To Truly Engage Employees, Dig Deeper

Performance metrics and financials are important—but they won't get employees excited to work for you. Try helping them to understand the meaning behind their work.

For many business leaders, motivation is a numbers game. Performance metrics and financials are considered the lingua franca between those at the top and the rest of the employee base—telling employees where they are, pushing them to where they need to be and enforcing consequences if they don’t get there.

While these metrics have their place, there are much better ways to motivate teams, especially in high-stress, complex work environments. People are rarely at their best when they feel like a cog in a machine, not really understanding where their job fits into the company’s goals.

To truly engage employees and push them to the next level, leaders need to dig deeper than quarterly reports. People at the top must make it their job to seek out and communicate the meaning behind the work—they must become meaning-makers. That way, each team member can see how his or her actions affect not just the company, but also the company’s mission.

When employees find meaning in their work, a job ceases being just a paycheck and transforms into a way to contribute to a common cause. Leaders who act as meaning-makers change the conversation around work and create substantial, lasting motivation that traditional metrics can’t match.

Why the normal way of doing things doesn’t work

It can be easy for management to stick with the tried-and-true method of punishment and reward. Giving employees bonuses or perks for a job well done and threatening them with write-ups or termination for failures seems like a simple and compelling formula. But it’s woefully inadequate.

Employees care about more than small perks like ping-pong tables in the breakroom, and they don’t want to worry about losing their jobs. The carrot-and-stick approach discourages risk-taking and cultivates a selfish mindset. It also fosters a relationship of fear with leaders instead of trust. Given that a bad relationship with superiors is one of the biggest reasons people leave a company, this can wreak havoc on a business’s bottom line.

Leaders must embrace an approach that emphasizes meaning and vision if they want to truly motivate employees. That means managers have to be more transparent about how their business is run—and why. Be clear about why you made choices and about how each employee’s role is vital to the path you’ve chosen.

The idea of peeling back the curtain can be intimidating, but transparency has been shown to significantly boost employee morale. Transparent leaders make employees feel like part of a community instead of stranded in their own cubicle. Companies that keep their inner workings close to the vest leave room for frustration, as well as suspicions that the system is unfair.

For example, the lack of transparency in the Uber platform upset drivers who voiced concerns that it was subtly manipulating them. Conversely, software provider Front has found that transparency has helped improve the team’s efficiency. The company’s CEO is transparent with goals, and everyone there makes objectives and key results public.

How to give employees a real sense of purpose

Becoming a meaning-maker isn’t as complicated as it might sound. Take an interest in each employee’s future in the organization. Find new ways people can contribute to their teams and help them shine brighter in their current positions. By doing this, you’ll not only make people feel secure in their jobs, but also help them believe that they matter, both to their bosses and to their co-workers.

The key thing to remember in order to be an effective meaning-maker is not to think of your employees as working for you, but instead working with you. Foster an environment where everyone is heard and mistakes are viewed as a learning experience that will ultimately benefit everyone on the team.

The best productivity comes out of an environment where everyone is working toward a common goal. Remember that, and you’ll have an organization that’s ready to take on the world.