a bad boss, many of these employees become disengaged. They may show up to work but they don’t give it their all. The “disengagement” period may last for years if the employee does not have other career options at the moment. If you sense your employees are not bringing much energy or enthusiasm to work with them, your management team is the first place to look. In many small businesses, there is only one manager—the owner—so if that’s the case, consider the possibility that you’ve got an opportunity to grow as a leader. Many owners feel they are too busy to devote much time to building relationships with their employees and take an “all business” approach, but this can backfire. Setting aside 30 minutes every day to walk around the office and ask employees, “What’s on your mind?” can go a long way toward opening up the lines of communication and uncovering what’s causing disengagement, so you can fix it. Not sure what you need to work on? Your employees will likely hesitate to offer constructive criticism—they’re afraid you’ll fire them if they say something you don’t want to hear— so try engaging a business coach to help you identify areas for improvement. What if the problem is a manager you’ve hired? Consider setting up regular weekly meetings with the manager about people-related issues, so you can keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the office. Asking questions like, “Who is showing potential to take on the new project we’re planning?” “Which employees need coaching—and what type of coaching do you recommend for them?” will give you an opportunity to troubleshoot and mentor the manager. Make sure people are assigned to the right projects. Just because you hired someone to take on a specific job at your company, it doesn’t mean you have to limit them to the work in their initial job description. If you’re discovering that someone on your team has a hidden talent, consider tailoring their job to their talents. Why limit an administrative assistant to answering the phone if he also loves doing graphic design for the firm’s website, and is good at it? Just make sure that if you’re asking someone to do work that’s usually tackled by someone with a higher title that you promote them accordingly. Nothing erodes engagement more than asking employees to work “above their pay grade” and then failing to reward them for it with the appropriate title. Be generous. Many owners think that if they create the right culture, employees will gladly put forth “discretionary effort” without being paid for it. That may be true in some cases, but it won’t be sustainable if your employees are not being paid enough to keep up with the cost of living. Eventually, financial stress will wear them down. It’s very hard for someone who’s worried about paying the rent or an unpaid doctor’s bill to give their all at work. Can’t figure out how to pay your team more on a small-business budget? Look for ways to keep overhead down so you can pay employees better wages than your competitors. One way to do this is to hire one really great employee you pay very well instead of two mediocre ones. Money does matter to employees who have bills to pay, and it’s important to acknowledge that reality in how you run your company. By compensating your team well, you’ll build a stronger, more engaged and more loyal team.