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You want a thriving culture. You want genius employees. You want people to not only enjoy showing up to work every day but to work hard and contribute — and tell the world how lucky they are to be part of it. Baby, you want it all.

What you want is employee engagement. And that requires a winning employee engagement strategy. Entire anthropological courses are being written about the cultural mythos of Silicon Valley and the tech-startup culture. We get it — the future of your organization does, in some parts, depend on the unique stew of talent, culture, and zeitgeist inside your walls. But there’s a distinct difference between being a dedicated worker and drinking the corporate Kool-Aid.

The important reality check for most of us is that there’s only so much we can control. We hire for talent and cultural fit. We set policies and create touchpoints to drive efficient innovation and create a sense of place. Opportunity for all. Rewards for performers. Staying inside the guardrails of corporate HR best practices. It’s a constant balancing act that’s more likely to slide into #dumpsterfire territory than ascend the heights of the Best Places to Work awards circuit. 

The one thing you can control is your approach to employee engagement. It’s a relationship, a dynamic, complex dance between employer and employees that can be reduced to a simple question: How do your team members feel their employment optimizes their value as humans?

This is not “job satisfaction,” which is a measure of their feelings about their participation as employees. This is a question of how they feel about the organization they’ve committed their time, effort, and intellectual capital on a daily basis. Do they believe it’s actually worth it? (For better or worse, your gut instinct already knows the answer.)

So, like any relationship worth keeping, you have to do more than just show up. You have to put in the work. That requires an employee engagement strategy. You can’t just make it up as you go. You don’t leave product development roadmaps up to fate. You don’t wing it on your financial projections. So why would you assume employee engagement will happen “organically”? You need a plan with tactical implementation, measurable outcomes, and accountability. Here are the conceptual pillars around which you can build such a strategy.

7 Employee Engagement Strategies That Really Work

1) Make Your Core Values Real.

If your people don’t buy the values — or you compromise on them — they’re not real. This is the easiest thing to start with because most companies have the same bland corporate core values. Quit using 1980s business buzzwords as if they’re meaningful, and start speaking in human terms. This is the essence of who you are as a company. Your values are the holy scriptures of your culture. Make them real and believable, and then build everything you do around them. Everyone born in the 21st century was genetically coded with a corporate bullshit detector, so respect their time and your dignity by having core values worth aspiring to.

2) Give Them a Personal Vision of Their Future.

Quit asking them where they see themselves in five years. Help them chart a course for the career they want. If you view your employees as cogs that fit where you need them, it won’t be long until you discover that you have a lot of square pegs and round holes. Instead, find people who believe the same things you do and hire them to grow, excel, and innovate. Help them achieve their personal goals, work together to align their skills with your needs, and then go do the work. Your people want to be seen and heard as valuable contributors, not managed like worker drones.

3) Reward Performance.

In many ways, we live in an egalitarian, post-meritocracy society. Meritocracy has its time and place. If you want to keep a team full of Alphas who know how to go and do, you have to recognize them when they win. And, if you also have a bunch of underachievers on the team, it can be motivating for them to realize that actually caring for a minute yields results. Performance doesn’t lie. Just make sure it’s clear that you’re recognizing objective, documented success, not giving preferential treatment. The moment it becomes a carrot/stick situation, you’ve lost the real performers. They always know.

4) Never Compromise on Transparency. Full Stop.

Trust is fragile like glass. In fact, there are probably a dozen sayings about how trust is earned in years and lost in moments. They’re all true. If you say you’re building a culture of transparency, you better be serious about it. The first time you shade an answer, bend the truth, or revert to corporate speak to evade an uncomfortable question, your team will instantly begin to doubt everything else about your culture. Transparency is hard to do, but if you live it out, it can transform how your team views your company and its place in it. Radical transparency makes everything else on this list easier to achieve.

5) Bake in Accountability for Everyone — Yes, Even You.

If there are no penalties for stepping out of bounds, there are no rules. Ask any toddler. It doesn’t take an MBA to understand that accountability is what separates theory from reality in business environments. You can build all the cultural framework you want, but if there are no consequences for violating the tenets and traditions you’ve worked so hard to build, what value do they really have? And true accountability respects no title — that means you’re as beholden to the rules as the newest intern. Consistent consequences, clear expectations, and fair judgments are the foundation of real accountability. It takes courage to execute this idea, but the reward is a kind of conviction that you can’t buy.

6) Build Communities, Not Silos.

Recognize that people will gravitate to the people they like. Also, understand that encouraging people to collaborate with people they don’t know can create opportunities for unexpected personal and professional growth. This balancing act is a constant give and take of helping people expand their spheres of comfort and spheres of influence. Don’t destroy cliques and in-groups just because they exist. Likewise, don’t fear the personal bubbles that employees create around their routines and relationships. Seek balance and promote growth. More connections are good. Stronger connections are good. It’s yes, and. Not either, or.

7) Give Them a Clear Purpose and Set Them Loose.

This is the part where you become a visionary leader. There are people who don’t respond to motivation. Purge them. The rest? They’ll perk up if you’re painting a picture they can see. In all seriousness, if your people don’t understand the Why of your company’s existence, it will be increasingly challenging to hire the best talent, cultivate internal growth, and build a healthy culture. Yes, your company exists for a reason beyond making a profit. Articulate it clearly, consistently, and cogently. Purpose drives the human psyche and is the difference between an army of true believers and a collection of mercenaries looking for the highest bidder. That’s engagement.

Strong employee engagement is the holy grail of 21st-century workplace culture. Amidst fading loyalties, the growing gig economy, and a general ennui among the white-collar workforce, your future depends on how you engage your team.

Create a culture where innovation and bold ideas are rewarded, and you’ll attract bright minds. Nurture a culture where fair and open dialogue is the standard, and you’ll cultivate honest conversations.

For managers and leaders, employee engagement is the ultimate evaluation of your own abilities. Can you cast a vision that motivates everyone from the mailroom to the boardroom? Can you navigate the complexities of maximum transparency and ruthless accountability?

These are not easy questions. Compromise is easy. But, if you’re the maverick you think you are, executing these concepts is your mission. Winning hearts and minds isn’t just for Special Forces. It’s your purpose as a leader.