Employee Engagement in Startups Begins with Your Values

Eww. Even those two words together make me cringe a little, right?

No one wants to feel like they are a target (or subject) to being “engaged” within the context of their team and larger organization – it just feels a bit dehumanizing, which is really the antithesis of what “employee engagement” is all about.

via Dilbert

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what “employee engagement” means since I now seeing it applied liberally all over the organizational stack, from Human Resources to Product Management to even how the staff interfaces with legal teams!

And it can get even worse, describing superficial things like ping pong tables and unlimited booze on tap to cultural nuances and operational artifacts that sound good on paper (like the “no assholes” rule) but that are far too fluid or contextually-driven to have immediate utility at first blush.

So what does an early-stage, product-centric technology startup do for things like “employee engagement” in the early days when time and resources are limited and everyone on the team is already heavily engaged in all parts of the business (e.g. alignment being one of the more important life-or-death existential issues)?

I think the answer starts with your values.

Aligned, mission-driven teams do not struggle with things like “engagement.”

You see, I believe that “employee engagement” at the early stage is less about management and/or leadership providing tooling, coaching, mentorship, perks, corporate benefits, off-sites, and random cultural artifacting and more about ensuring that the values that you believe are true of your company are actually the ones that you’re operating against.

In other words, a “fully engaged employee” in a startup is one that is living out the core team’s true values – not truisms or corporate clichés that makes you vomit a little in your mouth when you think on them.

Of course, this requires that you and your team have actually taken the time to explicitly codify your values and then actively test-drive them to see if they are authentic and true of your organization (or just another dead-end platitude that ends up taking space on your walls in nicely-framed images and artwork).

Consequently, we’ve been test-driving a few values over the last few months to see if what we believe is true of us is actually true. They may eventually change, but, here’s what we’ve been working with after a great Value Discovery workshop:

  1. Get it all out on the table
  2. Curious(ity)
  3. Honor, respect, dignity of the individual (mutual respect)
  4. Consider the cost

One thing that you’ll notice about these is that they aren’t “designed” or even remotely wordsmith’d well – we are using plain, easy-to-understand language so as to limit heavy language that obfuscates the actual meaning.

When we say that one of our values is “getting it all out on the table” that’s actually what we mean! We believe that we’re a better company and that we all do better work when everyone in the organization has all of the information they need to accomplish their tasks and projects.

Transparency increases and people end up moving faster as a result of making sure that everything is on the table when we make decisions (and we won’t leave a meeting until folks have had their say). My team is already used to hearing me say things like:

So, #tatt?

#tatt is short for “table, all-the-things” and is an opportunity for folks in the meeting (or in slack) to be given space to share how they feel and making sure that everyone has a turn to share their opinions, perspectives, points and counterpoints.

This doesn’t mean that we force anyone to talk when they don’t want to or when they aren’t ready to share!

Startups aren’t designed for solo artists.

But it does mean that we’re all committed to speaking up and informing the team that we have more to say, later, but that we need more time to process and will loop back around when ready.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this process also ties very closely with a few of the other values, like mutually respecting our team member’s needs to have space and time to process and this is one way where we can all more completely “count the costs” of the decisions that we’re making (i.e. making sure we’re considering all of the downstream consequences of our decisions, as best as we can).

Employee engagement isn’t something a startup needs to avoid or “figure out” – it’s simply executing against and practicing your values every single day.

Besides, the most “engaged” employees that I’ve ever worked with were folks who felt personally aligned with the mission and who felt like they were equipped and challenged to do their very best.

I also know this to be true for myself historically for all of the companies that I’ve worked with: I felt grossly disengaged when I lacked a personal attachment to the mission and when I wasn’t equipped nor challenged to do great work.

That probably resonates with you, too.

This isn’t a silver bullet, of course, but it’s one way that I’ve seen work in smaller teams and it not only releases a ton of pressure on the leaders and the team to “figure out” things like “employee engagement” and instead moves the focus back to real, tangible, values-driven behavior.

You know, getting sh*t done.