For over 30 years, David Rittof, President & CEO of Modern Management, Inc., has worked with employers throughout the United States. I asked him to reflect on his experiences with employee engagement.

JATHAN JANOVE: What’s your definition of employee engagement?

DAVID RITTOF: Employee engagement is something well beyond motivation. Everyone is motivated in one way or another but engagement implies a strong link between the organization’s objectives and the employee’s behavior. An engaged employee understands his or her role in the organization and how it’s integrated into the successful accomplishment of the organization’s vision and mission. Engaged employees are true ambassadors of the business for customers and coworkers because they have a grasp of the entire picture of the organization’s mission and are able to focus on their function as it relates to others in the organization.

JJ: What are the most important steps employers can take to increase employee engagement?

DR: There are three components to building an engaged workforce:

  1. Employers must develop comprehensive communication strategies that provide a broad range of information for every initiative the organization endeavors to accomplish.
  2. Employees must feel a personal connection to those initiatives through personal contact with the leadership team of an organization.
  3. Employee compensation programs must have some factor that is variable and relates to the overall organization’s performance. 

JJ: What is the most common mistake employers make that lowers employee engagement?

DR: The most common mistake I see is a failure to understand how communication moves from C-Suite to plant floor.

JJ: What’s a typical example?

DR: Often employers take great pains to draft an announcement of some change. The announcement is legally-approved, factual, clear, and detailed. It’s then sent to all employees. Unfortunately, the employer neglects to first provide the announcement to first-line leadership for their understanding and acceptance. When employees receive the announcement, their first point of contact will be the supervisor for explanation and reaction. If the supervisor is not trained and is ill-prepared to facilitate those conversations, the employer will face a high risk that employees will resist the change and their level of engagement will decrease.

JJ: Any other common mistakes?

DR: Another one occurs when employers believe they are visible and accessible because they conduct “walks” through the organization. Visibility and relationship-building demand more than an occasional walk-around, peering over an employee’s shoulder, calling out a greeting, etc. They require creating meaningful opportunities for exchange such as roundtable lunches with random groups of employees, planned attendance to departmental meetings, or a dedicated schedule of departmental visits.

JJ: You’ve worked with many unionized workforces. Are there particular challenges in such environments for improving employee engagement?

DR: The collective bargaining process is inherently adversarial in the United States because the very definition of “bargaining in good faith” implies the ability to move on your position in response to the other’s proposals. As a result, every employer builds a certain amount of flexibility into their proposals that provides them with the opportunity to comply with the bargaining process. However, those preliminary proposals can cause negative reactions from employees who see them as unreasonable and inadequate. The employees’ natural conclusion is that the employer does not respect them or value them appropriately and they therefore become disengaged.

JJ: What should employers do to minimize this problem?

DR: The truth is that the employer has no intention of remaining at its initial proposals that employees find offensive. Rather, it has only built those in to create compromise. The emotions of the bargaining process can be managed by significant efforts at communicating management’s position and goals. The employer cannot discuss the negotiations directly with employees prior to discussing them with the union. However, once the negotiations at the table occur, there must be rapid dissemination of information regarding those negotiations from management’s perspective.

JJ: What do you consider the most important traits of a leader who fosters employee engagement?

DR: Leaders who foster employee engagement have several common characteristics and habits:

  1. They are role models who exhibit the behavior and understanding they expect from employees.
  2. They are in frequent contact with employees and have open lines of communication.
  3. They provide regular and substantive feedback regarding an employee’s performance.
  4. They are positive in their approaches, upbeat, and informed about the organization’s current state of the business.
  5. They have a clear understanding of each employee who reports to them and they work actively with each employee to help them achieve their personal goals in the organization.

David Rittof is the President and CEO of Modern Management, Inc. and an authority on management and employee relations.