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Three Simple Secrets to a Totally Engaged Workforce

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A body of research gives ample evidence that engaged employees have a powerful positive impact on work productivity. But employers who approach employee engagement through canned initiatives only give employees the message that this is one more thing they have to do. But what should leaders do to increase engagement?

The answer can be found in the story of an astonishing breakthrough in a California nursing home.

As I was researching nursing homes for an upcoming book, I came across one that was exceptionally bad. Its administrator was essentially absent, and staff had been overworked with taking on the administrator’s duties and covering supply shortfalls with their own money. They’d failed badly on their most recent health inspection.

When I entered the nursing home through its unmarked front door, I was enclosed in a tiny gray square of space, completely empty and shut off by another door from the rest of the building. I stood in that gray space for long minutes, waiting to be greeted. A few people darted in and out without a word or a glance. When I finally got one woman’s attention, she asked irritably, “Do you need something?” I explained that I was there to meet the new administrator and to attend a meeting. I was half an hour early and asked if I could pass the time looking around the facility. She flatly denied this request and told me to wait in the outside trailer where the meeting would be held.

The trailer was depressing and cold, both literally and figuratively. Two women working in it responded to my attempts at small talk in monosyllables without looking up from their computers. The room filled slowly as the department heads wandered in. One was the same woman I’d spoken to 10 minutes earlier, but she showed no spark of recognition. Not one of them acknowledged my presence, and no one greeted any of the others with so much as a smile or a nod. Hostility clung to everything like a bad smell. We sat shivering in silence until the administrator finally arrived.

Four months later I went back, and it was as if I’d left bleak and dusty Kansas and entered the Technicolor land of Oz. When I entered the front door, a woman at a reception desk greeted me cheerfully. I explained that I was meeting her administrator and attending a meeting. She told me he was running late, but offered to walk over with me since she would be at that meeting herself. A number of people passed by as we walked to the trailer and all offered a friendly, “Hi!” My guide introduced me to the maintenance director and told me what a miracle worker he was.

The women working in the trailer chatted with us both. As the participants gathered, a steady hum of conversation persisted; everyone greeted me, and several asked questions about my book. The administrator didn’t arrive at the time of the scheduled meeting, so they started the meeting without him and got down to work. Afterward, I spent a few hours talking with a number of friendly, hard-working staff who were delightfully generous with their time. It was a lovely experience; the building still needed a little work, but I would have been happy to bring a loved one there.

Amazingly, with only two or three exceptions, these were the very same people I’d met the first time. They hadn’t been through any training or initiatives, and the only major change was that they had a new leader — who was a great person, but not particularly charismatic. How did that relatively ordinary leader change the entire facility from hostile and off-putting to warm and welcoming with the same staff?

The secret lies in the approach of the Arbinger Institute, a consulting company that teaches leaders how to see others in a way that brings out the best in them. Look, managers can follow all the rules and practices in the world, but their staff can tell if they’re just going through the motions. The institute’s philosophy is to genuinely see the best in others so that important factors like psychological safety, engagement, and empowerment develop naturally in the workplace.

The nursing home administrator used these three simple secrets to turn his employees around:

1. Take time to know your staff

How can you know what will engage your people if you don’t know anything about them? The administrator spent a full 30 days doing nothing but getting to know all the employees — not just exchanging introductions, but learning about their work styles, interests, and talents. In the end, he knew everyone, even the night shift staff, and he knew the things they cared about.

2. Resist giving directives in solving problems

This step is by far the hardest. The administrator, during those 30 days, resisted every impulse to solve the problems in the facility. He understood that people would feel maligned and mistrusted if a newcomer showed up and went around changing things, and so he let everything continue as it was, while he focused on getting to know the staff.

3. Invite staff input

Once he knew everyone, the administrator held a meeting in which he asked the staff what issues and problems they had identified and wanted to fix. Instead of telling them how to do things, he treated them as though they knew more than he did. And he discovered that they had noticed every one of the problems he’d identified — only now the solution and resourcefulness came from them, not from him.

Truly getting employees to feel engaged won’t happen if you talk down to them or bring in a canned program to teach them how to become engaged and empowered. They’ll know that you believe they can’t become engaged on their own. No, the real secret is to get to know them, trust them, and then put them to work. They’ll become engaged, not because you’re trying to engage them, but because they’re trusted and given responsibility.

* * * Kimberly White is a freelance writer, certified Arbinger Institute presenter, and former research assistant to its founder, Terry Warner. Her new book, "The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, June 2018), is the result of nine months of research that included dozens of hours working alongside nursing home employees in offices, vans, patient rooms, and kitchens. She recently relocated from Harlem to a small farm town in Pawnee, Illinois to focus on writing. To learn more, visit kimberlywhitebooks.com.

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