Tackling Employee Disengagement – How Leaders Can Help Employees Bounce Back from Tough Times

As companies move at lighting-speed change is inevitable, but for many employees that change can be downright scary. Building a resilient workforce, one that can embrace change, rather than be stifled by it, is critical to keep companies running. In a Q&A with Careerbright, Kim Littlefield, Senior Vice President of Keystone Partners, discusses how leaders can handle unprecedented events in order to build a resilient workforce. Kim shares insights on how effective leadership communication and offering appreciation and encouragement can boost employee engagement, even during times when the company is going through tough times.

Q. What are the main reasons for employee disengagement?

According to a recent national study done by Dale Carnegie Training on engagement, the number one factor influencing engagement and disengagement was “relationship with immediate supervisor.”  Employees who are disengaged don’t feel valued, heard, understood, recognized or appreciated by their managers. They don’t feel like they are a valued part of the organization.

Another main reason employees feel disengaged is because many companies still function as though employees are expendable and managers are encouraged to be authoritative, decisive, forceful, and  controlling while they enforce a pecking order as to how things get done.

There are also outside factors like reductions-in-force, restructurings and changes to benefits that impact employee engagement.

Q. What can managers do to build stronger employee engagement?

Take the time to get to know their employees. Early in my career I was fortunate enough to work for Dale Carnegie Training where I taught a course for managers and executives on how to enhance relationships, gain cooperation and be a leader.  Reading Dale Carnegie’s bestselling book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was a course requirement which was based on 30 principles. Among them:  “Give honest and sincere appreciation, be genuinely interested in other people, make the other person feel important, use encouragement and praise the slightest improvement.”  The assignment each week was to pick a principle, apply it at work and report back on progress the following week.  The results were amazing.  Every week I was fascinated by the strides managers made with their employees just by doing simple things like asking how their weekend was, thanking them for a job well done or offering words of encouragement. By the end of the 12 week course managers were so thrilled with the results they were witnessing, they vowed to keep the streak going.  They felt rewarded by the positive reactions they were receiving from their direct reports and wanted to keep doing it.

Engagement can be increased by listening to what others have to say, understanding the issues direct reports are dealing with and finding out what motivates them and doesn’t.  By being approachable, easy to talk to and showing they care about their wellbeing great strides can be made.  It’s not a one-time thing though. It takes commitment and it needs to be made a priority to yield results.

Q. Does poor communication between leadership and employees affect employee engagement and retention?

Absolutely!  Good communication is paramount to engagement. Employees pay attention to leader communication – It’s not just what is said but also what is not said.  Communication is a soft skill but it is hard for many managers to develop. One of my former CEO’s (who was adored by all employees) believed in over communication.  He would rather say it and say it again so that everyone was clear than not say anything at all and leave us guessing.  He wanted his team to hear it from the source versus drawing conclusions that created a misinformed rumor mill.  It wasn’t that he delivered these messages with any kind of finesse; it’s just that he made the time to let us know what was going on.  When leaders make a decision not to share important information about company direction or challenges, they miss an opportunity to connect with their employees, receive valuable feedback, and gather creative solutions. When leaders don’t communicate, the information they are carrying around weighs on them and try as they might to hide it, people pick up on their non-verbal communication such as how they carry themselves, their energy level, whether their smile or humor has subsided.  People then draw their own conclusions and start discussing it with their colleagues.

Q. What are the best ways for leaders and managers to clearly communicate the organization vision to keep employees motivated and enthusiastic?

You need to know where you are going before you can get there. Great business leaders know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. Fueled by their passion to achieve their vision, they make it crystal clear what employees can do to get involved and emphasize how crucial each person’s role is. They need to emphasize their vision in many venues over a period of time whether it is at an annual meeting, leadership offsite, quarterly town hall gathering or company outing. For employees to truly hear and remember the message, they need to be exposed to it several times.

A great way to expand on the vision statement and help employees take action is to encourage all managers to ask their employees, “How are doing?” and add, “How can I help?” By asking how they can help, managers show their investment in that person’s success and their willingness to be a resource in some way to help them get there. Once they hear the answer to how they can help, strong leaders follow through which is critical to maintaining credibility and engagement.

Q. What are some ways that leaders can boost employee morale during reorgs or unprecedented events?

Communicate what happened. The remaining employees need to know and they should hear it from a remaining top leader. News is going to get out so it’s better leadership to consult with HR, the Board, Legal and/or PR as early in the process as possible to create a strong public statement that includes three key parts:

  1.  What happened
  2.  Why the decision was made – the business rationale
  3.  What the plan is going forward

This statement should be delivered by the most senior executive to the remaining employees via email, webcast or town meeting, depending on the size and culture of the organization. It should be brief and to the point. If it is a webinar or town meeting, time should be allocated for questions, keeping in mind that it is better for the executive team to hear the concerns so they have a better pulse on how employees are handling the news. Questions and appropriate responses should be thoughtfully discussed and reviewed prior to speaking with the employees with HR and PR. After the “all hands” meeting, the executive team should debrief what they heard and make any necessary adjustments.

Communicate as early as possible. You can’t stop the rumor mill from spinning but you can provide the facts, from the source before it runs rampant throughout the organization or hits the press. Don’t wait for the right time; there never is.  As soon as the restructuring occurs, the word will be out so don’t hesitate. Employees deserve to hear the news directly vs. getting misinformation.

Re-recruit your employees.  Whenever there is a restructuring there is a big impact on the organization. Employees begin to question the future of the organization which naturally leads to wondering whether their job is “safe” causing employees to either disengage or look for a new job. During this critical time, leaders need to be visible, available and vocal. So many managers want to hide behind closed doors during times of turmoil. If they make the time to “re-recruit” their remaining employees by showing an interest in them, being available to answer their questions and address their concerns and being vocal about how valued they are they will drastically improve engagement.  Senior leaders should encourage their direct reports to conduct team meetings as soon as possible after the announcement to get a pulse on how people are doing, offer words of appreciation and encouragement and redirect workflow as needed.

Conduct Stay Interviews. Want to know how people are feeling about the restructuring?  Ask them!  Rather than wait until employees give their notice and do the standard “exit interview,” begin conducting “stay interviews.” A “stay” interview is a one-on-one interview between a manager and a valued employee. Their purpose is to learn why employees work for the organization and find out what might make them want to leave.  Ask them questions like, “What about your job makes you get out of bed in the morning?” “What do you value about this organization?”  “Why are you proud to work here?” “What concerns you about the organization?”  “What would you do differently?” “What would cause you to leave?  Then use the key themes to re-recruit them and remind them of why the organization is so great and how valuable their contributions are.

Change can be bad or good. It’s all in the presentation. In the outplacement business we deal with companies going through all sorts of changes including mergers, acquisitions, downsizings and restructurings. Rather than focus on these changes as negative, we recommend leaders look for ways to reframe these changes to focus on the positive impact to the organization and the employees.  When employees see decisions as necessary to protect the future success of the organization, it can help them forward more quickly. For example, if a firm is being acquired, rather than dwell on how the current culture will be lost, highlight the opportunities: for development, to work with other smart people, gain exposure to another line of business, or have access to better benefits.