On the topic of employee engagement, I interviewed senior HR executive Paul Falcone, bestselling author of a number of  books, including 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, and 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire.

JATHAN JANOVE: What is your definition of employee engagement?

PAUL FALCONE: Employee engagement is more than employee satisfaction. Engagement entails a true interest in and connection to the business and individuals’ ability to positively impact their company’s performance.

JJ: What is the current level of employee engagement in America’s corporations?

PF: Very low—perhaps at an all-time low in terms of recent memory. The middle class is exhausted. They’ve been through intense volatility not just in their 401(k) investment portfolios but in their careers as well. Prospects of new job growth in this “jobless recovery” are worrisome, and there isn’t much of an end in sight.

JJ: How different is the current situation from ones in the past?

PF: The market of the late ‘90s was manic—companies couldn’t retain people who were off to better and brighter futures in the dotcom bubble. From 2000-2003, the labor market was depressed: You were stressed if you lost your job, and you felt guilty for feeling overworked if you had one. From 2004-2007, the market went manic again, and there just weren’t enough people to keep up with the expansion. And then from 2008 to the present, we hit an incredibly strong downturn that we’re still reeling from.

JJ: How does this state of things impact the way people approach work?

PF: Unfortunately you don’t always see the best side of humanity when people are worried that they’re going to lose their jobs, so the workplace has become less friendly in many respects. People’s careers have been whipsawed over the past decade, and it’s very difficult to motivate yourself when you’re not seeing the best in others and generally worried about your own job security.

JJ: What else is contributing to the problem?

PF: Companies aren’t taking the time to seize the opportunity to strengthen their relationships with their workers. Head counts have been cut severely in light of technology and globalization trends, and we’ve become more of a “haves” vs. “have nots” society where the mentality that “if you have a job, you’re lucky” has taken hold. Wisdom should tell us that we’re all in this together and need to support one another, but unfortunately we’re not seeing this in the workplace or on Capitol Hill.

People are likewise frustrated with the level of executive pay, especially when CEOs seem to be taking a short-term focus to cutting costs (especially payroll) with no longer-term strategy for what’s best for the company, country, or its workers. CEOs fail after 18 months and walk away with wheelbarrows full of money, and this is coming at the expense of the middle class’s job security and, in a broader sense, way of life, which many now feel may be in jeopardy.

JJ: What are the most important steps that companies can take to improve the level of employee engagement in their organizations?

PF: Company leadership needs to stand up and act in a much more selfless, benevolent, and caring capacity. The mistake that many managers in corporate America make is in thinking that they have to “do something” to motivate their teams. In reality, motivation is internal, and they don’t have to “do” anything to help employees feel engaged and invigorated—they simply have to “be something” to motivate and re-engage staff—and it doesn’t cost a penny.

JJ: Can you give me an example?

PF: Think of your favorite boss. You’d probably describe that person as someone who cared about you, took an interest in you, motivated you to challenge yourself, made it safe to make smart mistakes, and encouraged you to be your best. Those are all aspects of that leader’s “beingness” not “doingness.” Based on these practices, you should be there for your employees—help them build their resumes and focus their efforts on building an accomplishment mentality where they could add concrete bullets to their annual self-evaluation reviews showing why they’ve made the company a better place by their efforts. Help them prepare for their next move in career progression at your company or elsewhere. In other words, be that mentor to them that you’ve always wanted for yourself. By occasionally putting their needs first, you’ll often receive a phenomenal payback.

Although we can’t change the severity of the economic downturn, the lackluster job market, or CEO pay gone wild, remember that everything starts with you—you’re the first domino. Be the change for others that you’d like for yourself, and you’ll find that such selflessness will typically come back to you two-fold. People generally respond in kind, so my best advice is to live the adage, “What you want for yourself, give to another.”

JJ: What can HR do to help?

PF: HR needs to exemplify that change in mindset. No other department in corporate America embodies the culture of the organization more than HR. Employees look to HR to see what values are practiced, how people should be treated, and what’s acceptable versus unallowable behavior. We need to model that change and become the bellwether of how the organization treats its people. And even if layoffs become necessary, they should be handled transparently and honestly while retaining the impacted individual’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Bottom line: HR sets the tone for the enterprise’s culture and is the steward of the organization’s most precious resource—its human beings who are all doing their best in light of the challenges they’re facing in their careers and their lives.

JJ: In previous posts, I’ve talked about “transactional” or I-centered employees versus “engagement” or us-centered employees. What advice do you have for HR professionals to move their organizations’ employees up the “Transactional-to-Engagement Scale”?

PF: Unless you can “pierce people’s hearts” and create an environment where they can find new ways of motivating themselves, you’ll never get them to give more than 100%, and that typically stems from a “compliance” mentality. In comparison, people who feel truly engaged, who respect their supervisors and would do anything for them, will give 110% or more out of respect and caring for their bosses. That marginal difference in effort and attitude can have incredible impact!

As they say, people join companies and leave supervisors. Therefore, HR should focus on strengthening the muscle of front-line leadership. When supervisors feel that HR has their backs and is there to support them, they feel more secure and at ease with the teams they lead. And engagement comes from beingness, not doingness, so this is a lot easier than most people think.  It simply takes a change in each leader’s sponsoring thought about their role and responsibility to the company and each member of their team. There’s no greater gift than growing and developing those who are following in your footsteps, and there’s no greater gift that you could give your company than a motivated, energized, and engaged team of contributors.

JJ: Thank you Paul for sharing your excellent insight. This interview has been most engaging.

Paul Falcone is a human resources executive and the author of a number of bestselling books.

Jathan Janove, a former Ogletree Deakins shareholder and Director of Employee Engagement Solutions, is the Principal of Janove Organization Solutions (www.jathanjanove.com). Through consulting, executive coaching, and training, he helps organizations maximize the human potential within. He can be reached at jjatpdx@gmail.com.

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