Recently, during a brief workshop on employee engagement, I was asked this question by a participant I know to be an experienced, competent manager:
“Yes, but how do you get your employees excited about their work?”
My response was to answer her question with a question. “What excites your employees about their work?” Her response?
“I don’t know.”
Her answer didn’t surprise me. She, like many leaders, has to spend significant time attending to the operational, technical, and functional responsibilities of her day-to-day work. The opportunities to sit down and have exploratory conversations with members of her team are few and far between. Organizations often place a higher priority on productivity and many managers have responsibility for a lengthy list of operational tasks that require time, attention, and effort. Such exploratory conversations, however, may be the most important work we do as leaders.
Leadership is about meeting people where they’re at. We’ll never hear, understand or grasp where each of our personnel are “at” without taking the time to ask. My advice to the manager that posed the above question was simply that: “Ask.”
“What excites you about your work?”
If the answer you get is “Nothing” that’s a pretty good indicator of employee engagement, isn’t it? But by and large you’ll probably get some interesting answers. Ask the question, then wait. Don’t be tempted to fill the space. If you get a short or shallow answer, gently probe with open-ended follow-up questions like “What else?’ or “What do you mean?” Don’t be afraid to ask for more, either: “Can you tell me more about that?” Such conversations don’t have to take a lot of time and can occur as part of a standing touchbase or during down times (if you have any of those!). Be sure to put the question in the right context though. The question isn’t what excites you about your JOB. It’s too easy to say location, commute, stability, pay, benefits, etc. Asking your personnel what they like about their work- what they DO everyday- can help you gain powerful insights into what aspects of that work are most meaningful to them.
Each member of your team gets excited about different things, is motivated in different ways, and needs to be engaged with those things in mind. Some will connect with the idea that their work makes a difference to others. Some are driven by the chance to learn something new or progress on their career path. Others get charged up by certain kinds of tasks or projects. The point is that as leaders we have a responsibility to help motivate our employees, to tap into what gets them excited about their work. To do this effectively we first have to understand a bit more about what makes them tick. The first step in knowing? Asking.