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Forget Employee Engagement, Focus on Leader Engagement

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Nicole Gravina

I am going to start with a bold assertion, employee engagement is an illusion.  No really, let me explain.  Leaders create the environment where employees work and it is what the leaders do and say every day that impacts how engaged an employee feels and behaves.  Therefore, employee engagement is nothing more than a side effect of Leader Engagement.

So, what do engaged leaders do to increase employee engagement?

1.  Discover what frustrates employees and fix as much as they can. 

Daily frustrations wear people out.  Especially when the people who have the most control over reducing frustrations are the leaders, and they aren’t doing anything to fix them.  If the computer system is always shutting down, meetings are mostly wasted time, and it takes a monumental effort to order a pack of pens, it’s hard to get excited about work.  Employees aren’t likely to bring these problems up unless their boss has specifically asked for them, reinforced sharing them, and fixed what they can.  Trying to increase employee engagement without putting effort into reducing major frustrations is an impossible feat.

2.  Give employees control over their work and don’t micromanage.

No one likes having someone look over their shoulder all day or having to ask permission to do every little thing.  Lack of control over work that you feel competent to complete is a serious drain on engagement and is directly linked to stress.  Engaged leaders look for opportunities for employees to have input and flexibility in how the work gets done.

3.  Understand and use positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is a big source of happiness for people and in most workplaces, there isn’t nearly enough.  Research says that students do better in school, work teams perform at a higher level, and marriages are happier when people get about 4 or more positives for every negative.  Sending a bulk, generic “good job” email doesn’t count.  The reinforcers should be personal and specific.

4.  Focus on developing relationships.

Think about someone you highly respect.  If that person praised you for a job well done, how would you feel?  If that same person suggested something you could improve, would you want to improve it?  Now think about someone you really dislike and ask yourself those same questions.  The answers change, don’t they?  The successes are even more invigorating and the tough times are easier to endure when we have robust relationships with our colleagues at work.  We want to do good work for and with people we care about.  Relationships must be developed and nurtured.

If leaders engage in the four behaviors described above, employee engagement will be inevitable.

  1. David Wiss says:

    Nicole, you do make a good point. But it is hard for me to agree with you that employee engagement is an illusion. I think it is real and measurable. Now how much engagement is present in an environment will heavily depend on leadership. Here we agree and the four behaviors you have listed must be present. I would like to add one more, communication. If you want me to be engage then help me understand what is going on and why it is important. If I know those things and feel they add value to my world then I will engage. How much I engage will depend on my perception of said value.

    1. Nicole says:

      Thanks for your comment, David.

      By illusion I mean that it is something that causes an erroneous perception or belief. So, the belief in pop management literature seems to be, if you hire engaged people or spend a day talking about engagement, you will have engaged employees and it will be great for business. The truth is, you can only have engaged employees if the leaders are engaged in the right behaviors. Discussion of employee engagement seems to put the focus on the employees when it should be on the leaders.

      Yes, I agree that communication is important as well. I’d argue that communication is captured under numbers 1 and 4.

  2. David Wiss says:

    Thanks for you reply. You have no idea how much this helps me learn.

    So if I want to better understand employee engagement then I need to find out how employees perceive leadership engagement. Right? The reason I am asking is because I trying real hard to build a survey on employee engagement. This term engagement is a tough thing to understand and measure. At least for me.

    Also after I read your four points again I see that communication is well covered in 1 and 4. For some reason I did not see that earlier.

    1. Nicole says:

      David, it’s not just you, even the foremost experts in survey development have a hard time writing employee engagement surveys. The problem is that it is not very specific and means different things to different people.

      If you are looking to improve employee engagement, I think I would advise surveying employees about whether the leaders engage in behaviors that lead to engagement like providing feedback, having 121s, etc. This will give you some ideas about what leaders are doing well and what they can improve.

  3. David Wiss says:

    Well Nicole you have sent me on another learning journey, 121s. Until now I have never heard the term or at least that is what I thought at first. One to One Meetings. After doing some digging into 121s I discovered that this is a process that has structure. As I understand it some of the core elements of this structure is to provide feedback and coaching between an employee and their manager about current issues and achievements. Right?

    From here I started to think about employee engagement in my world and that is when a light went on. We have a annual performance review process that is structured around performance planning and competencies development. And 121s are one of the key elements of this process. Now, I can only speak for myself but I have never really used this process well mainly because of my ignorance to its design and benefits. I do know that relationships are important but I did not really realize that there is a tool in my world that is designed to help foster those relationships using a structure process. A golden opportunity missed but not gone!

    On the subject of improving employee engagement I think this performance review process we own it is a good place to do some research in and look for leadership engagement questions that employee can relate too and respond too. For what it worth the survey that I have built has a lot of questions built around leadership behaviors and feedback but it needs some more work. Thanks Nicole for your words. They have provided me with some new directions and clarity.

  4. Thanks for your article. A couple of thoughts. First, all of our research shows that leadership behaviour is a vital and increasingly important driver of whether employees are engaged or not. However, it is not the only factor: other issues such as day-to-day management behaviour, internal comms effectiveness and more tactical issues like recognition also play a part and shouldn’t be ignored.

    In addition, the point in your debate here about defining “engagement” properly is vital. Many “definitions” are either too “off-the-shelf” (e.g if the definition originates – wrongly – from an engagement survey and is not linked to the business strategy) or too narrow (e.g if focused solely on an HR-define employer-employee only form of engagement). My own belief is that engagement needs to be defined in a tailored way for each organisation, reflecting its strategic priorities, it’s current and future-desired state and its culture. This will then help organisations to know what the outcome of employer engagement looks like and what their real drivers of employee engagement are. Key questions for organisations to start with are:

    1) “engagement with what?”: with you as an employer, with your strategy, with your customers etc.?

    2) “engagement for what?”: what business outcomes are you trying to deliver by engaging your people? Productivity; talent attraction or retention; improved service delivery; profitability; growth etc.?

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