True Employee Engagement Lies in the Little Things

By Todd Patkin

We all know that employee engagement matters. Yet again and again, studies point to a pervasive lack of it (for instance, a recent Gallup report indicates that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged), as well as to the incredible costs of this problem. No one can deny that disengaged staff are less productive, less innovative, less collaborative—less everything that leads to successful organizations.

True employee engagement needn't be expensive or difficult to implement. Engagement is really just another word for on-the-job happiness, and we intuitively know that happiness is connected to the simple things in life. So why not apply that principle to the workplace?

Here are eight inexpensive (or free!) strategies that you can use to start transforming your association's workplace environment:

Catch people doing things right. Everyone knows how embarrassing and stressful it is when the boss catches you doing something wrong, and for most staff, those negative feelings can linger (and impact performance) for hours, days, or longer. That's why, if you don't want your team to dread your presence in their workspace, you need to start each day with the intention of catching as many people as possible doing well. Not only can praise improve your employees' perception of you, it's also an incredible morale and motivation booster.

People love to hear positive feedback about themselves, and in most cases, they'll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments coming. Why? Because praise, especially when it comes from an authority figure, is incredibly fulfilling. (And sadly, it's also rare.) Phrases like, "Bob, I've noticed that you always double-check your reports for errors, and I want to thank you for your commitment to quality," take about five seconds to say, but they can pay long-lasting dividends for your association.

Praise them publicly (and then praise them some more). Even if they brush off praise or downplay their achievements, everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don't stop with a mere compliment when you catch a staff member doing something right—tell the rest of the team, too! Whether correctly or incorrectly, many employees feel that their executive directors take them for granted and point out only their mistakes in front of the group, so make it your daily mission to prove that perception wrong.

Handle mistakes with care. Mistakes are an essential part of growth. You don't want to create an environment where people don't take potentially productive risks because they're afraid you'll get mad if they screw up. What you can choose is how you as the executive director you handle them—and by extension, what kind of impact they have on your association. Sure, lambasting an employee who has dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it'll negatively impact that person's self-confidence, relationship with you, and feelings for the organization for much longer.

So, when a staff member has made an honest mistake, try to be as understanding with them as you would be with your own family members. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the person feels very bad already and that yelling or lecturing won't change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. Did the employee (or the association as a whole) learn something? Should a process or procedure be tweaked going forward to reduce the chances of something similar reoccurring?

Don't be the sole decision maker. Maybe you've never put much emphasis on the thoughts and opinions of your staff. After all, you pay them a fair wage to come to work each day and perform specific tasks. As the executive director, it's your job to decide what those tasks should be and how they should be carried out, right? Well, yes—strictly speaking. But, this unilateral approach to leading your staff sends the impression that you're superior (even if that's not your intent) and also contributes to disengagement.

Employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine. Yes, you might get the results you want, but never more than that—and often, your staff's performance will be grudging and uninspired. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by seeking out their opinions, ideas, and preferences. They'll be much more invested in the association's success because they had an active part in creating it.

Help staff grow. As the executive director, there's a lot you have to deal with on a daily basis—negotiating board and member relations; meeting budgets and membership quotas; making sure procedures are followed; keeping up with advances in the field; putting out fires. The list goes on (and on, and on). But no matter how full your plate may be, don't lose sight of the fact that a crucial part of leadership is developing your people.

Ultimately, the success or failure of your association depends on the people who show up each day to do the work, so place a strong emphasis on developing them. Get to know each member of your team and give each person progressively more autonomy, authority, and responsibility when they show they can handle it. When they feel challenged and know that their talents are being utilized, your staff will be more engaged. Avoid micromanaging, which can give them the impression that you don't trust them or have faith in them. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go for a walk to keep yourself from hovering!

Remember that business is personal. The truth is, people don't care how much you know (or how good you are at your job) until they know how much you care. Your staff will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions.

Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator. When you dare to get personal, your staff's desire to please you will skyrocket. Recommended books you think they might enjoy. Send motivational quotes to those who might appreciate them; attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations you are invited to; ask about their vacations.

Make it a family affair. If possible, engage your staff's families in a positive way. In addition to holding contests with family prizes and inviting loved ones to an association celebration, make sure that your team members' families know how much they're appreciated by your association. Having an executive director validate all the hours each staff member spends at work will be remembered far longer than a bonus. Plus, when spouses and kids know what Mom or Dad does at work and are on board with it, your employee's performance will be buoyed by support from the ones he or she loves the most.

For example, if a staff member did something really tremendous, considering calling his home, and leave a voice message like this:

"Hi, (name of spouse and kids), this is Sue Smith, executive director of ABC Association where your husband and dad works. I just want to tell you that your husband and dad is incredible! He just broke our all-time annual meeting attendance record. Guys, that is tremendous! So, please, kids, do me a favor. When your dad comes home tonight, everyone run up and give him a huge hug and tell him how proud you are of him and how great he is. And, (name of spouse), I hope you will give him a wonderful kiss to make sure he knows how much you love him and how much he is appreciated for all he's doing for ABC Association. Thanks, guys."

Re-recruit your best people. Since the buck stops with you, it can be tempting to focus the bulk of your help and encouragement on your lower performers. While it is your duty to help your weak links move up in (or out of) your organization, don't allow them to distract you from your most valuable players.

Your efforts are best spent with your top people. Just think of how much more impressive their already-great work could be with some more encouragement and guidance. Also, think of how far back your team would slide if these MVPs decided to hand in their notice. You should go as all-out in re-recruiting your top people as you would in attracting new talent. Considering what it would cost in turnover to attract and train suitable replacements, and spend that money on your top performers.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by making your association as happy a place to work as possible.

Todd Patkin is author of Finding Happiness: One Man's Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In; Twelve Weeks to Finding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People; and Destination: Happiness: The Travel Guide That Gets You from Here to There, Emotionally and Spiritually. He can be reached through his website at