Workers aren’t widgets. Companies need employees who are more than three-dimensional versions of their job descriptions. Research has shown that companies are efficient and effective when a proactive, flexible, fill-in-where-there’s-a-need ethos of “organizational citizenship” is the norm. That works best when employees can go above and beyond in ways that are intrinsically meaningful to them, according to the Harvard Business Review.
So how do leaders foster a culture where workers show engagement, initiative, and creativity? Yale Insights consulted with Yale SOM’s Heidi Brooks for guidance on techniques that bring excitement, engagement, and meaning to the workplace.
Q: How do you get employees to feel excited about the company, brand, or product they are working for?
Try voice and choice. By voice I mean, one of the best ways to engage employees is to ask what they are interested in. Let them tell you what aspects of the company, brand, or product most excite them. Then, where it’s possible, give them the choice to work on projects related to their interest or at least to offer input about aspects of what they’re excited about. Over time, interest and engagement tend to grow as voice and choice become the norm.
Q: A lot of people just show up to work and follow their basic job descriptions. How do you inspire them to think outside of the box, try harder, and want to put in extra time and effort?
Leadership and work culture matters hugely on this issue. First, remove structural barriers to the desired behaviors. Positions are often designed to reward and reinforce exactly the outcome they are producing. For example, disincentives for overtime, including peer resentment, can be highly effective. If what you want is outside-the-box thinking and people putting in extra time and effort, make sure that the work is structured to encourage that.
Beyond that, you can make it psychologically safe for employees to invest in the desired fashion. It is important to have a leader, manager, or supervisor who walks the talk and doesn’t simply ask people to voice outside-the-box thinking, but also demonstrates the same behaviors him or herself.
Very importantly, there must be positive acknowledgment and appreciation shown for those people who are demonstrating the desired behaviors. In a situation that is effectively structured to encourage the behaviors you wish to see, you often see an uptick. But, don’t expect it all at once. You may have to build belief in the work culture and in the people over time.
Q: What are small habits, rituals, or policies that leaders can implement to inspire their team?
Here are a few:
- Develop effective participative leadership, that is, get the right people at meetings where their voice matters and where their time is not wasted.
- Acknowledge intentionally, whether it’s privately or publicly, when work is well done. Use specific descriptors of what people have done that is making a positive difference.
- Share stories of tiny victories and worthwhile learning from failures so that everyone learns what the leader is paying attention to (and what’s not as important).
- Bring more positive energy into the office by starting meetings on an upbeat note with an anecdote, moment that mattered, or inspiring quote. Try different things, just be authentic about it.
- Stop ignoring the hard stuff—you cannot forever ignore the elephant in the middle of room. If there is an undiscussable, find a way to work it through or it will degrade morale, investment, and engagement over time.
Q: Many employees leave because they feel like they are not growing or not developing their own leadership skills. What can employers do to help decrease that type of turnover?
More and more, leaders, managers, and supervisors need the skills to help people grow to be part of their tool kit; it is basic business acumen to be able to hire, develop, and retain an engaged workforce who will deliver for the company and love the process of doing so. If we want to be sustainable and create great places to work, we have to think about the process of work as much as the product.
Q: Any final thoughts on what leaders can do to foster a workplace that supports and inspires the whole team?
I’m a big fan of transparency. Disclose your interest in mutual inspiration and support. Ask your employees what is working and what is not working in that domain. Discuss what it would take to create the conditions where this mutual exchange is truly a lived experience. It’s worth the effort to get this info, bring it to fruition, and do what it takes to sustain that kind of mutually reinforcing dynamic. What a changed and inspiring world of work that would be.