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Business Advice from the Queen of Soul

February 22, 2011

Oh how we folks in HR love to talk about engagement.  Not the Royal Engagement of Will and Kate, but rather Employee Engagement (EE – with two capital Es, underscored AND in italics).  We read about it, we devise plans and strategies to increase it.  We fret over the percent of our employees who are either actively engaged, disengaged, or (horrors) actively disengaged.  Thankfully, many HR pros have now come to the realization that, contrary to our long-standing inflated sense of worth, we cannot motivate people – let alone motivate them to ‘be engaged.’

There are as many definitions of EE as there are people thinking about it.   The phrase and concept first came to the forefront in 1990 when William Kahn of Boston University published “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work,” in which he worked to determine to what extent individuals used varying degrees of their selves (physically/behaviorally, cognitively and emotionally) in work role performance.  Over the years, ideas came and went – terms such as satisfaction, motivation and culture were often used interchangeably.  Companies conducted climate surveys, opinion surveys and engagement surveys of their employees. Consultants and survey companies hauled in boatloads of money.

Ultimately, in 2006, the Conference Board took a stab at clarifying and came to define EE as “a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work.”


So what if you don’t believe in surveying people to determine their emotional connection to your company?  Or, more importantly, what if you don’t have thousands of dollars to invest?  What are some simple things that you can do to create an environment where, when all is said and done, your employees will give a crap?

In this case, I suggest taking a lesson from the songbook of Aretha Franklin.  The Queen of Soul, American icon and treasure, has done a lot more than inspire us with her musical legacy.  I believe she’s given us the KEY to fostering engagement in the workplace – – – –



Step 1:  Show Respect

  • Respect others by showing consideration for different ideas, viewpoints, philosophies, beliefs and personality-types.  Respect people regardless of their religion, age, physical ability… well, you get it.
  • Respect your employees by paying an appropriate wage for the work performed for your organization and by providing adequate and basic benefits.
  • Respect the abilities of your employees – after all, you DID hire them for their abilities.
  • Respect the fact that your employees are adults.  They were adult enough to find and accept a job with your company and you thought they could make a good decision then, right?  Respect their intelligence and don’t impose policies that appear straight out of a Dickensian workhouse.

Step 2:  Gain Respect

  • Spend time with people and get to know them as individuals.
  • Listen.  I mean REALLY listen.
  • Ask for their opinions.
  • Communicate and share information.  And it’s OK if you don’t know all the answers.
  • Be honest.

Step 3:  Maintain Respect

  • Be consistent in your actions.  Follow through when you say you will and handle problems and issues without dragging your feet.
  • Be positive and find ways to focus on the good in situations.  Being honest (see above) doesn’t mean sugar-coating or being a Pollyanna.  Just remember that most people would rather follow a leader with a positive can-do attitude than tag along after Debbie Downer.
  • Do the right thing – even when it’s a tough thing.


As she sings, Aretha suggests that the listener “find out what it means to me” – in other words – find out what respect means to the person wanting it.  Take the pulse of your workplace, observe and reflect.  Seriously ask yourself if you are showing, gaining and maintaining respect.  Before anything else occurs – THAT must be in place.  I think you’ll find that if you start with the right foundation, you can create the environment where your employees WILL have a heightened emotional connection.

Would the Queen of Soul put up with some of the typical nonsense that goes on in organizations?  My guess is no.  Rather she would tell you to ‘Think’ about it, go take care of business (TCB) and not let her add you to the ‘Chain of Fools.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 8:34 pm

    I love it. But you know me. I want to respect employees enough not to talk about engagement and talk about other things — like celebrity gossip!

  2. February 22, 2011 8:35 pm

    PS – I also like her version of this.

    • Robin Schooling permalink*
      February 23, 2011 6:16 am

      Classic! And I want to be one of her backup singers.

  3. February 22, 2011 10:18 pm

    I love it when art is the insight for a good post.
    It used to be (I know I sound a little old when I start with that phrase) you measured a leader on how well his/her team got the job done, and if it looked like they were enjoying their work, then the leader got an even bigger pat on the back. We knew when a leader had the right stuff to engage others, we didn’t have to measure engagement.
    Now engagement scores take the responsibility away from the individual team leader and put it with “the company”.
    The company engages no one. The company cannot respect, offer respect, or be respected. Leaders, on the other hand, can do all those things.
    Let’s stop measuring engagement, and just ask people “are you respected for the uniqueness you bring?” If not, then we need to see what we can do about that.
    Thanks for a thought provoking, foot-moving post!

    • Robin Schooling permalink*
      February 23, 2011 6:19 am

      Oh yes! Let’s take it back to the micro-level and look at the individual leader/manager. Sometimes we overthink these things and it CAN be as basic as asking the question you pose – “are you (Ms/Mr Employee) respected for the uniqueness you bring?” I like that!

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