Leadership and Employee Engagement

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Mr.James Stilwell helps organizations in their leadership design and helps to implement ways to authentically engage their entire workforce. He has also taught at the University of Michigan’s Executive Education  focusing on building collaborative organizational cultures


Mr. Stephen J. Gillis a guest contributor. An Independent Consultant for Human Performance


Successful companies have high levels of employee engagement. Much has been written about why this is true and the factors that increase employee engagement. The vast majority of these writings and research findings focus on organizational and structural factors or put responsibility for becoming increasingly engaged in the lap of the employee.  Some of these often cited factors include training and development, team building, recognition and rewards, information flow and access, performance reviews, and decision-making processes. Absent from this list is the powerful impact that leadership has on employee engagement. We imagine that as you read this you are saying to yourself, “Of course leadership is a key factor.” But we aren’t talking about giving lip-service to engagement, nor are we talking about having an engagement program, a director of engagement, or doing an annual engagement survey. We are talking about something much deeper that goes to the heart of leadership. This is self-awareness of ones values, beliefs, and attitudes regarding engagement and how the leader’s self is manifested in subtle but powerful behaviors that communicate volumes to an organization about the extent to which a leader truly supports increased engagement. Make no mistake about it, genuine employee engagement shifts power away from leaders and many leaders find this shift unsettling.  Here are two examples.

Examples of a Leader’s Impact

A CEO of a company formed a team to completely redesign an organizational process that was very instrumental in achieving improved organizational outcomes. Once the design process was finished, implementation of the change, like so many organizational changes, began with a training program at corporate headquarters. During one of the sessions, a manager from another location asked, “What does this change process mean for my people?” Although her location had been working very collaboratively with the corporate location, her group had a reputation for isolationism and resistance to change. Consequently, the manager’s question was screened through the filter of this reputation. The CEO met with the manager immediately following the training program and told her that he was very disappointed in her response. This exchange was likely driven by the deeply vested interest the CEO had in ensuring success of the organizational change and by his previous experience with this business unit. The manager who received feedback became deeply concerned about keeping her job and her ability to competently do the work required and was convinced that she was now at risk of being fired. “Given a viable alternative”, she said, “I would give two-weeks notice.”

In another example, an employee engagement team in a manufacturing facility had made an error in judgment resulting in products being scrapped. This was an opportunity for learning and process improvement.  Rather than seeing it in this light, the president of the division stated, “I knew this was going to happen when you let the inmates loose in the asylum.” This quote circulated around the organization like wildfire and had a negative impact on further employee engagement efforts. The fact that this was a facility where the union had been supportive of increased engagement only added to the damage done by the president’s comment.

Both of these situations are examples of how the belief systems and the thinking processes of leaders can have a profound negative impact on employee engagement.

Leader Self-Understanding

The poet Stanley Kunitz writes in The Wild Braid, “One of the mysteries of gardening is that the garden reflects the viewer’s own state of being at the time, just as your response to a poem lets you know something about your preoccupations or your susceptibility as you read it.”  Margaret Wheatley, expresses a similar sentiment in her book, Leadership and the New Science. She writes, “We all actively participate in creating our worlds. We all construct the world through the lenses of our own making and use these to filter and select.”

These two references are at the heart of what we believe is an essential element in employee engagement, the ability of leaders to deeply understand how they interact with and meet their worlds and how these beliefs and thinking patterns are manifested in some subtle and some not so subtle ways that communicate powerful messages to the organization about the authenticity and genuineness of their support for engagement. Marcus Buckingham, in First Break All the Rules, has taught us that the most significant relationship in any organization is between that of a leader, manager or supervisor and their direct reports. Nowhere is this more important than in support of employee engagement.

Daniel Kahneman, distinguished psychologist and Nobel prize winner in economics, states in his new book , Thinking, Fast and Slow, that  we humans are guided by two systems of thought. System 1 is our intuitive response and System 2 is slow thinking. System 1 operates automatically and quickly while System 2 allocates attention to more effortful mental activities.  System 1 requires little or no effort while System 2 is akin to the experience one of us had driving in Ireland a few years ago. Full attention (System 2) was required to successfully perform what would have been the most rudimentary functions (System 1) here in the U.S. For the most part, we manage our days relatively well using System 1. It is when we rely on intuitive thinking to respond to complex problems, and many of us do, that we go astray and sometimes don’t even know it. It is essential for leaders to increase their awareness of these rapid or System 1 responses that are based on the models that each of us have for how we meet and interact with our world.  To slow down or derail an engagement process a leader’s response does not have to be as overt as, “I knew that was what would happen when we let the inmates loose in the asylum.” Simply being distracted when talking to direct reports, may be enough to cause their disengagement.

Measures of organizational readiness for employee engagement typically miss one core factor:  the readiness of key leaders and their understanding and awareness of their own readiness. Full and genuine support of increased employee engagement requires self-assessment and self-awareness. To help leaders develop this understanding, organizations should help leaders develop a deeper understanding of how their personal beliefs, preferences, and thought patterns may enhance or derail efforts to increase engagement. In the following section we define the most important areas of self-understanding and then conclude with a discussion of how leadership readiness should determine where to begin efforts to increase engagement.

Leader Response to Engagement

Although we acknowledge that the following factors do not make up an exhaustive list, we do believe this list captures the important factors that are often not considered in a leader’s “fast thinking” responses to engagement. For each factor we include questions for reflection.

  • Understanding of Engagement

What do leaders know about engagement and how aware are they of their reasons for supporting it? What types of engagement will they and won’t they support?

  • Beliefs about Alignment of Engagement with Organization’s Strategic Goals

To what extent do leaders believe that engagement is necessary for achieving business results? Do they believe that employee engagement will help the organization be successful? And why do they believe this?

  • Beliefs about People in General

What do leaders believe about the desire of people to act responsibly, ethically, and in the best interests of the people around them? How confident are leaders that people will try to do their best? To what extent do leaders truly value the people around them?

  • Beliefs about Employees

What do leaders believe about the behavior of their employees? Do they believe that employees always have the best interests of the organization in mind or do they believe that employees are always unthinking and uncaring?

  • Emotional Intelligence

Can leaders perceive and understand emotions in others and in themselves? Are they sensitive to the social/emotional needs of employees? To what extent can leaders manage their own emotions?

  • Tolerance for Dissent, Conflict and Differences among Peers, Direct Reports, and Other Managers

Do leaders tolerate views that are different from their own? Will they listen to employee dissent without being judgmental and punitive? To what extent do leaders actively seek out views that are different from their own?

  • Expression of Caring for Others

Are leaders authentic and open in their expression of appreciation and caring to employees?

  • Tolerance for Autonomy

Will leaders allow employees to act on their own without specific directions on how to complete a task? Will they allow employees to figure out for themselves how to best achieve a goal?

  • Trust

Are leaders both trusting and trustworthy. Do they do what they say they are going to do? Do they follow through on their commitments and responsibilities?

  • Bias in Decision-Making

Are leaders aware of the biases underlying their “fast thinking” decisions? Do they know how their biases are affecting their decisions? Is this acceptable to them?

  • Thinking Patterns

Are leaders more cerebral, analytical, and logical in their thinking or are they more emotional and feeling based in their thinking? Whichever pattern is dominant, do they value this kind of thinking in others?

  • Beliefs about Leadership

What do leaders believe about good leadership? Do they believe that one style works for all employees (e.g., command-and-control) or do they believe that the style of most effective leadership depends on the situation? Do they believe that effective leaders are charismatic and operate from a base of power or do they believe that leadership and power should be shared with others?

  • Self Awareness

Are leaders aware of their values and beliefs and how their actions are viewed by others? Is the way that they actually practice leadership in sync with what they believe to be the best way to lead?

Leader’s Choice

Employee engagement is a choice. Leaders will frequently promote increased engagement as a way of developing cross-functional teamwork and reducing barriers between departments. This is a choice that leaders should consider carefully. Nature of the work, proximity of the workforce to the market and customers, and the business strategies for success, are some of the factors that need to be considered when choosing how and when to increase engagement.

However, while all of these factors are important, none of them supersedes the readiness of leaders to embrace and support engagement.  It is for this reason that we suggest that any engagement effort begin with a thorough vetting of a leader’s readiness to authentically engage in engagement.

Buckingham, M.  First Break All the Rules, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999)
Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
Kunitz, S. Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, (New York, NY:W. W. Norton & Company, 2005)
Wheatley, M. Leadership and the New Science, (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 1999)











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