A Scientific Approach to Leadership
and Management Development

"Leadership Matters"
— A Management Newsletter —

Inspiring Employee Engagement

All managers want greater employee engagement. We realize that there is a tremendous difference between motivated commitment and mere compliance, and that the difference impacts everything from day-to-day employee satisfaction to ultimate business results — and everything in between.

An exhaustive workplace study by Gallup1 revealed that only 30% of people in the workforce are fully engaged at work, and that 20% are actively disengaged. The conclusion drawn by the authors is that the single most important variable influencing employee engagement is the immediate boss. In other words, bad management is the main cause for lack of engagement that leads to poorer results in areas like productivity, customer ratings, quality and profitability.

Also from Gallup’s findings, the 25% best-managed teams delivered significantly better results than the bottom 25%: 50% fewer accidents and 41% fewer quality defects. Gallup estimates that disengagement costs companies $500 billion per year. Furthermore, the top teams generated much lower healthcare costs; so...bad managers also cause bad health!

We agree with the conclusion that bad managers are the cause of a lot of these ills, and that management makes a big difference—not only in the results people get, but also in their lives. But what to do about it? How do companies overcome a dearth of good managers?

"The single most important variable influencing employee engagement is the immediate boss."

First, let’s look more closely at Gallup’s survey. The workforce study has been conducted by Gallup since 2000 and is based on its Q12 instrument developed in the 1990s. The assessment has focused on 12 questions derived from extensive testing to serve as indicators for engagement. Interestingly, these questions tend to target factors that are established intrinsic motivators, such as: autonomy (“at work my opinions seem to count”), purpose (“the purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important”), chance to use skills (“have the opportunity to do what I do best every day”), chance to develop (“had opportunities at work to learn and grow”), be part of a winning team (“my associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work”), and clear expectations (“I know what is expected of me at work”). It is worth noting that only one of the twelve questions asks specifically about recognition and praise.

Much management literature recommends that managers focus on increasing engagement by working to “emotionally engage” their employees and to find ways to engage with each employee. Thus, engagement surveys are a popular tool of human resource departments. To the degree that engagement serves as a proxy for good management, Gallup’s Q12 survey may indeed be a good tool to use, and engagement may be a valid metric. But it can also mislead the manager from the primary job of driving great results. A common approach for achieving engagement is shown in diagram below. Specifically, the assumption goes, managers should first engage employees emotionally so that they perform at a high level in order to achieve results.

This approach, however, focuses the manager's attention on trying to engage employees directly, which can lead to all kinds of mischief that distracts both the manager and the employee from the work and its desired results. An alternative model is depicted in the next diagram. Here the manager focuses first on the required results in planning, assigning, organizing and monitoring the work. That is, the manager is focused on identifying and communicating the required results through policies that give clear outcomes, then providing feedback on progress towards those outcomes. Performance is owned by the individual, and engagement is a consequence of the manager effectively focusing employees on the work, organizing them effectively, and giving them feedback on results so that they can adjust and improve their performance as needed.

In fact, Gallup’s survey questions echo this focus — provide employees purpose, give them big jobs under the guidance of policy, and provide opportunities for mastery. To the degree that managers do THESE things well, high levels of engagement will follow.

Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup concludes his opening letter to the report, “Let's get rid of managers from hell, double the number of great managers [and] everything will change.” The report itself calls for companies to select the right managers, “treat these roles as unique with distinct functional demands that require a specific talent set.”

Fortunately, effective management that leads to greater engagement is something that can be learned — and perhaps more than a "talent set," it requires a distinct “skill set.” This calls for management development for those in charge. Improve management effectiveness, and highly motivated, engaged employees will surely follow.

1"State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders." 2013 by Gallup. http://www.gallup.com/services/176708/state-american-workplace.aspx

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