Employee Engagement and the Role Leadership Plays

Employee engagement is a familiar topic to most anyone involved in leadership, whether you manage a small team or run a large corporation.  Engagement is hugely important for any type of organization because it is ultimately your people that comprise who you are as a company.  If your team is not adequately engaged, it becomes very difficult to represent your brand or your business in the manner that you prefer. As an example, you can represent yourself as the most customer-focused company on the planet, but if your customer service rep who answers the phone is not feeling particularly “customer- focused” when the phone rings, the person on the other side of the call probably isn’t going to be experiencing your brand in the manner that you intended.

Now, many people much smarter than me have spent significant time and energy defining employee engagement, developing tools to measure it and building action plans to help improve it. There are also very large consulting organizations built around helping other large corporations manage their employee engagement efforts. However, in my simple view, employee engagement really comes down to how much passion each individual employee embodies in representing the company they work for, every day. 

Communication is Important, but is it Enough?

One of the most important factors in any relationship, business or personal, is communication. As leaders, it is hugely important that we communicate our vision, our mission, our values and even our policies to our employees so that they know exactly who we are as a company, and what we expect.  Unfortunately, defining and communicating all of these is not nearly enough to drive employee engagement. No, engagement is driven more by actions than words.

Ultimately, I believe the things leaders typically never hear about within their organizations impact employee engagement more than the high-level vision and cultural statements they espouse. What do I mean by “things they never hear about”? As a leader of an organization, the larger the entity, the more layers that it has and the higher you sit within the structure will directly impact how much you actually know about the details of what is really going on within that organization.  In other words, the further you are from the people who actually do the work, the less likely you are to know what things are truly affecting those people and their engagement.

Frequently, it is the seemingly small, under the radar frustrations that people experience every day that have the most impact on their engagement.  The cumulative effect over time can have lasting impact if not resolved. 

Real Life Engagement Crushing Examples

Female employee with head on her desk showing frustration
  • The mid-level manager who micro-manages their team and never acknowledges anyone’s work, but is quick to take credit for team success
  • Valueless inefficient processes that do not support the greater good, but suck up time and energy simply because “it’s the way we’ve always done it” or “this is what the Director wants”
  • The people on “in-house retirement” who never appear to do, produce or respond to anything, but have been around for years
  • The workaholic leader who expects everyone to be workaholics like them, even though they will tell you they do not.  Actions speak louder than words…stop sending emails on Sunday morning
  • The “ladder climber” who manages up very well, but leaves a wake of bodies behind them
  • Politics that get in the way of doing what most everyone knows is right
  • The “pain in the butt” team member who no one wants to work with because everyone wants to avoid the misery…including their boss who will not manage them
  • The internal departments that are known by everyone to be roadblocks to productivity. They vary within organizations, but most have them
  • The peer who sucks at their job and the manager’s method of dealing with them is to pass their work on to someone else to pick up the slack

I could go on and on, but you understand what I am talking about, and I guarantee you have all had similar experiences at one stop or another.  Many of these are items that would likely never garner the attention of senior leadership because they have neither the focus nor desire to manage down to these levels, but that does not make them unreal or less impactful.  Unfortunately, allowing these types of issues to persist over time can send a message that leadership does not care or is simply out of touch.

A Potential Solution

This brings me to my main point: I believe the only way to truly build a strong level of employee engagement is through a culture founded in empathy. A company culture that cares about employees nearly as much as they care about profits, and demonstrates it through actions, not just words. We have all heard leaders say something like “our strength is our people,” or “our people are our most important asset,” but rarely does the work experience actually feel that way.

Group of happy and engaged employees

What our employees feel and experience on a day-to-day basis defines our culture and drives our employee engagement. If we truly want our employees to be highly engaged, then we as leaders need to engage with our employees. I do not think this can be adequately achieved through surveys, town halls or skip-level meetings as many corporations leverage. It requires individual leaders to be as focused on the people beneath them as they are on the activities above them, and to demonstrate it on a daily basis. Truly seeking to understand and improve the work environment and company culture from the employee perspective is the key to solving the problem of poor employee engagement.

This does not mean that a leader should not focus on profitability and productivity, or that employees should never be disciplined or laid off. At the end of the day, leaders are responsible for the well-being of the organization and sometimes that requires difficult decisions.  However, a focus on empathy will generally make the impact of those difficult decisions a little easier to swallow and likely a little easier to recover from for employees.

Culture Change Starts at the Top

I recognize that it is not easy to change culture, and there will always be conflicting opinions, but a focus of self-interest will never move the needle on employee engagement. It is never too late to change, but it all starts and ends at the top, as our actions speak the loudest. Updating our value or vision statement is not going to get it done. If our employees are truly our greatest asset, maybe we should stop talking about it and start demonstrating it in the way that we manage and run our organizations.