There’s an enormous amount of literature rising up to address the lack of employee engagement. There’s books and ebooks and blog posts (ding) and videos and ebooks and ezines...and conversations and forums with sincere intent to address what for most employees is a fairly miserable workday. Otherwise, why do 70% of American employees prefer to sleepwalk through it?
But after the books are read and the applause dies down at Powerpoint presentations - some engaging and some not - employees, managers and executives have to engage. With each other. On their terms, not the terms, powerpoints and dashboards of the experts. They need to engage in conversations with each other, unscripted, unmanaged; then another and another.
You just have to try.
I’ll give you an example.
In 1997, I was tasked with opening a company’s first ever overseas subsidiary to reach the world’s second or third largest market, at the time, that was de-regulating, denationalizing. The industry was telecommunications. The market and country was, is, Germany.
With little to no preparation in German labor laws or German work culture I landed in Duesseldorf armed with enough language skills to order from a menu and direct a taxi to the main train station. We hired a local contractor to find an office and a permanent living space for me. He found the former but never found the latter (He was maneuvering to replace me. I hope all’s well Klaus.)
After hiring the first employees we still waited on computers from the home office, my friends and colleagues. Then a frame-relay connection and, oh yeah, phones. All this time we were training with paper flip charts and meeting with current sales agents, renewing their enthusiasm and excitement.
One day I was describing the esoterics of international callback service and the three legs of a completed call: a-leg, b-leg, c-leg. Made sense. I spoke slowly so she could translate in her head. She spoke slowly so I could translate her very good but unpracticed English. She asked about rates and we looked at the rate table. She’s a very serious, sincere, person and I was making headway with patience and listening and a few jokes. That was one of my strengths along with my knowledge of the services and our company’s operations (who to go to for solutions), my enthusiasm for our company’s opportunity for everyone in Germany, my passion and drive...and my humor.
She asked about rates to Tunisia. We turned to the page and there were none. Again, this is 1997. Back then, direct calls to some countries were forbidden. Countries like Libya and Iraq and North Korea and Cuba. I can’t remember about Iran. The way we handled that was to offer no rates to the country and block the calls through our switches. That discouraged the sales agents from selling it and the customers from using it.
I saw no rates for Tunisia and said this:
Meh, Tunisia. They’re all terrorists there anyway.
She didn’t laugh. I couldn’t figure out why. I watched her process my answer two or three times, looking very intently at me, more than perplexed. She was stunned at my flippant answer. We moved on, never discussing it again. She became a trusted and dedicated employee.
A few weeks later, over lunch I think or a Friday afternoon pastry party, she told me her husband had immigrated to Germany.
Me: Oh really? What’s your husband do?
She: He’s a baker.
Me: Where's he from?
She: [Wait for it ... ] Tunisia.
Boing! Her words rang like church bells inside my head. While they did, she watched and smiled.
After I caught my breath, I started apologizing and saying I had no idea and it was just me trying to add some fun to a boring day.
Now, she started laughing.
Yes, yes. Now I know. I understand you. But right then, I wondered who is this man. How could he say something like that...? I asked the others and they said ‘he’s probably trying to be funny.’
The point here isn’t to encourage anyone to disparage nations or their citizens especially when working overseas where your understanding of cultural nuances might be a french fry short of a happy meal.
My point is...sometimes you just have to try making best use of your strengths, doing it consistently, even if awkwardly. While the details of my humor often failed to make the leap of language and culture, boss and employee, my intent to engage and make their day fun and engaging was never overlooked even as we sat and worked in the south west facing offices, overlooking the rail lines and the Duesseldorf airport during a summer that set records for high temperatures in an office building that lacked air- conditioning. (Thanks, Klaus.) Oh, in 1997 in Germany the majority of office buildings and restaurants and homes lacked air conditioning.
The results of my stumbling, their patience, the sales agents and customers, too was that in six months new orders had tripled and revenues had doubled. There were thousands of tiny decisions and conversations needed to reach those goals. This is but one of many anecdotes. But it’s a key one cause it makes me laugh remembering those moments. But also it’s important to remember for showing that employee engagement isn’t found in books or videos or powerpoint presentations or gift cards or annual awards. In 1997, there were none of those things. I couldn’t wait. I just had to try.
Employee engagement happens when we engage...using our best efforts and our strengths in our conversations where the only rule is to try and to listen and to be consistent and to learn from our mistakes and apologize and get up and do it again.
Sometimes you just have to try.
This was the last tip I described in my first book on employee engagement.
If you want to know more ways to engage with your employees as opposed to anonymous surveys, my book RECOGNIZE THEM: 52 Ways to Recognize Your Employees in Ways They Value offers 52 ways to recognize your employees, easy exercises to reinforce those habits and skills and inspirational quotes to keep you going.
Here’s what some business experts are saying about the book.