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Jasmine Gartner

Jasmine Gartner Consulting

Training consultant

Read more about Jasmine Gartner

Employee engagement: why small businesses need to do it too


Years ago, I did a talk on employee engagement for small businesses.

At the end, one of the participants came to speak with me. He ran a small business, and he wanted to engage his staff, but it seemed like more work on top of running the business itself.

How would he find the extra time? What if his employees said things he didn’t want to hear? What if they wanted things he couldn’t give them? Would it cost him financially – would he need to invest in costly technology or an extra HR person?

Before putting an engagement strategy into place, both sides assume that the other side won’t to want to listen to them.

The idea that there is a disparity between engagement and the very real everyday obligations of running a business is a false one.

I often find that that the idea that engagement is a ‘nice to have’ or a burdensome extra comes down to a lack of understanding about what it really is.

Once you understand concretely what employee engagement is, then it’s much easier to see that it is essential to running a business well. There are a number of ways you can build it in to your everyday activities that don’t take a lot of extra effort.

A social contract

I like to think of employee engagement as a social contract between employer and employee.

On the employer’s side, this means sharing the strategic goals and future plans of the business.

On the employees’ side, this means voicing concerns and suggestions about that strategy as well as their own rights and wellbeing.

These align perfectly with employees’ two biggest fears: they won’t be treated fairly, and they won’t be listened to.

Address these fears, and people will be engaged. They will be motivated, and will fulfill their potential – a win/win for all involved.

A shared vision

Before putting an engagement strategy into place, both sides assume that the other side won’t to want to listen to them.

Employers think that employees just want to know how business decisions impact their day-to-day life, and employees think that their employers will just discount what they say as stupid or selfishly motivated.

While there are workplaces where people think in those ways, neither of those things has to happen. It all depends on how you frame it.

To avoid that negative situation where managers and employees distrust each other, senior managers need to share:

  1. The strategic vision or narrative: where you were in the past that’s led to where you are in the present, and where you’d like to be in the future, and how you plan to get there. This allows people to see if they’re being treated fairly.
  2. Their role: make it clear that they will listen to concerns and suggestions, but ultimately, that they will also make the decisions – this is their job.

All employees know that no manager goes into a room thinking ‘how can I make all of these people unhappy today?’

They also know that in the changing world of work, bad things can happen – people can lose their jobs, redundancies happen, and so on.

What is hard to stomach is if some manager somewhere makes a terrible decision and employees have to bear the brunt of the consequences.

Employees will therefore want to understand decision-making and to see that managers are making the best decisions they can, with the information they have at the time.

It is only by understanding this broad framework of strategy that employees can make reasonable suggestions about how to improve that strategy.

Employees who are implementing the strategy will have a great understanding of how things work at the technical or client-facing level and can provide information in these areas that can improve how the strategy is implemented.

As long as managers know that their employees understand that they’ll take on board employee suggestions, but ultimately will be making the decisions, they are very comfortable with this.

In fact, in training sessions, I have had managers pull me aside and ask, ‘when are you getting to the part about how we want to hear their suggestions?’

Four top tips

With this in mind, here are my practical tips for managers and HR people in small businesses:

  1. Write out your strategic narrative: it should state how where you were in the past has led to where you are currently, as well as where you see the business in the future (a year, five years, and ten years) and how you plan to get there. Emphasise that planning for the future is always a moving target because some new piece of information or a new challenge can come in tomorrow, and that will impact your strategy, for better or worse.
  2. Show how employees’ roles fit into that strategy, so that people will understand why their role is important (they’ll feel valued) and they will understand what they need to achieve (they’ll have purpose).
  3. Be clear that it is senior managers’ role to make decisions, but that once people have understood the strategic vision, you want to hear their questions, their concerns and their suggestions.
  4. Finally, be clear that this is a social contract. If employees want to voice those questions, concerns and suggestions, they must listen to the strategic narrative. Equally, share with them that you understand that if you want them to take your strategic narrative on board, you will have to listen to their views.

Finally, remember that spending time on employee engagement isn’t a distraction from your main business activities – without your people on board, you can’t hope to achieve your vision, so getting this part right is a key part of the puzzle.  

Interested in this topic? Read Small company super-glue: how to grow up without growing apart.

Author Profile Picture
Jasmine Gartner

Training consultant

Read more from Jasmine Gartner

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