Employee Appreciation Day may seem like just another day on your calendar. But it’s more than the first Friday in March. It’s a moment of truth for your brand.
Maybe your Glassdoor ratings already round up to 5 stars, and the comments say things like “phenomenal company to work for,” “greatest place ever,” and “amazing culture.” If that’s the case, then congratulations. This article isn’t for you.
For the rest of us, there’s a gap between our current company culture and the kind of culture we believe is possible. We know cultural dysfunction is eroding our business potential. Disengagement is damaging our performance. The gap is gnawing at us.
So we dream of a 5-star internal culture. And we wonder if there’s some kind of magic wand or elixir for it. Or maybe a workable formula or practical recipe we can make our own.
At the risk of over-simplifying a complex phenomenon for the sake of a brief article, here’s a summary of what employee-engagement experts and internal-culture aficionados emphasize, beyond the basics of adequate compensation and benefits.
Six essential ingredients
You’ll find these six ingredients in every culture of engaged employees. Synthesized from multiple sources, these are the factors that help drive individual and organizational performance:
You may have noticed these six ingredients happen to form an acronym: RECIPE.
It’s a mnemonic to help you take away actionable ideas to close the gaps in your internal culture.
Each of these six concepts comes with a short, practical to-do list. By the end of the article, you’ll have a checklist of 25 ways to create a better environment for employee engagement.
As employees, we all want to have an appropriate amount of work, over which we have a certain degree of control.
More specifically, we want to be clear on what needs to be done, by when and within what general parameters. We want to know how much leeway we have to make our own decisions about it and how much help is available if needed.
No one enjoys being micromanaged or burdened with byzantine procedures. We want to understand the expectations and feel accountable for the results. Then we want some space to get it done.
This is responsibility, one of the key ingredients of a healthy, engaged culture.
Some authors call this autonomy. But the connotation of complete independence and self-rule is not what they mean.
“The sweet spot appears to be just enough freedom with just the right mix of checking in and offering help when needed,” according to Tracy Maylett and Paul Warner in their book, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement. “Leadership values your ideas and your methods and gives you the ability to choose the best way to make something happen.”
Responsibility is a sign of respect.
Responsibility to-do list:
- Give employees more process control and outcome accountability.
- Replace micromanagement with empowerment and support.
- Make it safe for employees to challenge cumbersome policies, practices and procedures.
- Treat employees like adult human beings. We’re peers, not peons; colleagues, not cogs.
Expertise is about competence, growth and mastery. Employees want opportunities to exhibit our expertise and expand it.
We like to show what we can do. We want to apply our knowledge, skills and abilities. We want the tools and resources that will help us do our best work. We want to take pride in our achievements and get a well-deserved pat on the back now and then.
We also want to keep getting better, keep our careers on track and keep stretching toward our full potential. We want to grow. We crave a career path that will give us continuous learning and development. We want to evolve our expertise and stay competitive with our peers in other organizations.
MailChimp gets this. “Because this is a digital platform, you have to stay ahead. Versatility is critical,” says Ty Collins, who recently joined the email marketing platform. “If you want to learn new skills, we have night classes.”
Healthy organizations cultivate expertise.
Expertise to-do list:
- Invest in the tools that employees believe will help them do their jobs better.
- Support those who want to deepen their skills in their current roles and those who want to expand their skills toward other roles.
- Require an employee-driven learning (or teaching) goal in every annual individual performance plan.
- Cheer the application of individual ability on behalf of the team.
Cohesion is a crucial feature of engaged cultures. It has four interwoven strands:
- Belonging together. We sense that we fit in with this particular group of people. We identify with the character and the context of the organization. We feel welcome, attached and included. We’re proud to be affiliated.
- Working together. We share the workload. We contribute to the team effort. We collaborate well. Our work is acknowledged and appreciated by our peers. We experience successes and setbacks as a group.
- Bonding together. We form deep connections with our colleagues. We feel a sense of camaraderie. We feel tied together as a community. We create and maintain trust in relationships up, down and across the organization.
- Sticking together. We have each other’s backs. We feel safe. We stand up for each other and for the organization as a whole. We communicate regularly so we’re all on the same page.
The cohesion process starts with recruiting. When Stephanie Proft was considering joining social media and influencer marketing firm Everywhere Agency as an account and content strategist, the interview question she liked most was “What’s your favorite curse word?”
“When you’re in the hiring process, obviously skills are important, but having that personality that meshes with the team is key to making everyone happy,” Proft says.
Collins notes a “pretty stringent” recruiting process on his way to MailChimp. “They want to make sure everyone who comes in is a perfect fit.”
Once you’re in, Collins says, “It functions like a really cool city. It’s less of a workspace than a cool community.”
Cohesion is a core feature of an engaged culture.
Cohesion to-do list:
- Recruit for cultural fit, collaboration skills and growth potential.
- Surround new hires with thoughtful welcoming acts, large and small.
- Build trust between employees and leaders with reliable, frequent, two-way vertical communication.
- Strengthen relationships across functions with robust horizontal communication, inclusive internal meetings and systematic exchanges.
- Recognize and reward performance that’s culturally aligned. It’s not just what you accomplished, but how. Ban bullying, lying and backstabbing behaviors.
Intent answers the question, “Why?”
To have a culture of employee engagement, we all need to know why we’re doing what we’re doing. This sense of purpose, meaning and mission is at once personal, professional, organizational and societal.
All these levels matter to our motivation.
We need to believe that the vision, direction and values of the organization are congruent with our own. We want our work to support a larger cause that transcends what we could accomplish alone. We want goals that are deeply rooted and genuinely compelling.
“The most important question to ask about corporate culture is whether workers think they’re in a job—or on a mission,” writes Arkadi Kuhlman, chairman and CEO of ING DIRECT USA, in Ivey Business Journal.
“Start with why,” echoes influential ethnographer Simon Sinek.
Engaged cultures are intentional.
Intent to-do list:
- Go the extra mile in mapping all work to a compelling bigger picture that gives context, meaning and direction.
- Make the mission relatable and relay-able at all levels.
- Talk more about why. Show why. Write why. Repeat.
- Encode your principles. Verbalize your values. Curate authentic artifacts of shared experiences. Develop and display emblems of your culture.
Employees want to know our hard work is making a difference. We want to feel like we’re getting closer to a goal. We long for a sense of progress.
In other words, we want to know we’re having an “impact,” according to Maylett and Warner. The authors define impact as “(s)eeing positive, effective, and worthwhile outcomes and results from your work.”
So it’s not just about having an impact, it’s about seeing it.
To the extent we see our efforts clearly helping the group get where it’s going, extra effort makes sense to us. This is one of the hallmarks of engagement.
“We like getting $#!+ done,” says Proft.
Progress is movement in the right direction, and it’s one of the keys to keeping employees engaged.
Progress to-do list:
- Chart the journey in a way that’s visible to everyone.
- Mark the achievement of milestones with memorable kudos.
- Highlight the influence of employee inputs of all kinds.
- Recognize everyday momentum.
All the other ingredients lead up to the last factor: enjoyment.
In this context, enjoyment means three things:
- Individual immersion in the work experience;
- Freedom to explore and experiment; and
- Just plain having fun with co-workers.
From the individual work experience perspective, it’s the concept of “flow,” defined in the influential book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as: “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Flow is the kind of focused engagement we all love. It’s arguably the deepest level of enjoyment. It brings out our best work. The more we can realize that state—and the more we can encourage that state within our work culture—the better.
When we’re not in a flow state, we still want to experience some level of personal and interpersonal enjoyment.
“I think there’s a real emphasis on being as happy at work as you are at home,” says Collins. “I want to be a full human all the time,” adds Proft. “You need some flexibility.”
In short, we need to play.
Within the work itself, we want to be able to tap into our curiosity and imagination without concern for instant utility. We need to follow intuitive and improvisational pathways that may or may not find immediate practical application.
Beyond the work, either inside or outside the workspace itself, when employees get opportunities to have fun with each other, everyone benefits.
Healthy cultures are enjoyable.
Enjoyment to-do list:
- Understand and honor individual preferences. Let people be themselves and personalize the work environment.
- Encourage experimentation, exploration and imagination.
- Take time for tangents. Discover the hidden connection to the task at hand.
- Put some play in your workplace.
Employee Appreciation Day is a good time to ask yourself and your peers:
Are we doing everything possible to keep our brand healthy from the inside out?
How else can we tweak our RECIPE?
Your turn: Which of these six ingredients does your organization support especially well? What’s your best internal culture tip? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
Want a printer-friendly one-page PDF list of all 25 ways to increase employee engagement? Here you go.
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- 2016 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Report (Society for Human Resource Management)
- 2016 Trends in Global Employee Engagement (AON)
- Culture-driven leadership (Arkadi Kuhlman in Ivey Business Journal)
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Daniel H. Pink)
- “Flow” TED talk and book (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
- MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement (Tracy Maylett and Paul Warner)
- MailChimp’s learning culture (Treehouse) and working at MailChimp (Glassdoor)
- Manfred Kets de Vries paper about “authentizotic” organizations
- Start with why (Simon Sinek)
- Zappos CEO: Why Your Top Priority Should Be Company Culture (Tony Hsieh on Inc. Video)