Last week I had lunch with a business associate.  This small business owner wanted to talk about about “employee engagement”, and how to make it happen.  Of course, I started asking questions.

– What did he mean by “employee engagement”?
– What would be the signs to him that it was happening?
– Why does he think that it isn’t happening now?

He shared that he generally had talented staff, but people didn’t seem to take things through to completion without being specifically told.  He felt that there was a general lack of initiative and that while people did their job adequately, there was little evidence that they strived to excel, to be better than they were yesterday. Nobody was taking any risks, even small ones.  Instead, they were all waiting for instruction on what to do next.

I asked about the vision for the organization. He articulated a vision that sounded plausible given their market, capability, and size.  The vision and direction outlined were truly worthwhile and beneficial.  I asked what how he communicated and reinforced that vision, and how he shared progress.  I asked what the markers were that indicated they were realizing the vision (revenue, gross profit, new clients, etc.).

To my surprise, he indicated he didn’t share information on progress or milestones. I asked “If you don’t share this, how will your staff know they are making progress, that the vision can become a reality?”  After a few more minutes of back and forth, he admitted that he simply didn’t want sensitive information about the company’s business to get out to the staff.

Pause.

Without coming out of my skin or sounding incredulous, I said “You want people to buy into and emotionally commit to where you want to go, but don’t trust them enough to let them be a part of the picture? You expect employee engagement, but won’t engage them in the state and progress of the business, and so they simply watch the business from the outside. They might as well be contractors. If that’s really the case, you should fire them all and hire people you trust”.

Silence.

As noted in numerous business and scholarly sources, trust is a prerequisite for employee engagement.  Without it, your staff is just working for a paycheck.  You are simply buying their backs, not their hearts, and will continue to reap accordingly. As a leader, you  reap the behavior he or she sows.  Create a guarded or secretive environment and you get conservative and cautious actions

Employee engagement issues?  Look at the level of trust you exhibit to your team.  Do they understand where the business is headed?  How they play a part?  What the markers and milestones are on the journey?  Where you are with budget vs. actual?

If you aren’t showing trust, particularly in a small business where engagement, flexibility, and creativity are keys to success, you’ve got work to do.