A Sure-Fire Way to Engage Employees

Photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash

Why You Need to Engage Employees

The need to engage employees is paramount for managers and supervisors in any industry, every day. Employee engagement literally impacts how we do our jobs safely, productively, profitably, and with an unwavering commitment to quality and innovation.

But employee engagement can be difficult. Why? Because engaging our employees requires their inclusion and active participation at a level beyond what is commonly expected of them.

I learned the importance of the need to engage employees — to actively listen to them — and the perils of not doing so —  firsthand early in my career.

I was employed as a Human Resources Manager in a large manufacturing environment. One day, a production operation malfunctioned causing a key process to grind to a stop, creating a critical production bottleneck. Dozens of production employees were immediately idled and with each passing hour, thousands of dollars were being added to the cost of building the product.

It was critical that this situation be corrected as quickly as possible. To that end, managers and technicians from every discipline within the plant were summoned to the problem machine – even me.

I say even me because, admittedly, I was the least mechanically adept member of our entire upper management team. Yet, there I was, standing with other managers and technicians, observing the goings on and hoping to be helpful in some way.

It was there that I noticed someone else standing apart, slightly farther away from the finicky machine than me. I was surprised at who it was – the operator of the machine in question. I moved over to him.

Ask Employees What They Think

“So, Andrew, what do you think?” I asked innocently.

Surprisingly, my simple question opened the floodgate. Andrew started sharing in-depth observations, thoughts, and opinions on the matter at hand. Soon I had received more information than I could digest.

“Well, I was afraid something like this might happen,” he began. “It’s been acting strange for the past couple of days. I wrote up a maintenance work order, but no one ever came to me to discuss the problem. But today it got worse. The machine started triple cycling about two hours ago. I noticed the problem and adjusted the hydraulic leveler by a quarter turn. In the past, I’ve learned that this will usually correct the cycling problem. But, this time, when I did it, I noticed an unusual vibration – very slight, very subtle. I became concerned about the calibration unit once the final quadrant cycled back and I discovered it was off by 26/100ths.  Of course, you know what that means, he said pausing, awaiting my response.

Know what that means?! Are you kidding?! Not only did I not know what that meant, but I also didn’t understand 90% of what he had just said. But there was one thing of which I was sure and that was he knew what he was talking about.

Are Your Employees On the Outside Looking In?

And yet, there he stood, alone and isolated from the conversations happening nearby. This guy was literally on the outside looking in. And he shouldn’t have been. The person with the most practical knowledge of the machine in question had not even been invited into the discussion. The operator that ran the machine eight, ten, sometimes twelve hours a day, and had done so for several years, had been relegated to the sidelines, feeling anything but engaged.

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Listen to Your People

I couldn’t do much, but what I could do, I did. I stepped in and asked a couple of the managers to listen to what the operator had to say.

“What is it?” one of the managers asked the operator brusquely, his question directed to Andrew.

Much to my surprise, the operator, so talkative just a couple minutes earlier, now hesitated. His response was not forthcoming and I was confused. What had happened?

The Cost When You Don’t Ask, Don’t Listen, Don’t Engage Employees

Sometime later, after more reflection, it hit me. I finally understood. I realized the difference in the operator’s response to me – his heightened level of engagement – versus that of my fellow manager, was simple.

I had asked what the operator thought and then listened to what he had to say, whereas, my colleague hadn’t. That’s it. When my colleague demanded information (rather than asking and listening actively) Andrew chose to withhold that which he knew.

The information Andrew possessed may or may not have helped the situation. But we will never know because Andrew consciously chose to withhold that information…and possibly future information critical to the organization’s goals of safety, productivity, profitability, quality, and innovation.

The bottom line is this: To engage employees activates the keystone of an organization’s success, any way you measure it. Before you leave this article and go back to the business at hand, ask yourself a couple of questions…

  1. How much vital business information am I ignoring when I forget (or refuse) to ask my employees what they think?
  2. What immediate problems could be resolved by inviting my employees into the conversation?

This much I can say with certainty. You will never know until you ask.

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Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE, Founder & Chair, Van Hooser Leadership. A seasoned leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author, Phillip Van Hooser is passionate about developing intentional leaders who can effectively engage and empower their employees to deliver powerful results. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn.


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