All Articles Leadership Management Lessons from an award-winning leader: 7 ways to improve workplace morale and employee engagement

Lessons from an award-winning leader: 7 ways to improve workplace morale and employee engagement

7 min read


This post is part of the series “Workplace Morale,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

There are hundreds of articles written each week about creating workplace morale through improved employee engagement, yet how many of those articles describe the specifics of what leaders must do to achieve this important, yet elusive objective?

Meet Bob Richards, global director of operational excellence for a Fortune 500 company. Bob’s extensive experience in building engaged, productive teams (that are fun to work with!) have earned him a reputation for creating positive workplace morale, as well as several industry and employer awards.

“Bob does not manage people, he manages their activity,” says Bill Kimbro, who oversees the company’s lean manufacturing processes. Bill, who reports to Bob, has seen firsthand the benefits of a leader committed to developing employees. “He allows team members to operate in their own style; he gives suggestions and helpful hints from his own experience, but doesn’t push his ideas.”

Recently I sat down to talk with Bob about his philosophy on creating employee engagement, despite the barriers of distance created by leading team members from across the world. Below are excerpts from our conversation. Bob’s bio is at the end of this article.

Miller: What advice do you have for creating healthy workplace morale?

Richards: No micromanaging.

If people need to take time off because of a doctor’s appointment, or they just don’t feel well, I don’t micromanage them. I tell them, take care of the most important thing [which is you] and the job will take care of itself. For example, I remember a company policy at a former [place of employment]. There was a policy where if a relative died, you got three days bereavement. The policy was that you had to bring the funeral program in to prove that your relative died. And I stopped that immediately; people didn’t have to “prove” to me that their relative died.

I trust that people will do the right thing. And there are hardly ever any abuses.

  • Address the exception to the rule; don’t make up a bunch of rules.

Speaking of abusing company policy, the reason that company policy [described above] was put into place is that there was one employee who had five grandmothers, so they created the policy. Instead of addressing the abuse directly with the policy abuser, the company put an entire policy into place, which is ridiculous.

  • Know which behaviors to encourage, discourage, and ignore.

When it comes to workplace morale, you will sometimes have peer-to-peer competition, like sibling rivalry; and you can contribute to that as a leader. If you allow people to bring the “he said/she said” stuff to you, then you are part of the problem. I think some leaders feel like they need to be involved in the interpersonal squabbles. And I just don’t provide an audience for that. My response is, “You know, we are all here to do a job and if there is an issue, talk to the person one on one. I don’t need to be involved in that.”

You can kind of tell the difference between the tattletale stuff and the serious things. For example, I had an issue with an employee who had a tendency to look at the “top half” of the women he worked with, so I called the guy in. I said, “This is what I’m hearing and this is from more than one person. You’ve got to stop doing that.”

So, you react to the things that are important and the things that aren’t important, you ignore. You fan good behavior, you shine light on bad behavior and you ignore annoying tattletale behavior.

How do you foster a sense of employee engagement?

  • Establish boundaries and then get out of the way.

This is something I learned from a former boss at General Motors: if you have the right people, give them what they need and get out of their way. Give them the overall strategy, give them the “what” and the “why,” but let them figure out the “how.” And so you put boundaries around it; but they are pretty loose boundaries. Then you just kind of point the team in the right direction of where you are going, and people perform.

  • Get to know your team and match their strengths to projects.

You need to get to know your employees: What do they like to do? What energizes them at work? What types of projects do they enjoy? When I joined Kennametal five years ago, one of the first things we did was the [Clifton] StrengthsFinder assessment. Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses, and that is why I really like this assessment. As a leader it’s important that you know where people’s strong points are, and you give them assignments that play to their strengths. And they are just energized by it.

  • Remove the distractions of pay inequities.

At the end of the day, people come to work to earn a living. If they don’t feel like they are being treated fairly for their primary reason for working, it’s a big distraction. If you [as a leader] are assigned to a new team, you should pay attention to who has what job, what the pay is (and if it’s fair and uniform), and if the job description is correct. Then you make sure that it is right with the employee and HR.

I spend a lot of time on that upfront, because I don’t want people worrying about, “Is Susie getting paid more than Joe, and am I getting paid a fair wage and fair benefits?” So you take care of that and for the most part, the people can concentrate on work.

  • Have fun.

When it comes to engaging employees, it’s important to have as much fun as possible. There is a belief that you can’t work hard and have fun at the same time. [Some believe] those two things are mutually exclusive, but they aren’t. In fact, I have gotten more out of people because there is an environment of “have fun as you are working.” It just makes the day go faster and it helps people cooperate better.

For example, at a previous employer, one of the roles my administrative assistant played was to come up with a seasonal contest or put jigsaw puzzles in the break area. Also, we put foosball tables in the break area. At first, nobody knew how to play foosball. And then everybody got into it and eventually we had a tournament.

Thanks to Bob for sharing his wisdom with the readers of SmartBlog on Leadership.

Bob Richards is the global director of operational excellence for Kennametal, a supplier of tooling and industrial materials based outside of Pittsburgh. His team oversees the functions of lean manufacturing, quality and environmental health and safety for the company’s 72 manufacturing facilities. Richards previously led teams for global manufacturers Herman Miller and General Motors. In 2011 EHS Today Magazine named Kennametal “America’s Safest Company,” and, in 2012, Richard’s team won the award for employee engagement for the company’s internal annual Voice of the Employee survey. These survey results put Bob in the top 2 percent of Kennametal’s managers for employee satisfaction and accountability.

Career strategist Jennifer V. Miller is a former HR manager and corporate trainer who helps mid-career professionals chart the course for their next big “leap.” A self-described “professional opportunity cultivator,” Miller provides one-to-one and small group professional development coaching via her company SkillSource. She offers up tips for leading yourself and others at The People Equation.