Inspire MAGIC® Employee Engagement: Three Strategies for Success

by Jean Marie Johnson

You and I don't leave our hearts at home on Monday, on Tuesday or on the three work days that follow. We don't check them at the door when we arrive at the office, or place them on hold as we log on and settle in for the day. While we might at times prefer to operate exclusively from the neck up, that's not how it goes.

We have an emotional connection with the work that we do. The sense of engagement we feel may be strong or it may be weak. It may be fairly constant, or it may shift depending on a host of factors. Regardless, research continues to reveal that the degree of emotional connection we feel with and through our work:

  • shapes our experience
  • informs our commitment and
  • strongly influences how and how much we contribute.
Most of us don't have to look far to validate this assertion. When your heart is engaged, you feel fired up, in sync and aligned with your work experience. You're "motivated" and inspired from the inside; you own it. And when it isn't, you operate from a different level of energy, inspiration and interest. More than likely, you get the job done, you meet your numbers, but the best that you have to give is left untapped, and you know it.

Current research on employee engagement levels in the U.S. workforce is disheartening. Most studies indicate:
30%    These employees work with passion, feel a profound connection to their company and drive innovation and forward momentum.
52%    These employees put in their time but hold back on energy, innovation or inspiration.
Highly-   Disengaged:  
18%   These employees act out their unhappiness and undermine the actions of engaged co-workers.

The Gallup organization estimates that disengagement costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity each year. So much for the heart being a "soft" matter.

Five Factors That Drive Engagement

The disengagement snapshot that persists is deeply discouraging. As leaders and managers, we bear some responsibility for these numbers. But how much? To what extent is "engagement" a personal matter, something we "hope" those we hire and manage will bring to the table? To what extent is it directly influenced by how we lead, manage and coach our direct reports? These are the questions we need to explore to understand the conditions that create emotionally- engaged employees.

Curt Coffman, a leading researcher and co-author of First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, provides specific insight into the factors that drive emotional engagement. He has identified that emotionally-engaged employees:

  • feel they have  a two-way relationship with their manager
  • are crystal clear about the outcomes desired in their role
  • are called on to use their abilities to the fullest
  • see their contributions valued as credible and relevant to the goals of the organization
  • are growing and developing to new levels of success

When these drivers are in play for an employee, work isn't just a job or a "means to a paycheck"; it's a profound life experience that engages the mind, heart and spirit.

Creating Engagement: Who's on First?

If you have even a single direct report, you are. Most of us are familiar with the "common wisdom" that people don't leave companies; they leave managers. In our MAGIC® coaching and leadership development work, participants often share their own rich stories of disengagement. They don't hold back when they describe previous work experiences where their boss was the reason for their exit. The "exits" they describe include actual resignations, but just as often, they recount resignations of the heart.

Data aside, these personal experiences confirm that the strongest driver of an employee's engagement is the relationship she has with her direct manager. Julie Gebauer, managing director at the consulting firm, Towers Watson, in New York notes, "People don't go the extra mile because of base pay or health benefits or life insurance. They go the extra mile because of leadership's interest in their well-being, development opportunities or recognition."

Equally worthy to note, our workshop participants speak with deep appreciation for those managers who engage them from the heart. Their respect for these emotionally-connected managers runs deep and stands the test of time.

Three Elements of MAGIC-al Engagement

Tightly scheduled into a too-full calendar, most managers meet with their employees, "manage" their performance and move on. It's "all in a day's work." But managers who nurture engagement understand that their primary customer is their employee, and that every interaction is an opportunity to nurture and sustain deeper levels of engagement and contribution.

Your employees' level of engagement begins with you and thrives on these three elements:

  • the quality of the relationship you have with them
  • the coaching support and development you provide them
  • the MAGIC example you set

Here's how...

1. Put the Relationship First The first MAGIC principle is Respect. As human beings, we say "I felt respected by him," or "I didn't feel respected by her." As managers, we convey respect through the time, attention and interest we extend to our direct reports. It's an unequivocal relationship-first focus that says You matter and I care about you. Let's start there.

I See You: Notice and acknowledge. The most disrespectful thing you can do as a leader is to ignore an employee, to act as if he is invisible. Don't make the mistake of dismissing or discounting the small things that say "I see you." Make eye contact, give him your complete attention, smile and address him by name. Let him know that he is worthy of your notice. If you manage a remote employee, you can still notice and acknowledge with a quick "Have a great day" email before he logs in, or a short phone call after a particularly busy morning to check in with him. When it comes to noticing and acknowledging, it's the fact that you are paying attention that counts most.

I Know You and Value You: Connect person-to-person. Bring a personal touch to your interactions. Be sure that your employee knows that you see her as a unique individual. Each of us wants to be seen and understood beyond the role or position we inhabit. Look for some common ground, or even some uncommon ground where you can relate as people first.

Human beings have an uncanny ability to spot insincerity that leaks through your body language and your tone of voice. Insincerity always backfires; it erodes engagement and it is rarely forgotten. You have to be real. You may have to stretch a bit here if the little bubble in your head reads: I have no idea how to relate to this employee.

Okay, so that's where you start. Maybe this genuine moment of connection begins with you saying: "I realize that we don't know much about each other." Or, "I know we've had so little opportunity to connect. I'd like to get a sense of how things are going with you." The point is to start somewhere. Go with your gut and come from your heart. Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Master how you listen. In every conversation, make yourself open to your employee's experience by listening with both your head and your heart. Participants in our MAGIC Coach sessions often relate the deep respect they have for the boss to whom they could say anything, the one who listened whole-heartedly to them.

  • Be present. Focus your complete attention on them when they are speaking. Let your body language and facial expression demonstrate that you are listening.

  • Respond to what you hear and understand by paraphrasing and empathizing.

  • Draw them in by drawing them out: be an engaged and curious listener by asking questions and inviting input at every opportunity.

2. Provide Coaching Support and Development

I Am Here for You: Be a Partner. You are your employee's partner in their performance, their progress and their contribution. As the coach, you have a unique opportunity to align your actions with these specific drivers of engagement:

  • Providing absolute clarity about the outcomes desired in their role

  • Working with them to ensure they have the opportunity to use their abilities to the fullest

  • Communicating  that their contributions are valued and are relevant to the goals of the organization

  • Partnering with them so that they can grow and develop to new levels of success

In our MAGIC Coach sessions, we explore how the coaching process directly influences an employee's level of engagement. Through dialogue, simulation and role play, we tap the power of coaching to deepen both emotional connection and contribution. These coaching conversations are grounded in the real world of the employee experience, where goals are often a challenge, systems are reliably imperfect and customers know how to push our buttons. And yet, the ability to nurture engagement increases as coaches:

  • Identify and remove barriers that get in the way of performance

  • Appreciate and praise specific strengths and contributions

  • Consistently encourage and recognize work well done

  • Act as a sounding board for ideas and concerns

  • Provide room for the employee to do the work in her own way, as much as possible.

3. Be an Ever-Evolving Model of MAGIC

I Am Always Learning: Be Authentic. When we ask our MAGIC Coach participants to describe the type of leader who earns their respect and fires up their engagement, they describe a leader who is on his own learning journey and is open to feedback, to course-correction and to saying "I apologize." They describe someone who is right there with them, personally engaged with both his head and his heart.

Engagement begins with you. So, where are your opportunities to nurture and sustain deeper levels of engagement and contribution within your team, or the organization?

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.

Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.