Keep Employees Engaged for Management Success

The Gallup Organization drew on 10 million employee and manager interviews to learn how successful managers keep employees engaged. The result is a book called 12: The Elements of Great Managing, by Rodd Wagner and James K. Harter, Ph.D. Wagner discussed with JCK how the concepts in 12 might apply to jewelers.

Are there any differences between large and small companies regarding the 12 elements of great managing?

There is not a huge difference between large and small companies in this regard. There is the misconception that dynamic leaders at larger companies create a greater sense of energy in their organizations, but this just isn’t the case, because they are five steps removed from the employees. What matters most is to whom you report—that’s what drives employee engagement. This often gets overlooked in larger companies, but not in smaller companies, where the manager and owner often are the same person. One issue a larger company faces is the need to recapture that sense of ownership among their managers that they had when they were a smaller organization. And smaller companies don’t have to run everything by corporate for approval. But in any industry, and in companies of all sizes, you find managers who are saints or jerks. How accomplished your manager is in the 12 elements will have a huge impact on the level of your employees’ engagement in their jobs and your company.

What are the strongest managerial advantages for smaller companies?

The biggest thing for any manager is establishing one-on-one contact with an employee. This doesn’t happen when you get busy and grow larger. Smaller companies tend to have less employee turnover, which means the manager can really get to know the staff and invest in them. At larger companies, the manager isn’t the owner, and larger companies tend to move managers around to different stores, so that manager isn’t invested in the staff and the community. A stable manager has more credibility with employees and with customers.

How can companies maintain the optimism and engagement that new hires typically have for the first six months? You need to maintain the level of attention given to the employee when they first came on board. Out of necessity, a manager spends a lot of time with a new employee, orienting them to the job. Then, at a lot of companies, they leave them alone. The employee wilts, and their engagement goes down. During our research, I have taken employees out to lunch to interview them—employees who have worked for a company for 10 years—and was amazed to find that it had been years since their manager sat down at the table and talked to them about their jobs and their goals. No matter how busy you are as a manager, you can’t get distracted by the marketing plan, budget meetings, or new store openings. You have to constantly think of your people and maintain regular contact with them.

How can small companies overcome inadequate budgets to keep top people engaged, productive, and satisfied?

The limited budget argument is a cop-out. If a person quit, you would pay to place a classified ad or hire a recruiter, pay overtime to your remaining staff to compensate, but you’re not willing to pay to retain a key employee? Especially when it costs so much in time and resources to train someone new, and keeping employees engaged is so tied to your sales and profitability? It just doesn’t make sense. As a manager, there are a lot of things you can do to keep your people engaged that don’t cost much money. You can take an employee out for coffee or lunch. You can spend an hour a week with them to talk about their concerns. The psychological rewards from things like recognition, progress, attention, and having your work and opinions valued are greater than what pay alone can do. In fact, many people turn down a higher-paying position for a lower-paying one because they get the sense that the manager at the lower-paying one will take time with them, work with them, coach them, help them learn things, and invest in their future.

What effect does a commission-based compensation plan have on delivering the 12 elements of great managing?

As long as the employee knows what to expect, commission is fine. But you have to be careful that the incentives don’t crowd out the intrinsic motivations of the job. If you start paying your people more for smiling at customers and greeting them by name, you are contaminating the process and tying their pay to something they should be doing anyway. As a manager, you also have to make sure commissions are handled fairly for everyone, without a one-size-fits-all approach. And be aware that if you start tagging dollars on something, don’t be shocked if your people go to that in excess of other things, such as competing over big-ticket customers or not wanting to do noncommission things.

How can managers use your strategies to instill an urgent sense of customer service in their people?

Any store owner or manager hiring a 19- or 20-year-old kid faces the same question: “How can I make this young kid care about my business and take it as his or her responsibility to make it a success?” The way to do this is through establishing a social contract with the employee. If you listen to them, utilize their strengths, praise them, invest in them, and show you care about their progress, it is a natural instinct in people to reciprocate. Research shows that when people feel their manager and their company cares about them, they consider it a moral obligation to work harder and do everything they can to help the company succeed. This includes instilling a strong sense of customer service. You can tell when you walk into a retail establishment and the people are engaged in their work—they provide great customer service and a positive customer experience. You also can tell when the staff is disengaged; the customer service level really suffers and you know it’s just a job to them.