Setting: A retail establishment, 8:30 a.m. on a weekday.

A manager stands before his 15-person team at a morning meeting, displaying a printed document to the group.

“This is an email from corporate,” he says, “about a new flexible-scheduling initiative.”

He smirks, rips the page in half, and tosses a piece over each shoulder. The scraps flutter ignominiously to the industrial-grade carpet.

“That’s what I think of flex scheduling. You all have a choice: You work when I tell you to work, or you can go flip burgers at Burger King across the street.”

Believe it or not, this is a true story (the title of which is “How Not to Manage Anyone”). You’re probably not surprised to learn that turnover was high at that particular place of business. The manager didn’t last, and the business itself went the way of the triceratops. I wish I could say this event took place 65 million years ago rather than just 16, but your humble blogger was there to witness it.

Since then, the term employee engagement has become part of the popular business lexicon. For the sake of morale, retention, productivity, innovation, customer satisfaction, and profitability (the little things), it’s critical that employees are engaged and that managers remain focused on individual and team development. Managers who read this and think, “How dumb. People get paid to work. They should work,” are doing a grave (and costly) disservice to their employer.

Today’s top managers understand that leading people effectively is both an art and a science. As an artist, would you use fine sculpting implements to free your masterpiece from its marble cage… or a sledgehammer? As for the science part, well, dinosaurs belong in museums, not in the workplace like our morale-destroying friend in the anecdote above.

But what does “employee engagement” really mean in today’s World of Work?

It’s not about perks, parties, and bonuses. While those things can be positives if doled out appropriately and wisely, it’s meaningful work that truly keeps people engaged. We can’t all work for non-profit organizations and charities, but we can be productive and committed when we know our work:

  • Plays to our skills, strengths, and motivations
  • Measurably contributes to and supports shared goals
  • Earns us recognition from management and peers

As a manager, you can help raise engagement levels by setting clear, attainable objectives; defining the role of each team member; providing meaningful support; and following through to show appreciation, provide feedback, and constructively address opportunities for improvement.

Most importantly, today’s leader must recognize that each employee is unique and will respond best when managed in accordance with individual strengths and limitations. The only thing that should be torn up and thrown away is that prehistoric, one-size-fits-all management approach that merely engages employees in the act of looking for a different job somewhere else.