Words That Boost Engagement: A Vocabulary Lesson for Leaders

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December 2014
by Todd Patkin
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Business meeting in an officeIn the midst of the everyday chaos of running a business, leaders often don’t think about what they could or should say to motivate the people they employ, whether those people are on staff or functioning as independent contractors. But there are certain sentences these people want to hear from you. Some have to do with affirmation; others convey encouragement, reassurance, respect, gratitude, or trust. If you start incorporating these sentences into your vocabulary at work, you will see engagement blossom. Here are 14 of them.

“I Need your Help.”

Yes, people will be looking to you to steer your company in the right direction, but I promise, they know you’re human, and they don’t expect you to have all the answers. So the next time you’re facing a difficult decision or brainstorming options, ask your team for help. They’ll appreciate that you treated them as valued partners, and they’ll feel more invested in your company’s future because they had more of a hand in creating it.

“How Is Your Family?”

The people you employ will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. Get to know each one individually and incorporate that knowledge in your regular interactions.

Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know. When you dare to “get personal,” your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket. That’s why I took advantage of every opportunity I could think of to let people know I was thinking about them when I was leading my family’s company. I recommended books I thought they might enjoy. I sent motivational quotes to people who might appreciate them. I attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations I was invited to. And you know what? Not only did I fuel engagement, I also formed a lot of meaningful relationships that continue to this day.

“What Do You Need From Me?”

Often, people are anxious about asking the boss for what they need, whether it’s updated office equipment, more time to complete a project, advice, or anything else. They may want to avoid looking needy, or simply feel that it’s “not their place” to ask for more than you’ve already provided. By explicitly asking what you can give them, you extend permission to make those requests— and they’ll certainly appreciate it.

Be sure to treat any requests you receive seriously. If you can’t give people what they ask for, explain why and work with them to find another solution. Either way, this question, and the conversations it sparks, can give you valuable insight into your company’s operations, facilities, and culture while showing you how to best develop and support individual team members.

“I Noticed What You Did.”

Every day, your employees do a lot of little things that keep your company running smoothly and customers coming back: Refilling the copier with paper when it’s empty. Responding quickly to vendors’ requests. Double-checking reports for errors before sending them on. And so forth. Unfortunately, in many organizations, these everyday actions are taken for granted, with negative effects on morale.

People want to know that you notice and value the way they do the mundane parts of their jobs, not just their big wins and achievements. That’s why I recommend trying to “catch” as many as possible in a good act. Then point out exactly what it is about their behavior that you appreciate.

“Thank You.”

Of course, people will also appreciate a heartfelt “thank you” for bigger accomplishments. Whether it’s “Thanks for staying late last night,” “Thanks for being so patient with Jane
Doe—I know she can be a difficult author,” “Thank you for making our first-quarter marketing campaign a success,” or something else, your people will treasure your appreciation more than you realize.

People love to hear positive feedback about themselves, and in most cases, they’ll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments and thanks coming. Make sure that you acknowledge your people in a positive way more often than you criticize them. Negative feedback tends to stick in most people’s memories longer, so you need to counterbalance it.

“Hey Everyone- Listen to What John Accomplished!”

Everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don’t stop with a compliment when someone does well. Tell the rest of the team, too. I’ve found that e-mailing the story of someone doing something noteworthy to my entire team puts a glow on the highlighted person’s face, and I’ve also noticed that many other team members begin to work even harder in order to earn a write-up about themselves. Sometimes, I’ve even called people’s homes to brag on them to their families.

“What Would you Like to Do Here?”

Sure, you originally hired each person to do a specific job. But over time, your company has grown and changed—and so have your people. That’s why it’s a good idea to check in with each one of them periodically to ask what they’d like to be doing. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that your administrative assistant would like to be included in the next marketing campaign team. You might be even more pleasantly surprised to find that her social media engagement ideas yield impressive results.

Whenever possible, keep job descriptions fluid and allow your people to have a say in matching their skills to the company’s needs. This is one of the best ways I know to build loyalty and encourage people to take ownership of their jobs.

“I Have Bad News.”

Although you certainly don’t mind sharing good news with people you employ, you might instinctively play down negative developments, or even keep them entirely to yourself.
But people aren’t stupid, and they will be able to tell when something is up even if you don’t acknowledge it.

By refusing to share bad news, you’ll only increase paranoia and anxiousness—neither of which is good for engagement or productivity. But when you treat your people like responsible adults by being honest and open, they will appreciateyour transparency, and often you’ll find that they’re willing to voluntarily double their efforts to help you turn the tide.

“What Do You Think?”

People who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine. Often, their performance will be grudging and uninspired. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make the people you’ve hired feel like valued partners by asking them for their opinions, ideas, and preferences. Again, they’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it.

And guess what? Your employees probably won’t care as much as you think they will if their suggestions don’t become reality. Mostly, they just want to know that their voice was heard by the people in charge.

“Here’s How Our Company Works and Where We Stand.”

In many companies, people handling sales don’t know much about what’s happening with publicity and the folks handling publicity aren’t familiar with how things in the warehouse work, and so on and so forth. Generally, this state of affairs doesn’t cause too many problems. But helping your employees understand how your company works from top to bottom will streamline internal processes, reduce misunderstandings, and promote team spirit.

When you make a point of showing everyone how their specific job descriptions fit into the overall “machinery,” you’ll find that us-versus-them thinking tends to decline, and that profit-minded solutions begin to proliferate.

One of the best management decisions I ever made was to show my employees “the numbers” on a regular basis. I made sure that everyone understood the relationship between their performance and the bottom line—and thus their own pay. Several employees told me that my transparency prompted them to think more carefully about how their own everyday choices and efforts affected the bigger picture.

“That’s Okay. We All Make Mistakes. Let’s Talk About How To Fix This.”

Mistakes are going to happen and the impact they have often depends on how you as a leader handle them. Lambasting somebody who dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it’ll negatively impact that person’s self-confidence, relationship with you, and feelings for your company for much longer.

When someone who works for you makes an honest mistake, try to be as understanding as you would be with your own family members. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that this person feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Then focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again.

Also, never forget that mistakes are an essential part of growth. The innovation and creativity necessary for growing a business will be accompanied by setbacks and slipups. You don’t want to create an environment where people don’t take potentially productive risks because they’re afraid you’ll get mad if they screw up.

“You Deserve a Reward.”

Simple things such as gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far happier than, say, big salaries and corner offices, and more tangible rewards such as bonuses, vacation time, and prime parking spaces clearly boost employee engagement.

When resources allow, look for ways to reward people for their hard work. I’ve used everything from tickets to sporting events to vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’ve noticed that people work extra-hard in hopes of getting such perks.

“I Know You Can Do It.”

Of course you should try to hire people who are confident and self-directed. But even the most self-assured individuals appreciate an explicit vote of confidence from their leaders.

Tying verbal votes of confidence to something concrete— specifically, pay—is one of the best ways to motivate people. When I told employees that I believed so strongly in their ability to help our company grow that I was adopting performance-based pay with no cap, they worked harder than ever before for the company—and for themselves.

“This Task Is In Your Hands- I’m Stepping Back.”

Most leaders who micromanage don’t set out to annoy or smother the people who work for them. The problem is that they care—a lot—and want to make sure everything is done just so, with no balls dropped and no opportunities missed. But hovering can give people the impression that you don’t trust them or have faith in them—a belief that undermines engagement.

Once you’ve delegated a task, step back and let the person you delegated it to handle it. Yes, I know that can be easier said than done, but it may help to remind yourself that you hired each person for a reason, that you have faith in each person’s potential, and anyone who needs help knows where to find you.


PatkinTodd Patkin, who spent 18 years helping to grow his family’s business to new heights, is the author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, Twelve Weeks toFinding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People, and Destination: Happiness: The Travel Guide That Gets You from Here to There, Emotionally and Spiritually. To learn more: www.findinghappinessthebook.com.

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