Steps to Cultivating Employee Engagement

The benefits of employee engagement are not trivial, and we explored them in a blogpost last week. Engaged employees are better equipped and willing to advocate on behalf of the company, and pass this engagement on to customers. They are also more productive and ultimately create financial benefits. However, the data told us that employees are largely unengaged. So what do we do now? Engagement is not something that you can make people do, or develop a program around.

We need to create environments that cultivate employee engagement and passion; think of it as gardening. What can we do to create these kinds of environments?

The basics: safety

Before we further, it’s important to address the very basic physical needs and psychological needs. One of these psychological needs is the feeling of safety, and it is critical for employees to feel engaged in the workplace. The Wharton management professor Adam Cobb links lack of employee loyalty and engagement to the type of arbitrary restructuring that happens when healthy firms lay off workers for shareholder value.

Although job longevity is largely a thing of the past, you should take steps to help employees feel like a leaf in the wind. If you are always in fear of losing your job, you will be primarily concerned with finding your next job, and less likely to take risks for fear of “rocking the boat.” Companies that don’t take risks don’t innovate; they stagnate.

Create a flexible work environment

The benefits of flexible environments — in the form of flex-time, workshifting, onsite wellness programs — can also boost  engagement. In an increasingly demanding and hectic world, the 9-5 paradigm no longer holds, and employees feel squeezed. To be truly productive, they need the flexibility to get done what they need to get done on their terms.

Work with purpose

Dan Pink describes Purpose as one of the pillars of motivation — a belief in the larger mission. Someone will only work so hard to make a widget. Leaving a legacy is part of man’s quintessential search for meaning; are you helping employees do something meaningful? Does your mission inspire? Do your employees even know what your mission is?

At Yammer, we are driven by the desire to change the way the world works; nothing short of that.  Yammer’s purpose is to make companies more open, transparent, agile and able to deal with rapid change. In the end, we engender these values ourselves — we are what we build.

Focus on culture

You’ve often heard the adage “culture eats strategy for breakfast;” indeed your company’s culture can be the single biggest facilitator or detractor from your initiatives. Our CEO David Sacks said this in a customer Q&A session with our customer community, when asked about our culture:

“Culture is what tells us what to do in the absence of explicit rules and instructions — which is most of the time. It’s a value system. It keeps us in sync and working towards the company mission without the need to be micromanaged all the time. At Yammer, we try to be open to dissent; we require that dissent be constructive and respectful, but we always want people to feel like they can tell us what they think. We need that open and honest feedback to make the best decisions for the business. Beyond internal culture, this mindset applies to the dialogue we want to have with customers as well.”

Establish role clarity with flexiblity

In this volatile world of ours, fluidity and ability to respond to change are competitive differentiators. In this kind of an environment, as an employee, it can be difficult to understand what your role actually is. While it’s important to allow employees to chart their own path and adjust their roles to meet the changing needs of the business, certain clarity around roles is also necessary. Without clarity of vision, people become frustrated and “check out” mentally. Lack of clarity can lead to uneven distribution of work, affecting morale and increasing burnout; it can also lead to duplication of efforts, which is wasteful and frustrating.

Recognize publicly

In How to win friends and influence people, Dale Carnegie said: “Give honest, sincere appreciation. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” These words ring as true today as they did all these years ago. While no substitute for a cash bonus, recognizing your star performers pays serious dividends. Let employees and teams know that they’ve done a good job, taking care to highlight when actions support your corporate value system. Being praised in public — especially by a senior leader, or someone well respected by the organization — has been linked to increased performance, longevity and loyalty.

Be good and do good

Google has a “Don’t be evil” slogan — what’s yours? In the transparent world we live in, every misstep can be discovered and amplified through social media (do you remember GoDaddy’s CEO Bob Parsons hunting elephants?) A connection to the company’s value system can make the difference between making a sale or not. In this kind of world, what you do matters and so does how you get there.

Empower employees to take action

Employees largely want to do the right thing, but don’t always know how. If you want your employees to take action on behalf of the company with confidence, make sure that they 1) have the tools and education to do so, 2) feel empowered to act, and 3) aren’t shackled with red tape and process. Serving customers and responding to market conditions today is predicated on your ability to handle exceptions masterfully. Because process breaks down when you handle exceptions, you need to free information and communication channels, so that the right resources are never out of reach. Give employees access to the latest information so that they can become effective brand ambassadors.


A decentralized organization will be naturally more effective at handling exceptions. In a decentralized organization, autonomous decision making and operations allow to move quickly and deliver the desired product or service to the market. Dave Gray of Dachis Group calls these units pods and believes that this kind of setup is imperative to thriving in a dynamic and volatile environment. Instead of getting mired in process, decentralization empowers to act, while maintaining deep trust and mutual accountability. All of this leads to engagement and wanting to achieve more.

Focus on strengths

Employees want to feel that their career is heading somewhere and that they are evaluated fairly. To do so, it’s important to have the right organizational structure and visionary leadership who don’t feel threatened; rather, leadership should be there athere to serve and curate.

Gallup research has shown that to be truly successful, employees must be positioned in a role that capitalizes on their strengths. Our team used the Gallup Strengths Finder to help us learn more about each other’s (and our own) strengths. “The key to building a strength is to identify a person’s dominant themes of talent, then refine them with knowledge and skills,” says Gallup.

Emphasize learning

Dan Pink’s second pillar of motivation is Mastery. People who care about their craft want to continuously improve. The challenge with learning these days is that formal educational systems are desperately out of touch; by the time a book is printed and a class it taught, the knowledge is obsolete. To learn as fast as the world is changing, you need to foster informal and experiential learning and development; social tools are great in this context. Feedback-based learning enabled by the practice of narrating your work and working “in the open” creates an environment where this type of learning, feedback and mentorship can take place.

Hire for morale

How you hire also matters. For people to work in a decentralized way, while achieving results together, there has to be implicit trust. If you hire well, you’ll never have to worry if someone is 1) capable of doing the job and 2) capable of doing it in a way consistent with company’s values. There’s nothing quite like a “bad apple” on your team to zap energy, demotivate everyone and deflate your plans.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but encapsulates what we’ve seen as effective in our field. What steps are you taking to create an environment for your employees to flourish?

Photo credit: Sentrawoods