Small Business Owners: Get Engaged!

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I just read a comment on a LinkedIn post that asked for opinions about an article posted on The Harvard Business Review entitled “Want Productive Employees? Treat Them Like Adults.” The article was an insightful piece written by Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything. He’s definitely a guy who doesn’t just “talk the talk” – he walks the walk when it comes to treating his employees like adults.

The focus of Schwartz’s article focused on working virtually (a BIG subject since the Yahoo! debacle) – but you can certainly extrapolate his philosophy to all aspects of differing work styles your employees possess.

However, the comment on the piece was a bit disconcerting. Here are a couple of quotes:

“I used to commute 160 miles a day and would have given anything to be able to work from home one day a week. This was after the market crash. Three to four brutal hours on a California freeway every day almost did me in. I could not convince my CFO that I could work efficiently from home one day a week. I even asked for it to be Wednesday so I could be in the office for the critical Mondays and Fridays. It would have made me a more efficient (and happier) employee.”

I’ve sustained long commutes, they are brutal, and I too would have given my eye teeth to work from home one day a week. But that wasn’t the most depressing part of the comment – this was:

“Sadly, working in post-crash America has become a trial. Management is trying to twist every iota of productivity out of employees who are already stressed and at their wits ends. Employees still tolerate it because the job market has not improved enough.”

Obviously this person was working in a larger corporate environment – at least larger than most small business owners. Right now I’m a one-woman show with no employees – but I have managed employees and have to say there were times I came awfully close to getting so caught up in what needed to get done that I may have trampled upon an employee by not letting them get their job done using their own style.

Getting from Stuck to Engaged

mean bossThe woman’s comment was about not being trusted to work from home. I’m old enough to remember not being trusted to leave my desk when I first entered the workforce. I do some of my best thinking on my feet and I’m one of those people who like to walk around when talking on the phone.

Being stuck sitting at my desk was excruciating. And, while I worked diligently, I can honestly say I know I’d have gotten more done if the woman had let me walk the perimeter of the room every now and then.

Flash forward 25 years – I was fortunate enough to work for a CEO who not only let me walk around while I was on the phone, he kept his door open (my office was next to his) because I have a tendency to talk to myself while I’m working. He said it saved him time by not having to ask me how things were going.

Cramping a responsible, skilled, talented, and energetic employee’s style in my opinion is never a good idea. No matter how busy we are, no matter what the state of the economy, the most productive employees are employees who know they are truly valued and appreciated.

The meaning of “appreciate” isn’t simply to act as a synonym for “thank you.” Employees want to know they work in an environment where their particular style, their particular approach, contributes to moving the vision of your business forward and helps deliver the mission of your business in the most flawless way possible.

The Four Principles of Engagement

So what’s the secret for creating productive employees in your small business? Edward Lawler, a business management expert and academician, gives us four principles of “participative management” with a focused intent on fostering employee engagement necessary for high-performance, highly productive employees. They are:

Power Employees are engaged when given the power to make decisions that impact their work performance. These aren’t “high-level” decisions as far as strategy is concerned but, trust me; they are high-level decisions from an employee’s perspective.

Information Employees are engaged when they are provided with the information (data) such as revenue, market changes, costs. An employee is more engaged, more productive, and more able to contribute to your small business when they know what’s going on.

Knowledge This relates to training, coaching, and mentoring. Employees who are given the tools to continuously improve are more productive employees. They are also more engaged and able to make meaningful contributions to the success of your small business.

Rewards We’re all familiar with the need to “celebrate success” when working to create innovative, productive business cultures. From an employee perspective celebrating success includes being rewarded for their contribution to that success. Rewards that are built into increasing productivity and/or meeting measureable objectives serve to fully engage an employee.

And these rewards don’t have to be “corporate sized.” A paid day off, leaving early on Fridays for a month or a trip with their family to a local amusement park will do. Remember, you’ve given your employees the information they need to know high-dollar bonuses aren’t in the cards.

One Last Note

That comment on Schwartz’s article tells us more than the fact that many large corporations are taking advantage of their employees. That comment also provides small business owners with a means to entice talent their way. When seeking new employees, or retaining high-performance employees, including a discussion about how your small business is committed to high-involvement principles represents a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining high-level, high-performing talent.

Last modified: March 16, 2013
Annie Kile

This story is part of our Small Business Corner, a peek into the life and trials of small business owners.

Category: Insider's perspective, MPR Authored, Small Business, Small Business Corner, small business owners, Tips