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How to Keep Employees Engaged

Taking actions to show your team that you care about them will drive employee engagement

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Modern laboratory science is complex, intricate, and composed of many different threads of knowledge. To be successful, labs must integrate the knowledge, effort, ideas, and learning from a team of lab scientists. One of the keys to any successful organization, including labs, is for leadership to create an environment that improves employee engagement.

 What is employee engagement?

The Gallup organization, which has been studying and measuring employee engagement for decades, defines engagement as “the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in the work and workplace.” It is associated with the emotional attachment of the staff with the mission and purpose of the lab.

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Why is employee engagement important?

Gallup has demonstrated through their surveys and analyses that workplaces with high employee engagement significantly outperform organizations with low engagement. Some examples from Gallup’s research include: 

  • 78 percent improvement in absenteeism
  • 63 percent improvement in safety performance
  • 30 percent improvement in quality
  • 17 percent improvement in productivity
  • 23 percent improvement in profitability
  • Up to a 51 percent improvement in retention

These performance differences can be vital to the success of the lab and lab managers would benefit greatly from accessing this kind of performance.

Engagement is important because it impacts the discretionary effort, ideas, and commitment shared by staff for the lab. These are the contributions that exceed the minimum expectations for the role. Higher-engaged staff are much more likely to make decisions that benefit the lab’s purpose and mission than non-engaged staff. Some of these decisions revolve around the degree of effort they make in the lab, their willingness to share ideas and observations, provide constructive criticism, and their willingness to contribute to learning in the lab. All of these small discretionary decisions add up to make the large performance differences observed by Gallup.

The 2023 Gallup survey shows that 33 percent of US employees are engaged. It also shows that 50 percent of staff are not engaged, and 17 percent are actively disengaged. Those middle 50 percent are just doing their jobs. They are motivated by the paycheck and stability, but don’t tend to over perform their roles. They are likely to leave for a similar position that offers greater pay. The real problem is the 17 percent that are actively disengaged. They are resentful and are spending time and effort to undermine the purpose and mission of the lab. They are actively seeking opportunities to thwart the lab.

Who is responsible for employee engagement?

Lab management is responsible for employee engagement. How lab managers interact with, support, and develop staff is the single biggest contributor to the level of engagement on their teams. Because of the tangible benefits of engaged employees, all leaders in the organization need to be responsible for focusing on actions that improve engagement.

Unfortunately, most lab managers are trained scientists with little experience in people management prior to earning the role. Organizations will greatly benefit from providing lab management training to all their supervisors. Based on the results from Gallup, the return on investment from developing lab managers is significant, and the costs of allowing poorly trained leaders to lead can be high.

What actions can improve employee engagement?

The keys to improving employee engagement are closely associated with providing for the critical needs of staff. These needs are above and beyond their physical needs like an appropriate wage, good benefits, a safe workplace, and the tools to conduct the lab’s science. Lab managers also need to provide direct input to their personal needs for inclusion and growth. There are several different ways to describe the basic staff needs.  Front Line Leadershipemphasizes six different ways lab managers can grow employee engagement.

Trusting relationships

Staff thrive when they have a supervisor who cares about them as a human being and takes actions that actively build trust. We all need basic dignity, respect, and belonging. Make the effort to connect with staff and provide that positive and trusting relationship. It is the foundation on which engagement is built.

Clear expectations

Everyone needs to have a clear understanding of how they contribute to the mission, how they can be successful, and how their performance will be measured. Lab managers can facilitate such understanding by developing SMARTER (specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, timely, evaluate, renegotiate) objectives for everyone on the team. By cascading goals and connecting them to the lab’s objectives, lab managers connect each member of staff to the things that make the lab successful.

Praise and recognition

People need to hear that they’ve done well. All too often, the only feedback lab staff receive is when something goes wrong. Be proactive to thank people for their efforts and praise them for their successes. Lab managers need to specifically recognize the actions that they want repeated in the lab. Taking a personal approach also lets staff know that they and their actions are seen, noted, and appreciated.

Coaching and feedback

Lab managers can demonstrate their concern for staff by taking the time to help them. Provide specific coaching to help people master new skills and learn from mistakes. Focus on providing constructive criticism. Staff will appreciate the care it takes to help them recover from something that has gone wrong. They are probably already blaming themselves. Additional blame from management will only be destructive.

Use of strengths

Staff have spent time and energy developing the strengths they have. Those strengths are probably why they were hired and contribute to their current role. They are far more likely to spend additional time growing those strengths than working to improve [SH1] perceived weaknesses. By building the right team, we can prevent people from working in their weaknesses and have our stakeholders only see the team’s strengths. Consistently growing strengths will drive the lab to excellence, while focusing on growing weaknesses can only lead to mediocre outcomes.

Ongoing development

Work with staff to identify growth and development opportunities. Most people want to grow and develop. They appreciate your help to meet those goals. Working with staff on development also provides them with a vision for the future of the lab and their role in it. Staff who have the opportunity for ongoing development feel a sense of ownership over that future and are reminded why they want to stay.

It is important to note that most of the actions required to build employee engagement don’t cost any money. They require the time, effort, and attention of the lab manager. Perhaps a small training budget would help, but most of the actions require people leaders to demonstrate that they care for their staff. That caring is then repaid with discretionary effort and ideas which greatly benefit the lab.

Scott D. Hanton, editorial director for Lab Manager, can be reached at