There’s a strange paradox in the business world today regarding employee engagement (note: there are likely many business paradoxes but today’s focus is on engagement): while leaders consider engagement critical to success, the majority of employees are not considered engaged at work.

Harvard Business Review published a study in 2013 listing the factors business executives consider most critical for success.

In the study of more than 500 business people (a mix of Board members, senior executives and middle managers), more than 7 of 10 considered a high level of employee engagement to be a factor most likely to bring success. Yet, only 24% of those respondents say employees in their own organization are highly engaged.

Why the gap between what leaders consider important and the actual results? I think it comes down to two things.

First, many companies either don’t know how to measure engagement among their employees or choose not to. You’ve heard the axiom that “what gets measured gets done.” So, companies that use employee engagement as a key performance indicator are more likely to focus efforts on building engagement. And correlations between engagement and performance bear this out.

And, second, managers are not often trained on best practices in creating high engagement within their teams. Below are three practices your leaders can implement (at no cost!) to enhance engagement among their teams.

A definition for engagement would likely be helpful to start. Engagement is often viewed as the degree to which employees feel passionate about their jobs. I like Kevin Kruse’s definition:

This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don’t work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization’s goals.

So, how do I build engagement within my team? Many methods exist, most of which point to allowing people to do their best work and understand how that work contributes to success of the organization. Here are three ways to deliver that in your place of work. None of these require brain surgeon-level skills to implement but they do require intention and practice.

First, allow people to work in their strengths.

Strengths are those activities in which people feel energized by, they’re really good at, and during which time seems to fly by. Several paths exist to help people identify their strengths (The Marcus Buckingham Company offers a great assessment called StandOut) but the simplest way is to observe and to ask them.

Allowing people to work in their strengths can have a big positive impact on engagement. When studying the correlation between strengths and engagement, The Marcus Buckingham Company found that, across borders and cultures, the number driver of engagement is whether people are working in their strengths every day.

You’ll recognize strengthening activities when you notice the work is really well done, when people become animated talking about it, and when others are amazed at the accomplishment. Give people more opportunities to do that kind of work. In fact, strengths expert Marcus Buckingham recommends moving toward spending 75% of your time working in your strengths.

Next, practice powerful conversations.

Many managers hold 1:1 status check-ins with their team and feel as if that’s enough. These are generally mundane, how-quick-can-you-get-through-it project updates.

In the same time you dedicate to your 1:1, try having a powerful conversation. You’ll find you achieve the same (or deeper) level of understanding of project status, but you will also draw greater insight, resourcefulness, and engagement from the individual.

What are the components of a powerful conversation? Powerful conversations are frequent and forward looking (at least once per week and focused on upcoming events and projects), they involve active listening, they demonstrate high expectations and support.

Sound complex? It doesn’t have to be. Keep the conversation focused on what’s working and what’s not, what the near-term priorities are, how to work more often in her/his strengths, and what help is needed from you, the leader.

You will not only learn something in this conversation but you will likely enjoy it and actually start looking forward to your 1:1s. That’d be a change, right?

Finally, give productive feedback.

The Index ‘reveals that in each country, despite significant cultural differences, the single biggest driver of fully-engaged employees is the statement: “I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.”

Source: The Marcus Buckingham Company StandOut Global Engagement Index (GEI) 2015

Many managers avoid giving feedback because it can be uncomfortable and we worry our team member will ‘take it the wrong way.’ Actually, people like getting feedback, as long as the feedback is genuine, specific, actionable, and well-rounded (that is, it involves both positive and negative guidance).

We tend to think of feedback as criticism or ‘opportunities for development’. But positive feedback is just as important. One study showed that a minimum ratio of positive to negative feedback in the workplace is at least 3:1 (and don’t be afraid to go higher, the study also found you can go as high as 13:1 before the positive feedback becomes less meaningful).

The keys to good feedback, positive or negative, is that it be in support of the right behavior. That is, it leads to the employee being able to do her or his job better.

Remember, the great majority of employees want to do a good job and excel at their work. And you will have high levels of engagement with these people as long as they clearly know:

  • what is expected of them; i.e., what does excellence in their work look like;
  • how their contribution fits into the overall mission of the organization; and
  • you and their team mates have their back.

So, four tips for giving feedback to drive engagement and performance:

  1. Always connect feedback to the behavior, not the person. Make it clear you want the person to be successful.
  2. Deliver at least three positive comments for each negative one. But be genuine and sincere in your positive feedback.
  3. Remember your job is to set expectations and to support, not to do the work yourself. So, push hard for the person to find solutions. Avoid solving the problem yourself: “What changes can you suggest in the approach?”
  4. Find ways to link performance to his or her strengths: “I know you are really good at X. How can you look at this problem from that perspective?”
  5. Finish with support: “What help do you need to get this done?”

I see engagement not as a goal but as a practice. If we consistently work on allowing people to work in their strengths, we are intentional in our conversations and we deliver consistent helpful feedback, it’s remarkable the kind of high-performing teams we can build.