Engaging Employees

My best employee, the one who had been at the organization the longest, wasn’t performing up to his previous standards. This was the person who had been the person I’d relied on to get things done for the last few years. He had the enthusiasm and passion for the job. But it was getting more and more frustrating to work with him. He was coming to work late, leaving early, and focusing his energy on other commitments. He was still getting his work done, but many things were slipping. Since he’d been such a great co-worker for so long, I let it slide, but it was affecting me and the other staff. I had no idea what was going on, and didn’t know what to do. I just kept hoping it would get better.

In the end, the employee came to me and said he was leaving for a new job. I realized that I should have had a conversation with him when the problems started. Although the job had been his passion, it simply wasn’t anymore. He was ready to move on, and he recognized that before I did.

Does this story sound familiar to you? In retrospect, there are a lot of ways I could have prevented or at least improved this situation. Keeping employees engaged is critical in all organizations. Here are ways you can increase engagement in your nonprofit:

  • Have genuine, open conversations with staff regularly about their goals. Support your staff, don’t leave them to wonder how they are doing and how they can improve. I had annual evaluation meetings with this staff person, but I needed more regular check ins that went deeper than just how he was feeling that day.
  • Strong leadership that supports employees will go a long way toward employees feeling engaged. Leaders that help staff feel connected to the mission and purpose of the organization, help them to develop their skills, are trustworthy, and encourage staff to take risks. (Want to improve your leadership skills? Search NonprofitReady.org for “A Leader’s Guide to Motivating Employees”, a good e-book on the topic.)
  • Keep the lines of communication open. You should communicate all changes to the people that will be affected by them, even if they are small changes. And give them a chance to provide feedback. The more employees know about the reasons behind changes, the more they will be able to support them. For a basic example, a friend’s company has been strongly encouraging staff to share all company posts on LinkedIn, but they have never explained why they are asking employees to do that. My friend’s role is not in the marketing department and he doesn’t understand why he should have to market for the company. It’s a clear case where good communication and employee feedback could make a big difference.
  • Are your employees given autonomy in their work? Can they make decisions on the best way to carry out their work? Can they give input into the overall organization? Don’t leave them to figure everything out on their own, but do support them when they have good ideas for improving their work flow. After all, they are the ones carrying out the work and seeing the challenges.
  • You may not be able to pay more, but there are plenty of other low-cost benefits you can offer. Ask your staff for their ideas, too. They may surprise you with what matters most to them.
  • Make sure your employees have a good work-life balance. Create a culture that promotes that. Don’t contact them on evenings and weekends for matters that can wait. Encourage them to take their alloted time off. (And set a good example by doing the same.) Help them reduce their stress levels in any way you can. It can be challenging work, so providing them support will make a big difference. A friend is a caseworker for families facing homelessness. She loves the work, but it is draining, not just working with families, but all the paperwork that she also has to do. I’ve encouraged her to work with her supervisor on finding ways to balance her work better.
  • Recognize their hard work. Make sure everyone at the organization knows what they have done. Feature their work in agency newsletters. Bring them a small gift. (Learn about the Five Languages of Appreciation and how we each like to be rewarded differently.) Every person has a role to play in keeping the organization running smoothly, and they should all be reminded periodically that others value their contributions.
  • Succession planning helps dramatically with employee engagement. A plan to help future leaders grow and develop will pay off in more engaged employees now, as those employees will know they are developing their skills in their position. In addition, the organizational leadership will improve their skills to better support employees.

Keeping employees engaged in their work takes ongoing effort. They come to their job with a strong passion for the work, but it is up to you to keep that excitement up. Feel free to contact me for help on engaging your employees.

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