PM Article: What Matters Most in Employee Engagement?

Taking Three Lessons into Account

Nov 27, 2017 | ARTICLE

By Gary Morton

Simply put, an employee’s manager, department head, or team leader has the greatest impact on an individual’s engagement in the workplace. While organizational culture, competitive pay practices, inspiring mission statements, and exceptional top leadership have an influence, it is the daily interaction and relationship with the manager or team leader that drives employee engagement.

In a comprehensive multi-year study, statistical analyses from the Gallup organization have supported this fact across all types of professions and organizations. Knowing this, how can leaders most readily impact the performance, retention, and satisfaction of their employees? From my 30 years of experience in two ultra-high-performing organizations, as well as public and private sector groups I studied over the past five years, these three lessons stand out:

1. The Best Players are Not Necessarily the Best Coaches.

Coaching (i.e. managing and supervising) typically draws on a much different skill set than playing the game. Tendencies in sports teams, for example, are to elevate the top players. When they retire from actual play, it seems logical that they would make great coaches. After all, they mastered the game and have the “street cred” to teach and train others. They typically worked hard to achieve their success and should be able to inspire others to do the same. Do not make this common error.

Great players may or may not be great coaches. Many are horrendous at inspiring others. Effectively managing, coaching, and leading requires strong interpersonal skills, a selfless desire to help others achieve, and an ability to pull people together toward a common goal. These are not the same talents that create great players.

Compounding the problem, many high-performing, individual contributors express a desire to manage because their ego or yearning for higher pay drives them. Some may feel entitled to a supervisory position because of their longevity and strong skill set. Be careful, such people will find success engaging others only if they also have strong desire to see others succeed.

Great managers focus on people. Their success is about their team member’s success. In the end, engagement with all its benefits in performance, retention, and satisfaction comes from great coaches, not great players.

2. Constantly Identify Potential Managers and Team Leaders.

  • Understanding the concepts above is step one. Identifying those with the genuine potential for supervisory or management responsibilities is step two. If you want highly-engaged employees, selecting and promoting great supervisors is absolutely essential. Here are some key lessons learned from a 20-plus year deep dive into how extraordinary organizations find those with supervisory or management talent:\Look for people that seek to discover what each person does best and endeavor to define and delineate roles around each person’s strengths.
  • Look for people that others feel they can trust and that others feel will “have their back.”
  • Look for people who can connect with others and genuinely care about the people on their team.
  • Look for those that others seek out when bad things happen in their lives or in their work.
  • Look for people that are stable and consistent. Great managers are not like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates—where you never quite know what you are going to get.
  • Look for people that consistently recognize the contributions of others and acknowledge the accomplishments of different people in different ways.

Exceptional organizations endeavor to institutionalize this identification processes—they match those with managerial talents into managerial positions. They also are not afraid to move ineffective managers or supervisors back to individual contributor roles, or, if necessary, out of the organization. When the organization develops a consciousness for recognizing managerial talent, those crucial decisions to put the right person into the right role become almost second nature.

3. Focus on the Most Talented People.

Once you have identified those with the essential ingredients for management and supervision, training and coaching can help maximize their effectiveness. Organizations, however, often miss the mark with their outside training dollars. It is typical to send staff members to management training courses.

Many leaders also spend inordinate amounts of their personal time with a struggling assistant in attempt to bring them up to par. While noble, such efforts are not usually the best use of the leader’s time or the organization’s resources. The returns are much greater if time and effort is put into people who are the most talented.

The situation is analogous to the selection of people for a speed-reading course. People might think that someone who reads only 200 words a minute would greatly benefit from such training. Indeed, many individuals who read at this speed can increase their speed to as much as 600 words following the training, a three-fold increase.

The 1,000-word-per-minute person, however, who is naturally a fast reader, often reaches 10,000 to 20,000 words per minute as a result of the training, which is a huge improvement. The cost for the training is the same, but look how far the more talented reader advanced. Bottom line: If you want a high-performance and high-engagement organization, send talented employees to extra training.

The same equation holds true for a senior leader’s personal time allocation. The best leaders spend the time with their best people, because the payback is so much greater. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was one of the most extreme examples of this attribute. He was often criticized for his brashness and impatience with people who he felt were not “A” players. He had no patience for working with anyone but the best. While extreme, there perhaps was wisdom in his approach, as it helped create the world’s most valuable company.

A Primer on Employee Engagement

In many organizations and services throughout the world, managers are increasingly realizing the incredibly high correlation between employee engagement and critical outcomes: customer satisfaction, customer retention, employee retention, profitability, and job satisfaction. The experience of extraordinary organizations can point to an employee’s leader as the person that most impacts engagement.

Knowing this, avoid the trap of assuming that your best performer at a job should be in charge of people doing the same task. Develop a methodology to identify those with genuine supervisory and managerial talent and follow it. Finally, spend your time and resources on these talented people. The returns in doing so will be much greater than trying to change a tiger’s stripes.

Gary Morton, Stevensville, Michigan, is author of Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership That Matters (