Leaders Need to Listen to the Brain to Engage Employees in Uncertain Times

Don Rheem

Plenty of ink has been spilled and Zoom bandwidth occupied over the past few months with ideas about how to keep employees safe and productive during the pandemic. Most of the information out there, however, has been largely built on traditional business concepts and principles, when the notion of employee engagement may in fact be better served in the same way that other aspects of this crisis have been – by listening to the science.

That’s the angle that E3 Solutions CEO and past IPA PRIME Symposium keynote speaker Don Rheem took in his recent IPA webinar “Engaging Employees in Uncertain Times.”

Rheem says the stresses and isolation brought on by the pandemic will have a serious impact on employee engagement, which Rheem defines as an employee’s willingness to freely give discretionary effort. In other words, the less engaged someone is, the less likely he or she is to go above and beyond; employees may manage to remain productive throughout this crisis, but they’re unlikely to excel.

Why? Rheem says it’s because humans inherently feel safer in groups – with the work tribe being one of the most common. Without a sense of team and togetherness that they get in communal office settings, employees are less likely to have confidence and may not perform at their very best – particularly when many may be grappling with the mental health effects of the current situation, such as unfamiliar remote work, isolation, family stressors, time management challenges and more.

Leaders and frontline managers can help, Rheem believes, by being as consistent and predictable as possible, since these, according to Rheem are two of the most important needs employees look for to feel secure. Consistency should take the form of more validation and recognition, while predictability is best demonstrated through a greater emphasis on ongoing feedback and support. This is where frontline managers need to excel, since 70% of employee engagement is related to an employee’s direct manager/report.

Rheem believes the importance of emotion cannot be understated during this pandemic, or any crisis, since emotion serves as the internal GPS in human beings, guiding actions, behaviors and thoughts. As the COVID-19 crisis slowly pans out, he says it’s critical for leaders to acknowledge the stress employees may be feeling and to not dismiss the very real sense of fear that they may be experiencing.

Some important messages to convey during this, and any crisis include continued reassurance, encouragement, connections, clarity and consistency. Supportive leaders can demonstrate these qualities by being inquisitive listeners through conversational support, while also offering the tactical support of real-world solutions like family care, technological resources, home office assistance and work reallocation. The result will be employees will feel supported, heard and secure – and will be more engaged as a result.

“The future of work will be determined more by how it feels than what it pays,” Rheem says.