How a bold but simple act of respect helped turn one organization around.

Employee engagement matters. 2014 sent us a barrage of “5 Ways to Boost Employee Engagement” and “7 Things Great Leaders Do” posts, and many of them had some good nuggets. We get it. You get it.

There have been studies and data that most employees aren't engaged and those that are drive a remarkable profit. Their customers are happier and so are their bottom lines.

This year I got to know an organization that actually, verifiably, turned a bad workplace around. They are a housing management company for low-income residents. Management troubles led to a financial crisis, which led to jaded, mistrustful and angry employees. The regulators had downgraded them and were about to close them down. Instead of giving up, they dug in. Their wiser, more thoughtful selves knew the first thing they needed to do was to win back their people. It took a great deal of courage to do what they did -- but it worked.

One of their first steps was to launch an intranet. They declared “No rules!” They said they would not censor content. “They are grownups, we trust them,” they decided and they stated simply that everyone had Freedom of Speech and the “Right of Reply.” And there were, yes, a few tense moments, but in short order the team felt more like a team, and a much better and stronger organization emerged.

Now “Right of Reply” may not seem like a radical strategy -- but it was for them. It was a manifestation of the management's commitment to employees that simply and powerfully demonstrated trust and respect. And it worked.

In under a year, the regulators had reinstated their high ratings. The company had turned things around. They had to make some unpleasant and unpopular moves to get their finances in order -- but they did it with their team in tact and on their side.

So what do you do about it in your workplace? Posters are not the answer. And neither are parties, awards or platitudes. Does anything work? Yes.

Four things:

1. Respect

If you want people to be enthusiastic about putting their hearts and souls into your work and your organization, you must respect them and what they are doing. No make believe. No platitudes, but honest, heartfelt respect that the team you have assembled has the right stuff. If you can’t work up this level of respect -- do something about it. Change your attitude, your team or your job.

2. Faith

People need to have faith in their company, its purpose, its leaders and each other. The greatest motivator in the world is when someone turns to you and says, with true earnestness, “I know you can do this.” Do not attempt to fake this. People are very sensitive insincerity detectors. Build faith in one another.

3. Humility

Humility allows you to appreciate what others have to offer. It allows you to be vulnerable and respect the vulnerability others may show you in their quest to do their best. Without this you cannot appreciate the gift someone gives you when they say, “we’re stuck” or, “here’s 50 very good ideas -- will any of them work?”

4. Communication

Constant meaningful communications. At every level. Communication to the company as a whole about what’s going on, what matters, what’s on the horizon. Honest assessments of the challenges and enthusiastic celebration of every little win and achievement. Clarity on priorities and how that translates into decision-making. Clarity on who’s doing what.

What do you do if this doesn’t sound like you or your organization? First decide how badly you want it. Does it matter -- really? If you don’t know, walk away from the issue. You can’t have it both ways.

One thing I’ve noticed from our most successful clients is that they have usually spent some time thinking about their values, and then doing something about them. They don’t just declare these values, they look for ways to demonstrate commitment to them.

If you have decided to change or emphasize your company values, communicating them is a good start, but not enough. In what way can you clearly demonstrate your new commitment? With an intranet? With a new approach to teamwork? With new policies around customer service?

If you think gamification will engage your employees -- let’s just agree to disagree. If you think an employee recognition program will work -- it might, if it’s the result of a true respect and appreciation for what people do.

If, in fact, you do care about employee engagement, and you have the guts to go for it, consider that the most impactful thing you can do might also be one of the simplest. What ongoing act (not token, not gesture) of respect could change your team?

The best is yet to come.