The Only 5 Employee Engagement Ideas That Work

Ever since "needy" Millennials joined the workforce and Silicon Valley giants started offering more and more gimmicky perks, the concept of employee engagement and fighting turnover has gone off the rails.

Some say we jumped the shark when introduced drag-racing tricycles into the office as part of their “funnovation” initiative.

There is nothing wrong with these perks, it’s just that they are beside-the-point. Moreover, surveys have shown a small percent–just 22%--actually know what is causing their employees to be disengaged (source Key HR Statistics).

That's because our goal shouldn’t be just to have happy employees who don’t leave the company. We should be building organizations of extremely productive employees who are also happy and don’t leave the company.

To achieve the latter we need to do something much more difficult than building a yogurt bar or calling the extra conference room the “meditation room.”

If we want our employees to be both productive and happy the source of the happiness must be the work itself, not peripheral perks. This could mean the work feels purposeful, or the work could feel fun, or the work could be an exciting challenge.

Are you still with me? If so, here are 5 foundational ideas for increasing employee engagement.

1. Align Employee Goals and Company Goals

One of the best ways for employees to find meaning in their work, is when they feel like they are advancing towards who they want to become as a person.

In a paper appropriately titled, “The ideal self as the driver of intentional change” researchers found that when working towards our own personal ambitions we achieve a unique degree of intrinsic motivation, engagement, and fulfillment.

How managers create this alignment will be different for everyone, but the first step is always the same. Managers must understand the personal ambitions of their employees.

2. Cultivate Fun Competition

Most of us are competitive, it’s human. We see our success in relative rather than absolute terms and so we are always trying to be not just better, but better than our peers. The American Satirist H. L. Mencken famously said wealth is, “any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband.” (or husband’s brother’s wife).

When cultivating competition it is important to respect its power and not let things get out of control. There are countless examples of perverse competitive environments where incentives become misaligned with company goals. One way to prevent this is to think about who is competing and who they are competing against. The simplest solution is to frame the competition as the whole company competing against peer companies.

3. Walk Employees up the Ladder of Purpose

There is an interesting paper called, A Theory of Action Identification, which looks at how we identify our actions. For example at a low level I’m currently typing on a computer, on a higher level I’m helping people around the world live happier lives by becoming more engaged at work.

When employees are disengaged they’re often saying things like, “I enter numbers into excel documents all day,” or “I push paper.” A manager can help energize employees by walking them up a ladder of purpose, connecting their work to more intrinsically meaningful things it contributes to. This technique can help people find meaning in even the most mundane tasks.

4. Get Rid of Bad Jobs

It is important to be able to see how every job in your organization could be meaningful. If you can’t, then you might be better off getting rid it.

Almost any job can meaningful, you just need to be willing to invest in making it so. Harvard Business Review is currently doing a great series called A Case for Good Jobs on how companies like GAP and McDonalds are investing in their front line jobs to make them more appealing for employees.

If through some lack of creativity you can’t make one of the roles at your organization a “good job” you are probably better off contracting that work out, because disengagement is contagious.

5. Fire Bad People

The truth is not everyone is looking for a meaningful relationship with work. There are some people who just want a paycheck from their job and nothing else. Don’t be afraid to part with these people, because again, disengagement is contagious.

However, remember that most disengaged employees are just the victims of bad jobs and bad management, and they have become disengaged over time. Work closely with them using the techniques above and you’ll find they quickly come back to life.