7 ways to increase workforce engagement

“How do I get more employees like that!?”

The enthusiastic and sincere question came from a CEO who had just been thoroughly wowed by a presentation from a group of his airport ramp employees. They had figured out how to take the most hated, thankless job of all — de-icing airplanes in bitter cold in the frigid wee hours of the morning and plummeting temperatures of late nights — and turn it into a sought-after role carried out with unprecedented levels of passion and attention to assuring the safety of the flying public.

The “that” referred to people who were inspired, motivated, engaged and determined to bring their very best effort to work they viewed as meaningful and critically important. These employees were willing to endure difficult working conditions; to labor without direct feedback from the public they served and to receive no additional financial reward for their efforts. They were a model of employee commitment — employees who willingly brought their discretionary energy to their work.

Our answer to the CEO’s question was to keep doing exactly what he was doing: hiring and supporting leaders who were open to learning how to reinforce seven key drivers that foster “employees like that.” Research on employee commitment led by Dr. Dave Nicoll, a member of Overland’s consulting consortium, shows that consistently devoting attention to these drivers results in employees’ building perceptions that lead them to beliefs that then drive behavior. And just as our CEO example illustrates, that magic combination can have more impact on operational improvement efforts than any stand-alone Six Sigma, lean, or continuous improvement process ever could.

1. Supervisor-Employee Interactions. In the case of the de-icing project taken on by the employees, much of their success, and the resultant commitment, stemmed from the relationship between the team and its supervisor. They had mutual respect for one another, and they shared values about the work and clarity about the dependent nature of their roles. The supervisor provided clarity about organizational needs and, within those boundaries, gave the team the autonomy and flexibility to structure the work and schedules in a way that would produce the results needed. The approach was fair to all involved and was in keeping with the collective bargaining agreement.

2. Job Structure. Human beings respond to work that has variety and challenge. Because of their relationship, the supervisor assumed a coaching role, entrusting employees with more responsibility for day-to-day tasks. He also provided them with unprecedented levels of performance data so they could connect their actions to the overall outcomes achieved. This enabled them to identify problem areas and work to address them. Instead of bystanders, the employees participated as creative solution-developers. So, for instance, when the question arose about what to do if an unexpected storm hit in the middle of the night, crew members volunteered their cell phone numbers so they could be notified at any time.

3. Recognition. When the team requested a spare vehicle be converted into a ”mobile unit for de-icing humans” that provided hot food and beverages to crews on the tarmac, management agreed to the investment, which sent a strong signal to employees that their experience, expertise and demonstrated competence were appreciated, valued, and respected. Their perception of being included and recognized fostered a desire to reciprocate with a job done exceedingly well.

4. Empowerment. Building employees’ perception that they are empowered requires leaders to assure employees have: the tools and resources they need to do their work well; access to information relevant to their work; and the ability to make real-time task decisions that influence overall outcomes. When employees indicated they needed extreme weather coveralls to effectively de-ice aircraft in brutal conditions, management gave them the go-ahead to work with the purchasing department to solicit bids, and heeded the recommendation to customize the suits with reflective patches to enhance visibility and assure personnel safety. Additionally, management invited employees to meetings with vendors of de-icing agents so they could share feedback and learn more about the products.

5 and 6. Process and Outcome Fairness. To foster employee commitment, organizations need to assure employees perceive that policies and procedures are handled fairly across the work group and that pay and benefits are shared equitably. Without perceptions of fairness, employees are hard-pressed to want to show up for work and give 110%. In this case, the supervisor worked closely with his labor relations counterpart and the union rep to assure the collective bargaining agreement was upheld and that any disputes were handled expeditiously according to the agreed-upon grievance procedure. Labor-management collaboration was more the norm that the exception, which further reinforced workers’ belief that they would receive equity and justice.

7. Membership. And lastly, leaders in this organization consistently fostered employees’ sense of belonging; that of being part of the team and the company and feeling supported by its senior leadership. In this regard, no words are spoken more loudly than the action of the vice president showing up on the tarmac at dawn or dusk on wintry days to hand out coffee and express sincere thank-yous to the team.

In summary, our answer to the “How do I get more employees like that?” question is: You create them. Committed employees aren’t merely the result of an effective screening and hiring process (although that helps). Rather, they are the product of working conditions that have been carefully designed using the approaches briefly described above. Fortunately, the answer to the CEO’s question is within the grasp of every leader. By understanding what research has proven are the true drivers of employee commitment and consciously and consistently applying that learning, leaders can create a culture that unlocks employees’ will to contribute to the enterprise’s success at levels that would wow any CEO.

Cathy Wright is a partner with Overland Resource Group (www.orginc.com), a 30-year-old firm specializing in helping its clients achieve operational improvement through employee engagement and labor-management collaboration. She can be reached at c.wright@orginc.com.


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  • <p>I want to commend this article. It condenses an enormous amount of research and experience into a readable starting place for creating a culture of commitment. It also jives with my observations and experience over 30 years of helping companies improvement results by engaging employees directly in improvement and problem-solving. While there is a ton of tools and approaches to tackling the 7 elements that Ms. Wright describes, the really good news is that upping the gain in any or all of these elements can be started immediately in very simple ways - it just takes the collective will to begin. I would also note that such efforts, in facilities that include represented employees, have an exponentially better chance at being effective if the on-site union is included asa partner up front in the development of whatever efforts are put in place.</p>

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