Supporting Employee Engagement Is Critical for Your Own Success As a Leader

In previous articles I have discussed how the requisite skills and traits of contemporary leaders have evolved in fairly profound ways, to the extent that more traditional methods often not only don’t work, they can actually be detrimental. One example has to do with behaviors that support or mitigate against employee engagement. In fact, research by Gallup suggests that only about a third of employees in the U.S. regularly display behaviors associated with “engagement.” This matters, of course, because engaged employees are far more productive and the work they do tends to result in greater performance, particularly around outcomes that are most important to the organization. They also tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges, have a greater sense of their own efficacy, are able to work with less direct supervision, manifest a more internalized sense of accountability, and are more likely to feel that they are an important part of the organization.

What is the relationship between managers and employee engagement?

Further research by Gallup found that roughly 70% of employee engagement is tied to management variables. In other words, the extent to which employees are highly engaged is more influenced by management behavior than employee variables. Any employee can be engaged at some level, but the depth of engagement seems to be more tied to what managers and leaders do or don’t do.

Traditional managers, for example, tend to be more transactional, i.e., they give the employee a discreet task, usually with narrowly defined outcomes, resulting in a “you do this and I’ll give you that” dynamic. As one can imagine, this situation tends to result in employees doing the minimum and rarely taking initiative on their own, because such transactional arrangements leave accountability with the boss, while also keeping the employee dependent. Incompetent managers are, of course, much worse. A recent Harvard Business Review article pointed to research that suggests, “Incompetent leaders are the main reason for low levels of employee engagement, and the prevalent high levels of passive job seeking and self-employment.”

Leaders with the ability to succeed in contemporary environments, on the contrary, tend to function more as coaches, providing the support and resources that allow employees to expand both their abilities and their sense of ownership and accountability. They do not micromanage the “how,” instead focusing on a shared understanding of desired outcomes, with the specific intent of empowering employees to work and succeed based on their own efforts, insights, and motivations. One key element of engagement is being able to do the job in ways that feel right/rewarding and play to the individual’s strengths. A traditional, transactional approach is often deadly for engagement precisely because it restricts those very things!

What does engagement look like?

There are traits and behaviors associated with engagement, which can be observed in both employees and leaders. They include things such as intentionality, planning, collaboration, internalized motivation and accountability, resilience, and a tendency to play to strengths to get the job done—including accepting challenges that stretch one’s capabilities. Engaged workers are also comfortable working for extended periods without supervisor feedback, but do not hesitate to request input when they believe the boss might have an insight that would be helpful. In other words, they don’t reach out to a supervisor for approval or permission, they reach out for support.

The opposite extreme is burnout and it is very expensive, both for individuals and their employers. “Employees who frequently experience burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.” According to Gallup, the five correlates of burnout are:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Unclear communication from managers
  4. Lack of manager support
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

What manager/leader behaviors support engagement?

Fortunately, supporting engagement in one’s employees is not complicated, but it does require a contemporary leadership frame of reference. For example, in order to support engagement, leaders must surrender control to employees, they must see themselves as coaches and facilitators whose success broadly comes from others rather than technical experts who closely manage employee activities. As an example, an engagement-creating leader ensures that employees have clarity around expectations and the necessary resources to succeed rather than explicit instructions on what to do or how to do it. Engagement-oriented leaders welcome and honor employee opinions and choices, trust their judgment, and de-stigmatize “failure” such that it represents an opportunity for learning and a course change, rather than a mistake to be avoided. Without this approach, employees will limit risk-taking and experimentation and the organization will suffer. Of equal importance, the most engaged employees have managers who ensure that their reports are likely to feel the greatest sense of purpose, with a good understanding of why their efforts matter.

In short, the difference in value between engaged and disengaged employees is not trivial. Both the performance and attitudes of engaged employees bring significant direct and indirect benefits to organizations that go well beyond work or project tasks and impact things like dedication, loyalty, advocacy, and ultimately turnover as well. Because, on average, only about a third of U.S. workers are regularly engaged, it also represents a substantial opportunity in many organizations. As a leader, your success in supporting engagement is central to your own success as well!

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