First-hand observation: the most important employee engagement tool

First-hand observation: the most important employee engagement tool

I was sure a newly hired employee would not last long. He was clearly unhappy with his job, keeping largely to himself while on the shop floor, eating alone in the lunchroom, and tending to take his breaks at different times than everyone else on his crew.

Obviously he wasn’t fitting in, which was too bad since his job performance was outstanding.

So one day I stopped by his workstation for a chat. “Are you doing okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m doing great.”

“Are you sure…?” I asked. “I notice you don’t take breaks with the rest of the team…”

“Oh, that’s on purpose,” he said. “I lube up some of the equipment while it’s down. Then they watch my machine for me while I take my break. It works out really well.”

Although I had felt a little uncomfortable asking (after all, no one enjoys when it’s pointed out that they might not be getting along with others), I’m really glad I did.

Numbers and outcomes are definitely important, but numbers and outcomes don’t always indicate an employee’s level of happiness and engagement. Why does engagement matter if the employee is producing? A high-performing but disengaged employee will soon disengage from your company and find somewhere more fulfilling to work.

The only way to know if an employee is truly engaged and happy is to know the employee—and that requires spending time actually observing and talking to that employee.

What are some ways to tell if your employees are fulfilled, engaged and feel they fit in well with their team?

Think about whether they provide input and ideas.


Every employee has ideas. One of the main differences between employees who care and employees who do not is whether they are allowed to share their ideas and whether their ideas are taken seriously. (Reject my ideas without consideration or discussion and I immediately disengage.)

Your job? Make sure you’re available. Make sure you’re open. Ask an occasional leading question. Probe gently.

Employees who voluntarily provide input don’t just see it as “your” company; they see it as their company, too. And they want to make it a better company.

Think about their body language.

Body language can be extremely telling. Employees who sit back with arms crossed in meetings may not feel like part of the group. Frowning and grimacing signals the employee finds whatever he is doing to be difficult. Standing squarely face-to-face instead of at an angle indicates defensiveness or even confrontation. Best of all, sitting side by side signals collaboration.

Although an employee may not say he is unfulfilled or disengaged, his body language might. But of course it’s easy to misread the signs if you aren’t familiar with how an employee normally acts…and that means plenty of first-hand observation is required. And that’s okay, because spending time with your employees is your job.

Think about their work habits.

Think about employee work habits

Occasionally every employee comes in early or stays late. Some need to; it’s required.

Others want to—not because it’s expected but because it’s personally fulfilling.

How can you tell the difference? Make a simple statement. Say, “Hey, you’re here late…”

  1. If the employee says, “Yeah, I really need to finish this report…” that’s a sign she feels obligated to complete a task, which is not a bad thing since it shows dedication. But….
  2. If the employee says, “Yeah, I really want to finish up this analysis so I can share my findings in our meeting tomorrow”, that’s a sign she is not staying late for the company but also for herself.

She doesn’t need to stay; she wants to stay. She cares, not just professionally but personally.

Find out what is important to your employees. Find out what drives them. Find out what they care about.

Then do your best to put them in positions where they can do more of what they care about. That is the best way to build an engaged and fulfilled workforce.

After all, giving me reasons to care is good, but supporting and enhancing the reasons I already care is even better.

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