Leadership and Employee Engagement: Part 1

In this 3-part series I’ll consider how leadership affects one of the most important aspects of any organization’s success – the engagement and buy in of its members

Imagine that your workplace is a 10-person bicycle. Now imagine that your fellow employees are the ten people riding that bicycle. Next, understand that 3 people on that bike are peddling like mad, 5 are coasting along not peddling at all, and two people are slamming on the brakes. That bike is going to have a rough ride but that, ladies and gentlemen, is a metaphor for the modern workplace, and it reflects the current state of what we call “employee engagement”.

Engagement is an emotional connection or commitment, and an engaged workforce is proud of what they do, who they work for and with. Engagement also happens when people feel that what they’re doing matters, that they’re part of something bigger, whether that’s a cause or a vision or simply an organization they believe is doing things right. It occurs when they feel a sense of ownership. When engagement is high, employees go above and beyond, giving their blood, sweat and tears towards the effort. Engaged employees are more committed, satisfied and productive. Simply put, they care more. And this is where leadership comes in, because engagement is a biproduct of good leaders.

A twenty-year study conducted by Gallup looked at hundreds of businesses across multiple industries, interviewed over 27 million employees and studied 2.5 million work groups in an effort to answer one question: how does employee engagement effect businesses? The performance indicators they looked at were customer satisfaction/loyalty, profitability, productivity, quality, turnover, absenteeism, theft and safety incidents. Not surprisingly, they found that in companies with high engagement, profits were – on average – 48% higher. What was surprising, however, were the across-the-board findings on engagement in the work force in general. Gallup found that 30% of employees were actively engaged (peddling), 52% were disengaged (coasting) and 18% were actively disengaged (slamming on the brakes). And they described the “actively disengaged” as employees who were essentially saboteurs – the rumor mongers, the lie tellers, the drama queens and the people that undermine their co-workers. Or worse, the thieves, harassers and people actively looking to do harm to the company’s image or bottom line.

Gallup went on to assert that where management was competent, employee engagement was higher. This led to higher performance and success overall. And they defined the most influential traits of this managerial competency as:

· Motivational

· Ability to communicate mission and vision

· Assertive

· Accountability

· Relationship acumen

· Decision making

But Gallup’s is not a list of management traits, it’s a list of leadership traits. As the saying goes, you “manage things and lead people” and, because engagement is an emotional connection or commitment, it’s a human endeavor most affected by strong leadership. A manager can implement great systems and policies and procedures in complete lockstep with a company’s values – all very good – but a manager can’t motivate or communicate vision to a policy or system to make things great. But a leader can motivate and communicate vision to make their people great. And engaged.

Author Robert Sutton, PHD, in his book titled Good Boss, Bad Boss looked at a parallel 30-year Gallup study that asked the question “what makes a great work environment?” Over 100,000 employees were surveyed, and the answers to over 100 million questions were collected, analyzed and studied in an attempt to create a guiding template for a positive work environment. He went on to say this:

Bosses mattered massively in studies conducted by Gallup’s army of researchers over the past thirty years. Employees’ immediate bosses have far more impact on engagement and performance than whether their companies are rated as great or lousy places to work. Related research shows that good bosses are especially crucial to employee performance in otherwise lousy workplaces. As leadership researcher Robert Hogan concludes from numerous careful studies, including Gallup surveys, “people do not quit organizations, they quit bad bosses”. Gallup concludes that crummy bosses are a primary reason that over 50 percent of employees are “checked out” and “sleepwalking through their days.” Worse yet, the most bitter employees (the “actively disengaged” 18 percent) undermine their coworkers accomplishments. Gallup has also found sweeping differences between organizations that have many great bosses versus many crummy bosses. In businesses where a higher proportion of employees report that their immediate bosses care about them, employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity are higher, and so is profitability.

In both studies, it’s clear that solid leadership – especially at the front-line level – is directly tied to employee engagement and ultimately an organization’s success. In parts 2 and 3 of this series I’ll dive further into engagement, leadership, the Gallup studies and most importantly, strategies to insure employees buy in to the organization they work for.

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