Increasing Employee Engagement

Last month, I delivered a conference keynote. My talk was on engagement. For the 400+ attendees, I started by sharing what engagement means and finished with the eight areas of engagement and shared specific, actionable ideas to increase engagement.

Employee engagement results in a few major things… employees who advocate and promote your organization, who do more than the job requires, and who stay.

When you see the “Best” or “Great” places to work lists in magazines or newspapers, they are based on engagement. Engagement surveys are measured by:

For an engaging job, this is what employees look for:

For a manager that drives high engagement, they don’t focus on weakness:

Engagement results in more productivity, profit, safety and less absenteeism:

Engagement is not gimmicks or expensive:

Avoiding the Downside of Too Much Focus

In a previous post, Train Your Brain, I shared ideas on focus and productivity. On this post, let’s pivot (a very popular word in today’s biz world) 180 degrees and address too much focus.

Sound like an oxymoron? Not at all says Srini Pillay, an executive coach, author, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and CEO of the NeuroBusiness Group. With those credentials, I decided his thesis deserved consideration – even though I’m a big believer in focus (see my last post!).

Writes Pillay in “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus” in a special edition of Harvard Business Review, “. . .excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This can make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought out, and you become less collaborative.”

Yikes.

Before you throw out all the deadlines and head to the beach, listen to the rest of Pillay’s message: “The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions.”

In other words, balance!

 Pillay’s thesis goes on to encourage this healthy brain balance with a few tips (I’ll spare you the technical details):

  1. Use positive constructive daydreaming or PCD. – Unlike the garden variety goofing off or simply tuning out, PCD is intentional and, when done consistently, trains your brain to pull out the bits and pieces you may have forgotten but that can contribute to your creativity and ability to solve problems. This sounds a lot like lucid dreaming, which also involves consciously using your mind while you’re in an unconscious state.
  • Take a nap – There are a lot of theories about napping, but here is what Mr. Pillay has to say: “Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert. But if you have a creative task in front of you, you will need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing to make more associations and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.”
  • Pretend to be someone else – Ok, I have to admit this last tip seems a bit far out to me. But on reflection I realized it’s just a slightly updated version of the old advice to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” to get a new perspective. The author playfully calls this “psychological halloweenism” and advises imagining yourself as a “eccentric poet rather than a rigid librarian.” In other words, find a way to get out of your own head and into someone else’s. It just might unlock your thinking and help you to find new ideas and ways out of problems you had not imagined previously.

According to Pillay, most of us spend nearly half of our days “with our minds wandering away from a task at hand,” but he adds, “if we build PCD, naps and psychological halloweenism into our days, we can preserve focus for when we need it and use it much more efficiently. Most important, unfocus can allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to the deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision making.”

Train Your Brain

If you’ve read my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, or just read my posts here from time to time, you know I highly value work-life balance. In fact, that’s the topic of the very first chapter in The 100. Achieving balance means working efficiently, having discipline and knowing how to prioritize and focus.

A recent special edition of Harvard Business Review (sort of an HBR “Best of”) includes an intriguing article, ‘Train Your Brain to Focus” by Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore (co-authors of the book, Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time).

I read it with relish and indulged in a bit of guilty pleasure when some of my own long-held views were validated by research. Chiefly, multi-tasking is a myth. Sure, you can try to do multiple things at once, but there’s a price. As Hammerness and Moore report “. . . (multi-tasking) makes us more likely to make mistakes and miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in our working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.”

So when you tell your kids to turn off the video games while doing their homework, you’re not being a curmudgeon – you’re teaching them an important lesson in training their brains to focus. When it comes to your team, you can insist on distraction-free meetings—ban laptops, mobile phones, tablets and other gadgets. They might resist, but when creativity and thoughtful input increases you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Easy enough, right? Sure, when you control all the variables. But life often throws us—and our employees—curveballs: events that trigger emotions like anxiety, sadness, anger and more. Functional brain images reveal that these negative emotions make it extremely difficult to solve problems or do other cognitive work.

But the authors offer a useful exercise to help keep our brains on task when negativity threatens to derail our focus and it’s as easy as A-B-C. They advise:

  1. Awareness of your options. You can stop what you’re doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go.
  2. Breathe deeply and consider your options.
  3. Choose thoughtfully: stop or go?

Only a monster boss would expect any employee to keep cranking when a loved  dies or similarly devastating news is received. But less drastic negative events can be managed, the authors argue, by taking the time to decide how to react, versus simply reacting.

I also appreciated their practical advice to start meetings with a bit of humor (not that I’d ever tell a joke myself of course!). Turns out “positive emotions improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.”

Who knew?

Next time: Avoiding the Downside of Too Much Focus

Top 2018 Posts, Articles, and Resources

Below are my top five resources and posts for 2018:

The 100 Downloads:  A set of 30 templates, checklists, and other tools that support ideas in my book The 100.

Software Development: Being Agile:  Written as a part of a series on software development, this piece covers the benefits of Agile and Scrum.

Father’s Day:  On Father’s Day this year, I wrote a testament to my dad as a father and man.

Getting Curious Gets Results:  Inspired by a Harvard Business Review article, here are thoughts on how curiosity can improve our business and our lives.

How CEOs Manage Time:  Also inspired by a Harvard Business Review article, I share my $0.02 on how to effectively manage time/life.

Below are my top five articles in other publications for 2018:

Strategic philanthropy: Giving back means paying it forward in ways that matter, Minnesota Business Magazine

How to cultivate a work culture that works for everyone, The Business Journals

How to cultivate winning client-consultant relationships, Upsize Magazine

5 ways to increase workplace flow — and happiness, The Business Journals

How to focus your resources on achieving your goals, The Business Journals

Getting Curious Gets Results

Curiosity might kill the cat, as the old saying goes, but it might just bring your business back to life. This month’s edition of Harvard Business Review focuses its spotlight on “The Business Case for Curiosity.” Harvard business professor Francesca Gino provides many thought-provoking ideas and practical ideas in her cover article. She also helped me realize how pivotal curiosity has been to the growth and success of Intertech, even though we do not expressly call it that.

“When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively and have less defensive reactions to stress,” she notes. I’ve seen this very dynamic in meetings with senior leaders. We all ask a lot of questions and challenge each other to think deeper. Sometimes the best ideas emerge because one leader was particularly curious about a particular issue and kept pushing back with more questions.

Knowing that we all have a shared investment in the company’s success makes it easier to stay curious and not get defensive. This is an important part of our company culture too, which is why we host an annual Town Hall for employees to talk and share their ideas, concerns and recommendations (more about that below).

But, back to Professor Gino’s idea in brief: “Leaders say they value employees who question or explore things but research shows that they largely suppress curiosity, out of fear that it will increase risk and undermine efficiency. . . Curiosity improves engagement and collaboration. Curious people make better choices, improve their company’s performance, and help their company adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures. . . Leaders should encourage curiosity in themselves and others by making small changes to the design of their organization and the ways they manage their employees.”

She then lays out five ways leaders can bolster curiosity at work:

  1. Hire for curiosity. Google asks applicants: “Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent?” Finding people who keep learning out of personal interest is a good sign that they’re innately curious. A question I ask in interviews is “What is the last book you read for professional development?” To ensure they’ve read what they say they’ve said, I follow this question with “What is the biggest thing you learned from that book?”
  2. Model inquisitiveness. From our leadership to sales teams, we agree upon and read a book per quarter. Then we share insights we can apply to our firm.  I read The Economist and several other periodicals, two daily papers, multiple economic and business forecasting newsletters, and at any given time, a couple of books.  I also have always believed it’s important to listen more than I speak as a leader. In my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, I devote chapter 84 to the importance of listening to employees and to asking key questions. Listening to customers also is key, particularly in the early stages of a new project when we are working to understand expectations. Last, I look for ways to double down on learning and turn time commuting or running the kids around into learning with Audible and Blinklist.
  3. Emphasize learning goals. This one really hit home with me. Every Intertech team member has an annual learning goal. In an industry like software, staying ahead of the curve is essential. Notes Professor Gino, “Leaders can help employees adopt a learning mindset by communicating the importance of learning and by rewarding people not only for their performance but for the learning needed to get there.”
  4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests. I’ll admit that in the press of daily business, this can be hard. Employees with proven expertise are extremely valuable. But we know the best employees are most excited about learning new skills and staying ahead of the pack. Every month, we have a company-wide “Second Friday BBQ” lunch (being honest, the BBQ turns into subs or pizza when the snow starts flying in Minnesota). On the Second Friday BBQ, one or more team members deliver a chalk talk on an emerging technology.
  5. Have “Why?” “What If. . .” and “How might we. . .?” days. As I referred to earlier, our annual Town Hall meeting is dedicated to just such questions. Employees take a half-day off from their regular client projects to gather in small groups to explore how we do things and how we can do things differently or better. This feedback is provided to senior managers anonymously so employees feel completely free to speak their minds and ask tough questions. It’s one of the most valuable management tools we have and employees consistently tell us they appreciate the chance to share in this way. In the past, we’ve also used a concept we call “FedEx Day” where employees have 24 hours to work on whatever they choose then present their results to the company.

Staying curious might be difficult when you’ve been running a business for a long time, but resist the trap of thinking you know it all. No matter what your industry, it’s no doubt changing at the speed of light. Curiosity is the only way to keep growing your business and your mind!