Why Leaders Should Care About Engagement

When it comes to what employees are looking for from their employers, the standard is higher than ever before. For my parent’s generation, most were content if they had solid wages, safe working conditions and a boss who didn’t yell at them too much.

Command and control were the standard leadership style, and career advancement, connection to a meaningful purpose and development opportunities weren’t on most people’s minds. But today they are front and center as employees wield more power, control and choice than ever before.

Now, employees change jobs and even careers at an unprecedented pace as they look for more meaning, connection and purpose. Before it was about a paycheck and the promise of a promotion; today it’s about finding a place where they belong, contribute meaningful work and have opportunities to grow and develop.

One way to evaluate this new relationship between employer and employee is employee engagement. While there are many definitions out there for employee engagement, it really comes down to how connected and committed an employee is to your organization.

When we think about connectedness, do your people feel like they belong and are a part of something bigger? Do you know them, and do they know you as both a leader and a human? With commitment, it’s about how excited they are to do their work with excellence and deliver great results. Are they willing and motivated to go above and beyond because they care about and are passionate about the work? Do they regularly give discretionary effort?

Gallup has been at the forefront of tracking employee engagement data for decades now. And while we’ve seen an increase in the percent of engaged employees over the past decade, the numbers are still sobering – with the majority of American workers still not feeling engaged. According to their most recent data:

  • 35% of employees are engaged – these are the people that work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company and teams. They drive innovation and move the company forward.
  • 13% of employees are actively disengaged – these people are unhappy at work and come to work acting out that unhappiness. Their efforts (either passively or aggressively) often undermine their coworkers and organization.
  • 52% fall into the not engaged category – these people show up and do what’s asked of them, but usually not much more. They go through the motions and put in the time – but not energy or passion.

With nearly two-thirds of our employees not engaged, these numbers show us that organizations and leaders have a tremendous opportunity – and responsibility – when it comes to employee engagement.

For many of us leaders, we’re driven by a passion to pour into the lives of those around us, to help them find success and to be better versions of themselves. That includes helping them leverage their strengths, contribute to something bigger than themselves and do their best work.

Not only is it a requirement for great leadership, but it also makes sound business sense. After evaluating the data for years, the conclusion is clear – engaged employees and teams perform better.

According to Gallup’s research, companies with engaged workforces have:

  • Higher earnings per share – and recovered at a faster rate from the last recession
  • Fewer safety incidence and quality defects
  • Higher profitability and productivity
  • Lower turnover and absenteeism
  • Higher sales and customer ratings

And as leaders, we need to take personal ownership of this issue. It’s not just the HR department’s job to care about how engaged our employees are – it’s our job. After all, we as managers are one of the main drivers of employee engagement.

In fact, at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores can be directly attributed to the manager. If your people are highly engaged, congratulations – you as the manager have played a huge role in that. But knowing that nearly two-thirds of workers aren’t actively engaged – that falls on you as the manager as well.

For many managers, this is a potential blind spot. In one study, 77% of managers felt like they did a good job engaging their people. Yet only 12% of employees felt their managers did enough to engage them. As humans, we are sometimes prone to over evaluate our abilities – and in this case it could be having a negative impact on your leadership and people.

So, if you feel like this could be an opportunity for you, here are three things you can do right away to better engage your people:

  1. Focus on connection: This is always important, but especially in today’s current environment. As a leader, you must invest time in getting to know each of your people – as employees and as humans. Understand who they are and what excites them (in business and life). For people to feel engaged, they must feel like they belong and are known – that is practically impossible without connection.
  2. Ask more questions: Great leadership isn’t about having all of the right answers – but it does require asking the right questions. If you want to better engage your people, focus on being intentionally curious. Rather than being quick to offer your opinion or solve a problem, first seek to better understand the situation and their perspective. By decentralizing decision making and encouraging your people and teams to solve problems, you will improve engagement.
  3. Embrace coaching leadership: Most employees today are looking for more than an adequate manager. And if you want them to be engaged, you need to be more than that. They want someone to speak into them, challenge them, encourage them, hold them accountable and develop them – bottom line: they are looking for coaching leaders. And knowing the impact managers have on engagement, this is probably the most powerful lever you have to pull.

At its heart, employee engagement is all about a relationship. A relationship between your people, you as their leader, your organization and your customers. And like all good relationships, they take time, effort, focus and energy to develop and thrive. But like all great relationships, if done right they can be an immense source of meaning, purpose and fulfillment for both you and your people.


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