Create A Vocabulary That Inspires Employee Engagement

It’s official. Employee engagement is the new black. I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about it lately, as have others. The very notion of how leaders and employees engage has slowly morphed away from ‘companies have to do this because employees want it’ to ‘companies have to do this even though employees don’t trust it 100 percent’. I’m not saying employees don’t seek engagement; I’m simply saying many have reasons to doubt corporate engagement programs as they stand today. We are still in a process of finding what really works.

This revelation came after I’d read a series of interesting articles and spoken with a few clients of mine who’ve been working on employee recruiting, retention, engagement programs. The clients are genuinely trying to connect with employees, for a number of reasons. But not all are finding it easy going.

Carina Wytiaz, writing in TLNT, The Business of HR, suggested a number of employee appreciation resolutions employers could adopt for 2014. Her suggestions speak to the human-ness of the relationship between employers and employees.  What stuck with me most was her recommendation that employers find a way to say ‘thank you’ for performance. It’s such a powerful thing, to thank someone from the bottom of your heart, to make it genuine. Unfortunately it’s not part of most big-company HR programs.

Then I came across a Fortune interview with the CEO of PepsiCo PEP -0.27%Indra Nooyi, who has adopted an extraordinary engagement strategy: she writes letters to the parents of her direct reports and thanks the parents  – the direct quote from the article is “therefore I’m writing to thank you for the gift of your son, who is doing this at PepsiCo, and what a wonderful job this person is doing.” There’s that phrase again – ‘thank you’ – uttered with power, wisdom and grace. Imagine being the parent and getting that letter, then calling your son or daughter, tears in your eyes. Nooyi’s empathy and ability to engage is definitely not taught in most management classes.

The article that really got me thinking was one was shared by a friend of mine on Twitter Judy Gombita in PRConversations. Judy’s interesting post deals with the nature of social engagement programs – asking employees to use their social channels for a company’s benefit as brand ambassadors. My sense is she’s concerned companies treat the process as a form of employee engagement. It’s a very in depth look at engagement, with quotes from leaders of top companies; it’s worth reading for its clarity and deep questions.

These three very different views of employee engagement led me to think we need a lexicon of engagement if we are to actually do engagement right. We need to use words that are simple, direct and unambiguous. And we have to really mean it when we say the words.

My vocabulary for employee engagement would start with these words and phrases:

Please.  This is one of the most powerful words in any language. It tells the listener you need them, you need their help, and it means something to you. Too few people use the word. If you want to engage with someone at a meaningful level, if you need help, you have to ask nicely, and you have to say please.  It’s not simply polite – it’s a social cue that tells the listener you are asking for their time, attention, and assistance.

Thank you. This was the #1 phrase in Carina Wytiaz’s column, cited above, and it is number two here only because in my mind it bookends the word ‘please’. It’s essential to thank employees for their efforts. Salary, perks, all those things are part of the employment contract; ‘thank you’ is a person-to-person recognition of effort. It’s an essential phrase.

Do you have a moment? This (or ‘Is this a good time?’) may not seem like an essential set of words, but asking people if it’s a good time to engage with them is more than good manners: it tells them you value their time and effort, and it lets them know you expect the same respect in return. There are times when command-and-control is necessary, but most of the time employers should think about meeting the employee in his or her context before pushing for employee engagement.

I understand. Make sure you really do before you say this phrase, because it’s fraught with meaning. But understanding where an employee is in his or her life, day, or job is critical for any employee engagement program to work.

Well done. It’s not every day an employer gets to say those words, but to my mind it is a more powerful statement than the ubiquitous ‘good job’.  People say that to their kids when they pick up the toys without being nagged five times; it’s not enough when you’re trying to communicate the truth of a job well done. I remember hearing that phrase from a former manager and feeling the glow of approval; it was a big deal.

Say things clearly, say what you mean, and be careful with language if you want to really engage with your employees. Get the words and sentiment right, and engagement will follow.

A version of this was first posted on Forbes.

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