In our mini-series on employee engagement, we’ve covered what it is and why it matters. As we wrap it up, let’s zero in on the manager’s role. This is an essential part of the discussion between no one can boost employee engagement more than a manager. Further, no organization can sufficiently boost employee engagement if the manager’s actions are diminishing engagement.
Why Employee Engagement Should Be a Top Priority for Managers
Sure, they matter when it comes to being sure that today’s work is done and getting to deliverables was an efficient, smooth matter.
But managers matter even more in retaining employees and creating positive experiences for them. Employee engagement really is the purview of managers.
Data and studies consistently affirm this.
- 70% of American employees aren’t working to their full potential (Gallup)
- 20% of workers are actively disengaged at any given time. That means they might even be working against the team’s goals and are negatively influencing others (Gallup)
- Companies with a competitive advantage and stronger financial performance have an average of 9.3 engaged employees to counter every one who is actively disengaged (The State of the American Workplace report)
- Managers are responsible for 70% of the variance in employee engagement levels (Achievers Workforce Institute 2020 Culture Report)
- Disengaged workers make errors at a 60% higher rate (The Engage Blog)
It’s also clear from research (and common sense!) that managers impact employee engagement levels more than any other variable. The mood of the manager instantly ripples across the team. The relationship you have with your manager affects nearly every decision and effort you make. A manager’s credibility and trustworthiness influence how much risk you’re willing to take in stepping out of your comfort zone.
Top 5 Quick-Start Ways for Managers to Boost Employee Engagement
To be effective in any management role, you’ll need high levels of employee engagement. When people are emotionally connected to the work you’ve asked them to do, they’ll apply more discretionary effort. Employee engagement is so important that it’s considered the PRIMARY enabler of any desirable business outcome.
These are the five focus areas for managers who need to boost and maintain employee engagement.
Develop skills to simultaneously manage work AND lead people, with an emphasis on the latter.
There is a difference between managing and leading. Managing means to handle the work that’s required in the short-term, getting it down through other people. As a manager, you have a title that gives you authority and tools for making this happen. Leading means to guide people to an exciting new place they’ve never been before… one they want to get to and will work hard to reach.
There are ample resources for learning how to manage – formulas, tools, and processes to administer any aspect of getting work done through others.
Resources for understanding how to lead might not be as readily available. What’s more, you may not see yourself as a leader. Working this out is essential for effectively leading in a way that will significantly boost employee engagement. Here’s a free introduction to an evidence-based framework for leadership.
Leadership behaviors unleash employee engagement. It’s cause-and-effect, and it starts with YOU behaving as a leader in specific ways.
Connect with individuals and get to know people as individuals.
Before they were “your” direct reports, they were people. When the work shift ends, they’re people with families and hobbies and core values. Get to know the people, not just their talents and how you can extract maximum yield from them.
Take time to observe individual styles and preferences, how each person is motivated and how each one communicates and learns. Spend time learning about the internal sparks and aspirations each individual has and how this job fits into that bigger picture.
Look for ways to dignify the individual strengths, styles, and aspirations of each individual.
Be knowable, approachable, and authentic.
Relationships require two people and an equal exchange. They aren’t strong when they’re one-sided. Learning about employees and using that information to motivate or understand them is good, but it isn’t enough. In fact, if you stop here, it will look like you’ve gathered information only to use it against employees. It won’t seem like you genuinely cared and connected.
You have to reciprocate. You may even need to start by being knowable. Being remote or reserved will cause employees to wonder what you’re hiding and to feel they aren’t trusted. You’re erecting barriers if you don’t share about yourself.
No need to go overboard! Talk about your values, your weekend and hobbies, and your rationale for making decisions. Don’t talk about your disagreement with your boss, gossip about others in the workplace, politics, religion, etc. There is a line between boss and buddy.
Give people opportunities to learn, develop, and succeed.
The top four reasons people give for leaving a job are all related to not being given clear direction, timely feedback, or support for their development. These are all functions of the manager.
Setting clear and consistent expectations and giving feedback are essential. They are the building blocks of development and the fastest way to show people you care enough to help them. If you’re holding back in a misguided attempt to “be nice” or to avoid making someone “feel bad,” you’re depriving people of opportunities. It’s not nice at all to let someone keep making the same mistake when you could’ve helped them course correct sooner!
Once people have mastered their assigned tasks, give them opportunities for next-level learning in their functional area. Give them cross-functional exposure, too, to build business acumen and to see how their work contributes to the bigger picture. Don’t forget learning opportunities in transferable competencies, too, like soft skills and leadership development.
Put PEOPLE first.
According to Quantum Workplace, one of the top drivers of employee engagement is believing that leaders in an organization value people.
Plastering “people are our greatest resource” on the website and walls isn’t enough. Saying you value people isn’t adequate. Your everyday actions have to prove that you genuinely value people, even above policies, processes, program, and profits. (Relax… no one’s suggesting you abandon your protocols or give up your profits! But how do you think those things came about in the first place? They’re not possible without PEOPLE.)
Putting people first means taking time to listen. It means treating employees with dignity and respect, giving them voice, and working to understand their perspectives. It means clearing hurdles so people can do their work without unnecessary and irritating distractions. It means recognizing and appreciating contributions, efforts, ideas, and team spirit. It also means including people in the decisions that affect them.
These are all easy adjustments for managers to make. They’re made up of daily choices in how you allocate your time, interact with employees, and conduct yourself. These actions are the most important ones for any manager – NOT the “super-doer” work you might be doing instead.
But… Isn’t Employee Engagement HR’s Responsibility?
Engaging employees is a tempting thing to delegate away. Doing so would be a terrible mistake. No one else could possibly have the same impact as a manager. Putting people or entire departments in between your relationship with a direct report is a surefire away to disengage that employee.
Here are the responsibilities of HR and senior management. Senior manager responsibilities and HR practices should include coaching managers and holding them accountable for employee engagement. This includes:
- Providing leadership development for all employees who have direct reports.
- Setting minimum standards for employee engagement scores of direct reports.
- Coaching on any gaps in employee engagement to provide support in improving scores.
- Creating an environment where leadership behaviors are modeled and celebrated.
- Selecting and promoting managers for demonstrated leadership, not for functional/technical expertise alone.
- Implementing people practices across the organization to foster employee engagement. Examples include set 1-to-1 meetings, progress reviews (in between performance reviews, and getting to know individuals and their intrinsic motivations and goals).
- Encouraging activities that promote a sense of belonging, friendships in the workplace, team unity, and an understanding of interdependencies across functional areas.
This doesn’t let managers off the hook.
On the contrary, in the absence of practices and support systems like these, it’s even more important for managers to step up and take responsibility for employee engagement. You probably have examples of your own to understand what this looks like – the people we think of as our “best” managers ever are often the ones who put PEOPLE first regardless of what was happening elsewhere in the organization.