How can leaders engage employees? Lessons from "Field of Dreams"

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Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions
Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions

Do you remember the movie Field of Dreams? I loved that movie! It had charm, mystery, sentimentality, and a real feel-good ending. With courage and determination, the main character, Ray Kinsella, faced numerous challenges while dealing with doubts from others. But throughout his singular quest, he had the resolution and drive to succeed.

There are some interesting parallels in this story to what it's like for a leader at the top. Leaders have innumerable problems to consider and crucial decisions to make. Whether you are a CEO of a multi-facility organization, an administrator of a facility, or the director of a nursing department, it can feel pretty lonely navigating through uncertainties and taking the risks needed to succeed. When you stop to consider that the ultimate accountability for successfully operating your organization, facility or department lands on your shoulders, the sense of isolation can feel pretty overwhelming.

This is especially true when you consider that the care and service your patients and residents receive rely heavily on the skills, motivation and engagement of your employees and that you are ultimately accountable for shaping a culture in which your workforce thrives and your customers are happy.

Yes, creating a culture of engagement in your organization is squarely on you.

However, you don't have to do it all yourself. Leadership is not a solitary act. When you recognize that success comes from mobilizing the talents and commitment from the people around you… that's the moment you gain the power and momentum for greatness.

Shaping an engaging workplace is everyone's business. While the buck clearly stops with you, there are some things you can do to spread the wealth of accountability. In Field of Dreams, Ray was guided by curious messages dotted throughout the story…

  • If you build it, he will come
  • Ease his pain
  • Go the distance

Allow me to apply slightly altered versions of these messages as guidance for leaders

"If you build it, they will come!" 

Mobilize your leaders at all levels

When you build an enticing vision of the future and then share that vision in a compelling way, you inspire your people to get on board and be a part of the plan. As a senior leader, proclaim engagement as an organizational priority and describe the value and the competitive advantage that an engaged workforce offers. Then mobilize your direct reports and use your network of leaders to spread the word across your organization. Put employee engagement on every agenda. Expect leaders to embed an engagement mindset and practices into the day-to-day business of your organization. Align your team members' priorities to deliver on your engagement goals.

These deliberate actions are how you intentionally shape an engaging culture. Don't accept the mediocrity resulting from an arbitrarily-shaped culture.  Allowing your culture to evolve without purpose is an act of non-leadership.

"Ease your pain!" 

Hold your team members accountable for building engagement

You don't have to carry all the weight. Introduce clear, non-negotiable expectations for your team members and hold them accountable for results.

  • Following your employee engagement assessment, ensure that leaders at each level have clear individual goals and targets for taking action and improving engagement in their work unit. Ideally your results report is structured to allow department, facility, and regional leaders to identify and focus on priority actions.
  • Build engagement into the performance objectives of leaders at all levels.
  • Establish routine check-in times to review progress on engagement action plans.
  • Make sure you provide managers with the resources needed to implement their improvement action plans.

All it takes is for one leader in your organization to display apathy, disregard, or contempt for your focus on engagement and their employees will follow suit. Workplace complacency spreads like wildfire through people in leadership roles who do not demonstrate commitment.

"Go the distance!"

Invest in developing leaders who are engaged and engaging

Only leaders who are themselves engaged can effectively create engaged teams. It's the role of senior leaders to ensure that leaders, managers and supervisors have the appropriate competencies to support your workforce engagement goals. Provide your current leaders, and next generation of leaders, with the knowledge and skills needed to influence the hearts and minds of employees. Among the most critical competencies of engaged and engaging leaders are those related to emotional intelligence:

  • Finely tuned self-awareness
  • Capacity to regulate and manage emotions (even in tense situations)
  • Ability to empathize with and understand others, and
  • Proficiency in cultivating strong relationships 

These combined skills serve to create a work environment in which employees feel respect and support.

A final bonus idea: Believe in your ability to influence your culture

One of the tag lines of Field of Dreams was: “If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.”

Intentionally creating a culture of engagement requires the collective leadership of the organization to model, activate and enable employees to perform at their best. Ultimately, it is leaders who set the tone for workplace engagement. Through your behaviors and practices, you influence the mindset and beliefs of employees. What you pay attention to, what you reward and how you allocate resources all contribute to shaping your culture. Taking a deliberate, intentional and systematic approach to shaping your culture is a hallmark of successful leadership.

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.


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