How Managers Help Retain Talent with Employee Engagement Initiatives In Times of Crisis

Manager with team surrounding her

This is a transcription of a previously recorded episode on the Engaging People Podcast.

Christian Nielson

Christian Nielson

VP of Consulting Services

Hello and welcome to another Engaging People Podcast. My name is Christian Nielson. I’m the Vice President of the Consulting Services here at DecisionWise, and I’m joined by our consulting team. Today, we’re talking about how your engagement initiative can help you attract and retain top talent. Now, before we get into this, it’s an interesting time in the context of the world to have this conversation, we’re going to stop short of having this be a complete COVID-19 podcast. However, I think that will be some important context to consider as we talk this through for our own examples and stories as well as for those clients and organizations listening to this podcast. I’ll start by talking a little bit about how I’ve seen employee engagement work within the organizations. Then we’ll go around the team and hear what each of our consultants has to say on the subject.

Expanding Ownership in the Organization

As I’ve looked at engagement within an organization, one of the principles I’m looking for, especially in engagement initiatives at a manager level, is the expansion of ownership. As more and more people throughout the organization take ownership of the employee experience and cultivate employee engagement, we see great things happen. And so if we think about frontline managers and the role engagement and the employee experience plays there, we have to build where those frontline managers see their sense of ownership and understand the role they play in shaping the employee experience and employee engagement. And then we have to get managers to help expand ownership throughout their teams so that they involve others in shaping that team experience.

Client Example

I have one client that I’m working with that does a really tremendous job of expanding that ownership down to where managers understand their role in shaping the team experience. They involve others, and all of their work is not only about improving their collective experience, but also about strengthening the customer experience. They have a more outward focus. Everything they do is to create a greater sense of service and value for their customers. And this gives more meaning and purpose to their work. It galvanizes them as a team unit and connects them back to the organization.

What does this mean for attracting and retaining talent?

When our employees engage, great things happen.

  • Turnover goes down – engaged employees don’t leave as often when they find their work experience engaging.
  • You get higher NPS (employee net promoter score), which is a strong response to the survey item: “I would recommend this organization as a great place to work.”
  • You get better candidate referrals – some of our best candidates come from internal referrals from engaged employees.

These are things I’ve seen within the team environment as organizations work to expand ownership down to managers, cultivating the right team experience, involving others. We see some immediate benefits for the organization, as well as the employees. Charles, do you mind sharing some of your thoughts on this subject?

Don’t Overthink Your Employee Engagement Initiative – Choose and Work on Something

Charles Rogel

Charles Rogel

Senior Consultant

You know, I think about this topic, and I thought of an example that I read about in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg a number of years ago. He included a story about a company called Alcoa Corporation. It’s one of the largest producers of aluminum in the world. Back in 1987, a new CEO was appointed, Paul O’Neill. And during his first speech, people had high expectations. The company wasn’t really performing very well. He got up and he basically said, I want to talk to you about worker safety. And it was interesting, because nobody was expecting that to be the topic. And he went on to talk about how they were going to focus on their safety record, that everything was going to be kind of geared around their performance metrics. If you want to understand how the company is doing, look at how our safety record is doing.

And it was a very interesting take. Many people were worried about his approach. Investors were worried, and they thought they had hired the wrong person. But miraculously, it really helped to turn the company around. With the focus on safety, all of a sudden, people had permission to look at the unique problems, processes, and equipment within the organization. The focus on safety really transformed the culture of the organization. Everyone focused on improving processes and procedures that led to worker safety, but efficiencies and profitability also increased. The next year, the company had an all-time, record-high in profits, and after 13 years as the CEO there, O’Neill’s net income was five times higher than what he started with. Now, I like this story because when you think about managers and engagement and what they’re trying to do with their team, I always recommend just choose something, work on something.

Figure out what you're all about as a manager

Maybe safety is a big initiative in your organization. And maybe safety doesn’t sound too exciting, but frame it in a way where safety equals care about people. This topic of safety at Alcoa really resonated with the union employees because of their skepticism about a new CEO. But when they figured out that, “Hey, this is all about improving worker safety!” they got on board. That whole initiative transformed the organization.

But turning it back to a manager and what you’re doing: what are you all about? Are you about creating growth opportunities for your employees where they’re going to advance their careers and develop their skills? Are you all about providing autonomy and empowering your employees to make decisions in the organization and boosting creativity? Figure out what is important to you and your team to be successful and make that your engagement initiative and use that when you’re hiring people. When you’re talking to people about their needs and what really motivates them, make sure your engagement focus is really resonating with your employees. Dan Deka, can you share some of your thoughts with us?

Continue Growth Conversations Even During Hard Times

Dan Deka

Dan Deka

Senior Consultant and Executive Coach

Sure. Everyone, it’s nice to be here with you and our thoughts and prayers go out to you during these uncertain times. I think at no other time is engagement as important as it is right now. We do so much work, and we gather all this feedback, and what’s the purpose of it? To help people feel engaged, to help them feel connected, to help them feel secure. And there’s just so much going on right now, that I think there’s a lot of elements of our work that definitely helps to increase engagement and adds a great deal of benefit to people.

Right now, I’d say from my standpoint, I have a couple of different types of clients. I have coaching clients, 360 clients, and engagement clients. And I can just say for my coaching clients, it’s a fantastic time to continue the conversations. These are all conversations and coaching relationships about leadership, and there’s no better time in leadership than during times of uncertainty. So that works really well.

And then for our engagement or our 360 clients, you know, there’s the decision, do we continue to do these efforts during these times or not? And in general, with most of my clients, if they’re not critical healthcare workers and they have some time on their hands, this is a great time for them to connect to people, to do those 360s, to get that feedback, to make sure that they have that coaching support around them during this time. We definitely don’t want to do work and then leave people by themselves at this time. We want to do that work, get them feedback, and then talk with them about that feedback.

Growth and communication are critical to employee engagement

So, some organizations are continuing there, and then most specifically for this conversation around engagement, what we learn from a lot of our engagement surveys is, communication and growth are critical. And communication is especially critical now, where a lot of people are working from home and may feel a little bit isolated. I think the general feedback from a lot of our engagement surveys emphasizes the importance of communication. Oftentimes it comes across as cross-functional communication across departments. And I think now with everything that’s going on, communication just becomes that much more important.

I guess from my experience, it’s purposely taking the engagement data that you have, whether it’s from a month ago, or from six months ago, or a year, looking at that feedback that you have, and then saying, how does it apply to our current scenario right now, and leverage that. I’m very confident and talking with clients about that now, how employee feedback from the past is even more applicable now. So those are some thoughts around how I think this work is especially important during these times of uncertainty and how you can leverage either your current work or past work around engagement.

Christian Nielson – Thanks, Dan. Given the current context and my interactions with clients and review of survey data, I’m consistently impressed by the importance managers play in creating the right experience and how important communication is and how detrimental vacuums of information can be. Especially right now, as some organizations are experiencing remote work for the very first time, and certainly at this scale where people are going remote. And so, that manager and the organization strengthening communication and getting the word out there is very important. All right, let’s hear from another one of our consultants. Thomas, do you mind giving us a little bit of your take on this?

leader increases eNPS by showing his team he cares

New Hire Interviews Can Be Powerful Engagement Initiatives

Thomas Olsen

Thomas Olsen


Yeah. As an HR business partner, I saw a lot of interviews. I saw a lot of different managers and the way that they interviewed candidates, and I think that’s the first initial contact that a candida has with the company. That’s really our first opportunity to show them that we’re an engaged company and that we have an engaged culture. And so, I think it’s really crucial for managers to spend a little bit more time preparing for that interview. I think a lot of managers tend to take that as a very trivial opportunity and just something that they have to go through. They have to weed out these different candidates, many of which are pretty smart. I think if you’re looking for great talent, those candidates will be able to see through a process that is not very well thought out, with generic questions.

Prepare your managers more for hiring interviews to win over top candidates

And so, I think a manager that comes in a little bit more prepared to that initial interview can really win that candidate over. And they can really show their engagement in the way that they approach the candidate. Just with questions that are not as generic. And I also say some of the most successful managers that I’ve worked with, while they’re obviously interested in somebody’s skill set, they’re really trying to hire for cultural fit which also means they’re trying to figure out if the person is a fully engaged candidate.

So we talk about the engagement spectrum where we have somebody that’s fully engaged, some people are key contributors, some people are in this opportunity group, and some people are fully disengaged. We obviously want more fully engaged candidates, so can we ask questions that weed those candidates out? I think we just have to spend a little more time prepping that initial interview process. And as far as retaining top talent, my thoughts there are not earth-shattering. One-on-ones, having frequent check-ins, and just being transparent and having an open-door policy for a manager can keep that engagement up for existing employees.

Christian Nielson – I think it’s a great point that managers, including myself, don’t always remember the gravity of our role in shaping someone’s first impressions of an organization and starting that employee experience right. I think we’ve heard some sound advice on bringing people in that are going to engage with what we’re offering as an organization or looking for signs that this person’s going to come in and disengage very quickly or is already kind of prone to that. But also, just in terms of the experience a manager can create, can they prime them in those first few moments for greater engagement long term? I think these are some wonderful considerations. Next, let’s hear from Chris Story, another member of our consulting team.

Retain Talent by Helping Employees See Their Impact

Chris Storey

Chris Storey


You know, it may be a fairly obvious point, but when we’re talking about top talent, we’re talking about those who have something to contribute rather than just those who will take direction or follow orders. So there’s an important balance that we want to strike between orienting talent and giving direction, which is important, and drawing upon the ideas and experiences of that top talent. So, I think that’s relevant because those who feel that they are contributing and making a difference will be retained. They’ll remain in the company and they’ll be more engaged.

Managers lead strong teams with psychological safety

So back in 2012, Google’s project, Aristotle, studied high performing teams and at first tried and failed to find any patterns that explain such stellar results. And it’s interesting, because Google is pretty good at finding patterns. After further study, they did find that the best teams were those where psychological safety existed.

So what we mean by psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. When we are in teams with a high degree of autonomy in place, we’re trying to innovate, push the limits, maybe even respond to something like COVID-19 situation, there’s an inherent risk for employees. So, it’s helpful to remember that along with that autonomy, they want to feel safe. I wrote down that employees want to avoid looking incompetent, ignorant and intrusive, which I guess are the three I’s of employee embarrassment or something. I just made that up, but those are the three things that employees are certainly going to want to avoid. So what can they do?

Help employees avoid the three I's of employee embarrassment

  1. Offer explicit invitations for others to speak up – set ground rules at the beginning of a collaboration session so that people can speak up with ideas.
  2. Shape incentives to foster learning – it’s not just about perfect outcomes all the time, incentives are built around learning and collaboration.

So to be clear, the message is not that companies should be really nice to their employees. In fact, the galvanizing companion to psychological safety is accountability. You can think of those as two dimensions. For example, high psychological safety and low accountability is just kind of the comfort zone, it’s a warm and fuzzy place where we’re not really expected to contribute or we don’t feel that sense of ownership that you spoke to, Christian. On the other hand, high accountability for demanding goals, and low psychological safety can result in limited collaboration. So the sweet spot is where there is a high amount of accountability as well as psychological safety. That’s where high performance lives, that’s what Google found. And so I think that’s one point to bring up here in terms of how to help employees, your top talent remain and then engage in the company.

Christian Nielson – Thanks, Chris. There are some competing forces there and balance that a manager can seek to find. Stephen Mickelson from our consulting team. Any thoughts?

Employee Engagement Initiatives Help Both Managers and Direct Reports Grow

Stephen Mickelson

Stephen Mickelson


Yeah, definitely. About a year ago, Christian and I were in an onsite debrief with one of our large clients, and we were debriefing HR VPs on the engagement survey results for the various leaders that they supported. And as I reviewed some of the most engaged teams for a particular HR VP, she replied with, “Of course this leader’s employees are engaged. If she left to work in fast food, they would follow her.”

And I’ve remembered that because it was perhaps a little bit of aspiration and perhaps a little bit of jealousy. I’m not currently a manager, but I really hope that at some point in the future, somebody can say the same thing about me. It’s a very succinct reminder of the impact that a good leader has on his or her employees. Good leaders have so much influence over the experience that the employees have within their teams. So much, that some employees might leave to take lower pay and harsher working conditions at another organization. The flip side of that is that when employees have great managers, they are much less likely to leave their organization.

So, if you want to be the type of manager that employees really would follow to a minimum wage job, you need to know how to cultivate engagement on your team. Regardless of your personality type or your current experience, engagement is a competency that can be learned, it’s iterative and there’s always something new to learn. So odds are you’ve had tons of training in whatever your background or your field is. But unless you’ve studied organizational behavior or have experience in this area, the engagement survey or the engagement initiatives that your organization is doing is a great new learning opportunity on how to cultivate engagement.

Here are four ways that engagement initiatives can help you develop as a manager

  1. You will hear your employees’ points of view on new things – those can at times be pretty difficult or uncomfortable or challenging to handle. But the more you do it, the more you get used to it, and the more you can handle the different perspectives and the truths that your employees face on a daily basis.
  2. Have open conversations with your team about their employee experience – those sorts of conversations may have never existed in the past.
  3. Learn how to rally your team around a common, mixed shared goal.
  4. Learn how to address perceptions – they might not fall within your direct and immediate control.

Christian Nielson: Thank you Stephen, appreciate that. Spencer Taylor from our consulting team. Spencer, any thoughts on this?

How Managers Help Retain Employees in Hard Times

Spencer Taylor

Spencer Taylor

Senior Consultant

A lot of my thoughts have been in the context of what we’re facing today with this whole pandemic. We used to live in a world where our topic of attracting and retaining top talent typically means we’re thinking of holding on to people so they don’t go elsewhere. And that’s more common in a healthy economy; however, a lot of the headlines are saying the economy may head a different direction. And so, then we’re talking about retaining people in a world where furloughs and fear are kind of the words of the day. Plus, Dan talked about the issue of proximity.

How do you deal with the issue of proximity?

If you have a bunch of employees who are not used to working remotely, now all of a sudden they’re remote. I have found, in both being a remote employee and managing remote employees, that the “out of sight, out of mind” principle applies, where it’s easy to forget that your employees need you and you can go and have the water cooler talk and have some of that ongoing connecting. And again, you add to that, the idea that the person who used to sit to their left or right either physically or virtually, may not be there anymore. They may be on furlough or unfortunately had to be laid off, or whatever the case might be. Retention’s a whole different animal in that context.

Let the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC framework be your guide

And that’s where the whole underlying wisdom of the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC framework that we talk so much about internally here at DecisionWise comes into relevance, because helping people needs to be addressed individually. Helping people find meaning. Again, given those changing tides and obstacles that are out there that none of us could have anticipated. We’re in this world where we need to feel like we’re in this together, but we’re literally being asked to not be together. It’s a unique challenge. I think we have to be really mindful as managers and leaders, with how we’re creating that sense of togetherness, how we’re helping our people feel connected as the “C” in our magic model indicates, having that impact and autonomy.

Build an environment where employees can choose to engage

I also think we can learn sometimes from what doesn’t work. I had an experience come to mind where a few years back, before I worked with DecisionWise, I worked with this company as a consultant. The president had hired us to come in and do some work. Sometimes, companies think that if they just pay their people above-market wage, provide a comfortable environment, the right tools, and the best technologies, people will engage and contribute at a deep level. And that’s kind of the prevailing environment we walked into with this project. We found out pretty quickly that it was ultimately the CEO who was the epicenter of the toxic environment. In fact, we were told if you ever see the CEO, turn and run, he doesn’t believe in consultants. He doesn’t like anyone from the outside coming in and influencing the organization.

So, it was crazy trying to operate in this world, and I wasn’t even an employee! We heard rumors that he’d terminate half a department just because he had a bad day. I’m confident that there was way more to the story, and he may have had a good reason to make some adjustments. But the point is, people perceived that. To them, that was their reality. We talk a lot when we do 360 coaching, that perception really is reality for people. The same thing applies when we’re thinking about engaging through hardship and through the process of attracting and recruiting as well.

Help promote cross-department collaboration

I think it’s a balancing act. I think we just have to be of the mind that we’re in this together, in the sense that we can support each other across organizations and across team boundaries. It’s a great opportunity for us to break down some of the silos that we see a lot. In our engagement survey, one of the most common challenges is for companies to collaborate effectively across departments. This is a great time to work on that issue, because a lot of people are kind of on a more level playing field in terms of having to work virtually. In a way, it’s easier to connect across departments because it’s just clicking that next name down the chat line. So I think we can seize it as an opportunity.

Christian Nielson – This is an interesting time to be thinking about the employee experience as Spencer and many others have mentioned, especially during this current economic climate and rare global experience. So here is a summary of a few of the things I’m taking away from the conversation:

  • Managers create a lot of the employee experience
  • Managers can improve that experience dramatically through communication (how they listen, share information, etc.)
  • Managers get to choose the level in which they involve their employees in shaping the team experience
  • Employee gets to choose if they will engage

Don’t feel like you have to do it alone. Invite people to be part of the solution, improve that collective experience. With that, we’d like to thank everyone for being part of this conversation and we look forward to you joining us for a future episode very soon. Thank you