6 Sure-Fire Ways to Inspire and Engage Employees

employee engagement

"What's next for me?"

That's a question employees often ask managers when they're trying to figure out the next step in their career. "Where am I headed?"

They're challenging questions. These are the same hard workers who strive to own projects, be independent, and have a voice in their work.  But when it comes to their careers, they're not only handing over the keys to their future; they're expecting you to drive.

Most of us willingly comply. We're problem-solvers, protectors, and people-people, after all. So we feel it's our job to take on the responsibility of others' growth.

But there are risks. How we drive is going to be based on what we value, what we believe is good for them, or what we know our business needs. By taking the wheel, we risk steering them toward a new role that is neither fulfilling nor aligned with their strengths, and so that leads them to a dead end where they are disengaged...and we are frustrated.

So, how do we engage our employees and encourage them to drive their careers in a way that's impactful for them and our organizations?

Six surefire steps:

Don't tell...ask

It's tempting to counsel people with concrete direction. But it's better to ask them open-ended questions such as: What is important to you about this? What matters? What gives you energy?  What takes energy away? Such questions serve no agenda other than to help employees better understand themselves. By pointing employees toward what will bring them more energy and fulfillment, you're engaging them in a way that will be impactful for the employee and the organization.

Help employees increase their capital

Too often employees ask, "What's next?" before they've established themselves in their current job.  But performing one's job well creates social and political capital that can be used to branch out. The challenge is that often organizations position job tenure as pre-requisites for mobility, implying that lower-level positions are tolls you have to pay before the next move.  By showing employees that doing their job well (even if they don't love it) is an investment (not a tax), you can help them fully invest in their current roles, and take control of the direction they want to go.

Encourage interdepartmental connections

A great way for employees to drive their own careers is by tuning into, and solving, key interdepartmental challenges. This allows people to demonstrate leadership, innovation, and curiosity about other people and their jobs. Challenge your people to identify inconsistencies or redundancies across departments and offer solutions; ask them to offer interdisciplinary innovations.  Use your position as a manager to point them in the right direction and show them why cross-company connections are themselves a way to demonstrate leadership and build one's stock as an innovator and problem solver.

Remind employees it's about the journey

Employees need to see their professional lives as more than a singular track. A career is more like a scenic highway with onramps and exits. Remind them that they're allowed to stop, refuel, and change course without feeling like they're putting their career in reverse.

Make it okay to love where they are

Our ascension-obsessed culture puts a premium on moving forward. But if employees are content, skilled, passionate, and doing great work where they are, we as managers can (and should) help them feel good about staying there. Staying in a well-loved job is not a default - it's a choice. And we can help the organization recognize the value of that choice by honoring these employees' accomplishments in staff meetings and one-on-ones, and offering them opportunities to be mentors and go-to subject-matter experts.

Model learning from feedback

Employees who want to grow their careers need to show they're open to learning and able to change. We can help them by demonstrating our own openness to learning.  One way is to articulate to our teams how we've incorporated feedback we've received into our work. Such actions show that we're taking input seriously, and that we're genuinely open to using it.

The goal of all six steps is to put your employees back in the driver's seat of their own careers. It's also to give them the tools, roadmaps, and role-models to chart the most fulfilling professional course. In so doing, we create environments in which employees are empowered, engaged, and growing.  We also release ourselves from the undue responsibility of trying to solve our employees' career-growth, enabling us to focus on the business goals we need to achieve, as well as our own professional growth and development. The end result: teams that are strong, agile, and focused on long-term individual fulfillment as well as organizational goals.  

Written by: Jessica Kaplan

About the Author

Jessica Kaplan at Bright Horizons

As Director, Talent Management, Jessica is responsible for connecting employees and management to the most effective learning and development opportunities offered by Bright Horizons. She also helps facilitate internal collaboration for organizational success. Jessica brings nearly 20 years of experience in professional development and higher education administration to her role. Prior to this role she held key roles in the Client Relations and Academic Partnerships teams. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Tufts University, a Master’s degree in International Communication from American University and has completed PhD coursework in International Higher Education Policy at the University of Maryland.