Leadership and Employee Engagement: Part 2

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

In part one of this series I referenced Gallup’s exhaustive study on employee engagement and how important it is to an organization’s productivity and bottom line. Engaged employees are emotionally committed to a company, willingly go above and beyond and believe in the organization’s mission. Astonishingly, the study reveals that engagement averages, across multiple industries, aren’t very encouraging. Only 30% are considered engaged, while 52% are disengaged and 18% are actively disengaged. And the biggest influencer of engagement, the study shows, are the employee’s direct leaders who impact the attitudes, morale and buy-in of front line workers. This underscores the importance of effective front-line leadership but first, what do you do with the current state of your ten-man bicycle, the one with only 3 people peddling for the cause?

First, it would probably be wise to identify the break-slamming 18% - the saboteurs, the internal morale-killers lurking in the shadows – and root them out. One of my favorite aphorisms – “hire slow and fire fast” – definitely applies here. Within the boundaries of HR best practices, the law, and company policy and procedures, smoking them out and giving them a swift Viking’s funeral would lessen the voices of negativity dragging morale down. It may sound harsh, but chances are good the people slamming the breaks are already checked-out and no amount of coaching or cajoling will bring them back. In fact, some of these folks may not have been with the team from day one. If you consider that most employees make a lasting impression about the company they join within the first 14 days of their employment, regardless of what comes afterward, chances are good the bad apples were sour from the beginning. Fourth and long, time to punt.

Next, you could identify the peddlers, those wonderful 30% who are really driving the bike down the road despite being in the minority. First and foremost, an effort to make sure that they’re happy is a good place to start (which they probably already are since they’re engaged, but it’s wise nonetheless to check in on them). Then they should be studied – what makes these people tick? What makes the rock stars…well, rock stars? Looking for commonalities amongst them and coming up with 5 to 10 traits they share that makes them work place stars makes a lot of sense. Listing those traits and doing everything to hire people like them makes even more sense. By memorializing rock star traits, leaders can create interview questions designed to discover those qualities in future employee candidates. Then they can get that material into the hands of every hiring manager and HR person in the company and train them on the importance of hiring to a well understood standard. Also, memorializing rock star traits arms front-line leaders with specific language they can infuse into their daily communications that signals expectations to the engaged and disengaged alike.

Keep in mind, this would not be an effort to destroy individuality. But, as Simon Sinek would say, you want to attract people who “believe what you believe” – not in religion or politics, but in how business is done, how they view teamwork, what they value in the workplace and so on. To this point, consider Southwest Airlines and United. They’re both commercial airlines essentially providing the same service/function for their customers. But, if you’ve flown both outfits you’ll notice the experience is completely different. And it’s hard to imagine a SW employee working for UA, and visa versa. Engagement often times is as much about hiring to “fit” as it is managing people after they’re hired.

O.K., so you’ve ridden the company of the unhappy 18%, you’ve identified the rock stars in your midst, created a plan to keep them happy and implemented a strategy to multiply their numbers like baby rabbits - great start. But what do you do about the biggest group (52%), the coasters? Those in the majority who are simply along for the ride? This is where Gallup’s findings on leadership traits are most helpful. They found that workforces featuring leaders who were assertive, motivational, could communicate vision, were decisive, espoused an environment of accountability,and skilled at fostering relationships were by far the most engaged. Bringing the disengaged into the rock star group won’t happen over-night, but educating leaders on proven leadership characteristics is a great place to start. Furthermore, emphasizing to managers the importance of employee engagement in the first place is important (48% higher profitability is pretty compelling, especially if they’re bonused). And finally, illustrating to them that their leadership ability is THE biggest influencer of employee engagement may alter the lense through which they view their own role. If front-line leaders understand that their direct actions effect absenteeism, theft, safety, turnover, performance, profitability and so much more, they’ll have a proper – and perhaps more serious – context to understand how vital they are to the health of the organization. After all, employees watch and critique their boss, not their boss’s boss. When front-line leadership quality is high, Gallup says, so are engagement and ultimately, profits.

In part 3 of this series, I’ll look at a parallel Gallup study focused on the work place from an employee’s perspective and look at what affect that has on engagement.

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