(Photo by Alvarez, iStockphoto by Getty)

Culturally, the 1990s seem like a lifetime ago: for most people, the ending of The Sixth Sense was still a surprise, and cell phones were clunky devices with tiny screens. In the workplace, employees were only beginning to crave rewards beyond compensation and benefits, like flexibility and autonomy. HR was still mostly an administrative function.

Crucially, millennials, who now constitute 35% of the work-force, were just kids. Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce, and they value a company’s value, purpose, integrity and professional opportunities over the stability sought after by Boomers and Gen-Xers. This does not mean, however, that the corporate environment has fully adapted.

“Has the HR industry caught up to that change, are we still oftentimes operating more in that administrative mode?” asked Adam Weber, co-founder of the data-driven employee engagement platform Emplify, asked in his recent From Day One webinar, “Lead Like a Human: The HR Leader’s Guide to Building Engaged Teams.”

The answer is in the headlines about conflicts between employee values and corporate policies.  Employers have not fully caught up with the culture of the newer generation in the workforce and, as a consequence, millennial workers tend to be disengaged from their work. How do you recognize a disengaged worker? “[They’re] not as productive as they should be. They're not as innovative as they could be. When a process is broken, a disengaged person puts the blinders on, clocks in and clocks out, and that ultimately hurts the bottom line of the business,” said Weber.

Adam Weber, CEO and co-founder of Emplify (Image by From Day One)

Engagement on the job, said Weber, “is an employee's intellectual and emotional connection with an employer, demonstrated by motivation and commitment to positively impact the company's vision and goals. So simply put, it's how an employee thinks about the business in their head, how they feel about the business in their heart, and how that's impacted by the work they do every day with their hands.” Data shows that engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave the company than their disengaged counterpart. Compared with employee satisfaction, a condition that has more of a lean-back posture, engagement has a lean-forward attitude, which inspires a worker to go above and beyond.

Engagement starts by training managers to become leaders. “Prior to COVID, one of the biggest issues that we saw in a booming economy was [that] managers, line-level employees, were promoted into management early. And [as] they moved into that role, they lacked the soft-skill training they needed,” Weber explained. “They started managing every person as if they were themselves, and they wreaked absolute havoc on companies. And specifically the places where they lacked was creating psychologically safe environments and giving helpful and productive feedback to their employees.” Weber offered six tips to create teams of highly engaged people, drawing on the insights in his forthcoming book, Lead Like a Human: Practical Steps To Building Highly Engaged Teams.

Be Centered

That means being the most authentic leader one can be. As abstract as this might sound, it consists of engaging in healthy discipline in pursuit of self-awareness. As part of that journey, it’s important for leaders to have interests and hobbies outside work. “It roots you, it helps you become more of yourself,” Weber said. Finally, it’s important to focus on a holistic view of one’s own health. “If you truly want to become the leader that you aspire to become,  [it’s important] that you set disciplines in your life, whether it's through meditation or physical exercise,” he said, noting that the following bullet points are moot without an underlying layer of commitment to the first one.

Align Around Company Purpose

An employer’s meaning and purpose should matter to the individual worker. When a company’s values don’t seem to be connecting with employees, leaders need to “do translation.” This means highlighting the reason why a particular team exists within that organization, and start living it out and showing the impact that it can have. As legend has it, when President Kennedy visited NASA in the early 1960s, he encountered a janitor carrying a broom and asked “Sir, what are you doing?” The janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

To achieve this connection between individual tasks and larger purpose, leaders can create systems of cadence, which establish tempo and rhythm in pursuit of goals; they can celebrate milestones through symbolic tokens and gestures, and they can create initiatives that provide the space and opportunities for people to over-deliver.

Activate your Core Values

Too often, company values are just collecting dust on a shelf. If corporate values seem stale, Weber suggested singling out “culture rock stars,” people with an instinct for revisiting the fundamentals and recreating them. Once a company’s values have been refreshed, it's important to integrate them into the hiring process. This applies to employee feedback and performance reviews as well. Instead of asking a worker, “What did you do?,” a leader should assess, “How did you do it in a way that’s aligned to your values?”

Set Goals

Weber draws a distinction between the “purpose,” which is the alignment to the company’s “Why?” and “meaning,” which is the alignment to an employee’s personal “Why?” Having both a purpose and a meaning in a workplace yields highly engaged teams if an examination of motivations is followed by planning, accountability, and integration into one-on-one situations.

Improve Continuously

“I have this fundamental belief,” said Weber, “that no high-performance team exists unless everyone on the team recognizes that where we are today, we have to get better. Nothing is static. We're either improving, or we're moving backwards.” This boils down to leaders being open to feedback, which is a process that goes both ways. Weber suggested the technique of doing the job of other employees, which can build empathy and help repair a broken process.

Employ Data

Despite Weber’s emphasis on holistic and human-driven workplace culture, he acknowledged that an excessive use of gut feelings won’t yield a complete picture of the workplace team. He suggested a process which starts with gathering data, which provides statistical confidence about what’s going on, and the discovery of insights, which in turn allows the leader to align with the truth about the issues. “Creating engaged culture is finding statistical confidence, where batches of drivers are moving together on teams pinpointing that issue,” he said, and unblocking that issue.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar: Emplify. Thank you as well to everyone who attended this webinar live. If you missed it, feel free to check out our replay here and visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.