Engaging Managers’ Zone: Taking Ownership of Employee Engagement
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Whether engagement in your team is low, high or somewhere in between, you have an opportunity: to make it better. Doing so benefits your team, your department, your organisation and, of course, you.
“In a world where problems are getting more complex, determined and innovative problem-solving will flow from those who live as if help is not coming. Living with responsibility can make us stronger and more action-oriented individuals.” John Coleman, Harvard Business Review, ‘Take ownership of your actions by taking responsibility’
Yes, responsibility for employee engagement is not yours to bear alone, but if you wait for employees to turn any frowns upside down by themselves, for senior leaders to fix everything, for HR to ride to your rescue or for a survey to answer all your exam questions, you may find yourself waiting a very long time.
As with all opportunities, employee engagement will evade you constantly unless you seize it. Your best hope for success is to take responsibility and action. Not of what happened yesterday, but of what is going to happen tomorrow. Ownership is a powerful catalyst that can transform the outcomes of any undertaking and put you in a position of strength. You may be surprised at what you are able to achieve.
According to the Institute of Leadership & Management, ownership involves “being decisive, solving problems, delegating, abstaining from blame, taking responsibility and regular objective reflection”. Getting started is easier than you might think. In simple terms: you need to work out what you want, why you want it and how you want it.
Building on what it means to be an engaging manager, we recommend that you aim to:
The first step is not to throw yourself into action planning. Action planning will be critical to your success, but taking action without clear direction is a trap. You can easily end up doing the wrong things, or doing the right things in the wrong way. Without ever knowing. At best, you may waste time and money. At worst, you can damage engagement and drive disengagement.
Find your ‘North Star’
Clarity regarding your ultimate destination – where you are headed and why you need to get there – can create tremendous advantage. Regardless of what steps you take on the ground, every step moves you forward towards a clear, fixed and desirable goal you can easily share with others. In other words: once you have a clear objective it will be much easier to identify the right things to do, do them the right way, and bring everyone with you on the journey.
The simplest way to approach this is to try and work out what everybody wants (including yourself) and how it all fits together – see below. What does your organisation want regarding employee engagement? What does your boss want you to achieve? What do your employees want from you and the organisation? Why do they all want what they want? Chances are that you’re subjected to a lot of inputs from above and below about what’s important and why. This is all helpful input, but don’t take it all at face value. Gather it all together, then take a few steps back and look again.
What your organisation wants
We’ve already looked at what employers want from their people and how engagement contributes. Specific employer objectives for engagement can be found in how they define it, how they choose to manage it and how they present all of this externally. Engagement is often expressed as something invested by the employee and/or earned by the employer. Some employers assume a claim on employee engagement while for others it exists above and beyond the basic contract of employment. Most employers see engagement as something they can measure and influence. Some emphasise the need to raise and maintain high levels of engagement in order to secure the business benefits – perhaps focusing on increasing innovation or reducing attrition – while others emphasise safeguarding performance against disengagement. At the same time, alongside other high-profile topics such as diversity and inclusion, employee engagement is fast becoming a prerequisite for employer brands and non-financial reporting. In some cases, improving engagement scores may be the be-all and end-all.
What your team wants
From one generation to the next, expectations of employment are evolving. As life and career expectations become more stimulated and sophisticated, and competition for talent continues to advantage high-performing and high-potential employees over employers, up-and-coming generations are less prepared to settle for traditional transactional employment. Many entering the workforce since the millennium aspire to an experience of employment they find enjoyable, meaningful, flexible and complementary to their other priorities. Their expectations align closely to best practice in driving engagement. Increasingly, employees are taking ownership of their own engagement, but they expect employers to facilitate it, proactively and authentically. They see that engagement is a widely recognised priority and there is a growing expectation that employers ‘do’ employee engagement. Perhaps more than anything else, employees want to work for an organisation (and a manager) who ‘gets it’ and gets it right.
What you want
Your own personal objectives may extend no further than those set for you by your own line manager, but if you’re reading this the chances are that your appetite for change and improvement is driven by something more. In Part One we saw how engaged employees help to make your job easier and more rewarding. Enhanced efficiency, productivity and performance are all perfectly valid reasons, as are improved, easier people management and change management. You might believe in the relevance of engagement for organisational strategy. You might identify closely with your team’s expectations. Delivering improved employee engagement might be integral to your plans for career advancement. You might want to find a way to ensure that annual ‘top-down’ engagement processes are less painful and disruptive, permanently. Or you might believe that doing right by employees is the right thing to do without any further agenda.
The varying expectations and requirements of all involved are not on equal footing, of course, and they won’t all complement one other, but any overlap represents a good potential area for prioritisation.
So, for example:
- If you feel that performance in your team is on the decline, you might choose to include a strong, careful focus on engagement in your approach to reversing that trend.
- If your organisation – and perhaps your team in particular – is about to experience a challenging period of change or crisis, you might choose to ‘ramp up’ your approach to engagement in order to reinforce team morale, resilience and commitment for the demanding duration.
- If everything seems generally ‘ok’, but senior management expect a strong annual increase in engagement survey scores, it may be time to challenge yourself – and your team – to work out what could be better and how. Bear in mind that, if them upstairs want sustainable results, they may need to be challenged too.
- If your team needs to grow significantly over the next three years, you may want to focus on putting in place a compelling – and authentic – value proposition to attract the right people at the right time, and retain them by delivering on all those promises.
Understanding what you have to do and what you want to do, as well as why you are doing these things and who you are doing them for, will help you to:
- identify and define objectives that are practical, robust, compelling and crystal-clear, aligned to key stakeholder priorities and much, much easier to plan and deliver;
- balance the short-term against the long-term;
- set ambitious but achievable and sustainable targets and timescales;
- avoid dead ends, red herrings and wild goose chases;
- recognise when you are off course and get back on track; and
- convert counter-productive pressures from above and below into productive energy that can help to drive you forward.
As soon as you have a clearer sense of your destination, you can begin to determine how you’re going to get there. We don’t mean brainstorming individual actions. Not yet. Instead, we’re talking about your overall approach – organising yourself and your thinking and putting in place a sensible but empowering foundation on which to build your plans.
Start by asking, “Where are we today?” Be honest with yourself. Pretending that things are better than they really are is not a healthy way to get started. At the same time, take care not to overlook any positives on which you might be able to build advantage.
Later in Part 6, ‘Taking action’, we talk about monitoring (and measuring) employee engagement. We don’t need to get into all of that here, but it might be helpful now to take a temperature check of your team’s current state of engagement. Whether or not you have other means at your disposal, we recommend taking a look at the free online diagnostic tool we have developed with our partners Hult-Ashridge, Stillae and SurveyLab, the Team Engagement Diagnostic.
This tool was developed in follow up to extensive research by Hult-Ashridge, in partnership with Engage for Success and Oracle, examining barriers to team engagement. We recommend a review of the findings, published as ‘Shades of Grey: An exploratory study of engagement in work teams’ and accessible via the same link to the diagnostic tool. The report is an excellent resource to aid and inform honest reflection on what realities (and contributing factors) may lurk below the surface of team engagement.
Next, think about what you stand for, your appetite for acting accordingly and how it should translate into your approach. Would you prefer your management epitaph to read, “Did it because they had to,” or, “Made a real and lasting difference”?
From there, think about how you’re going to do what you have to do:
Timescales and milestones
Realistically, how long is it going to take you to reach your destination? One year? Two years? More? And can you get there in a single move, or is your journey going to require lots of little journeys – navigating a sequence of milestones that keep you headed in the right direction but not always in a straight line?
For example, leading a highly-engaged team is an admirable and worthy long-term goal, but if your baseline is active disengagement, you should moderate your initial plans accordingly.
Or maybe you’ll decide that increasing the quantity and quality of employee feedback (e.g. driving up the number of people responding to an engagement survey) is your first priority, rather than focusing only on the messages delivered.
How will actively managing engagement fit into your day job? Will you squeeze it in ‘when you have time’, or give it pride of place on your daily schedule? Will you make it visible and inclusive, or something you wrestle with behind closed doors? Will you get it formally recognised in your role description and objectives, or let it take root in the cracks between everything else?
For example, if you’ve been instructed to increase engagement by 8% within 12 months, on top of an already unforgiving workload, you may need to negotiate some other priorities off your plate.
Team management and communication
How will you involve your team? Will you take a ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’ approach to engaging them in their own engagement? Will you confront and control, or consult and collaborate? Will you keep them informed or in the dark? Will you delegate responsibilities responsibly, making sure everyone has a valued role to play and providing them with the support they need to succeed?
For example, inviting and incorporating their ideas into a shared plan is a great way to kick off the new journey to higher engagement and win their commitment to making it happen. Asking different members of the team to manage different parts of the plan is a great way to create a compelling sense of shared ownership and accountability.
Broader stakeholder engagement
With regards to the organisation beyond your team, will you struggle in isolation, or admit to challenges, ask for help, invite and welcome feedback, share ideas and contribute to the bigger picture? Do you want to keep others out of your business and avoid getting dragged into their business, or do you want to share and sense-check whilst avoiding the duplication of effort and reinvention of wheels?
For example, you might encounter someone who has already done what you’re trying to do and is happy to share their experience, saving you the trouble. Or they might be about to attempt the same as you and are happy to share the opportunity, saving you some of the cost.
Working through these questions might be something you do with your team or choose to keep private. The purpose is to increase the likelihood of success by defining that success and accepting your responsibilities with conscience, care and common sense whilst firmly and securely grounding your ambitions in reality. In other words: knowing and accepting in advance what you can and can’t do, and what you will and won’t do.
Thinking through and being clear about your principles and policies and how they’ll shape and underpin your plans will help you lead the delivery of achievable actions in a more strategic way.
Without it, you risk setting yourself up to fail.
And now, only one question remains…
What do you want to do about your own engagement?
“Only engaged leaders and managers can create engaged teams.” Aon Hewitt, 2011
As a manager, your focus will be, quite rightly, on the engagement of your team. However, your own engagement is a critical factor – if not the critical factor – in the engagement of those for whom you are responsible.
In recent years, many employers have learned (often the hard way) that the single most important determinant of employee engagement is the engagement of their people managers. The US-based management consulting firm, Gallup, has reported that employees are 59% more likely to be engaged by highly-engaged managers than by managers who are disengaged. These results are reinforced by further research reported by the Harvard Business Review, which found employees are twice as likely to be disengaged if they report to a disengaged manager. Meanwhile, research by Aon Hewitt has indicated that managers are more likely to take meaningful action to improve team engagement if they are themselves engaged.
In other words, your engagement sets the trend.
If your engagement is on the up, you will find it easier to drive up the engagement of those around you. If your engagement is in decline, you will not be able to positively influence engagement in your team, regardless of any action you may take.
It sounds a little obvious when you say it out loud. To break it down a bit:
- You are a role-model of engagement. If you broadcast visible, authentic and proactive engagement, it will inspire engagement in your team and provide them with a helpful template for their own attitudes and behaviour.
- You are an agent of engagement. As such, you need the right relationship with engagement. If you internalise the relevance and value of employee engagement, you become a stronger and more successful champion for change. And if you’re personally invested – with a strong understanding of your own engagement – you will gain greater insight into the engagement of others and how to cultivate it.
Good news if you’re already highly-engaged. But if not? It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that disengagement is a risk at every level. As we know, engagement should not be assumed at any level. Your level of engagement should not be taken for granted by anyone, especially you. Nor should you turn a blind eye to any feelings of disengagement.
Your own engagement is not just yours to monitor and manage, of course, but as we know, individual employees (including managers) share responsibility for their engagement with their managers and the organisation at large.
As a manager, you have a responsibility – to yourself and your team – to keep your engagement up and trending in the right direction.
How to become a more engaged manager
Let’s revisit the responsibilities of the individual employee, applying them to you rather than the members of your team. You should be:
- aware of your own engagement and taking conscious, proactive ownership of it;
- understanding your personal engagement drivers and taking the initiative to align your experience of work and career to them;
- understanding your personal disengagement risks and taking the initiative to mitigate them; and
- striving to approach each day and respond to each situation with an optimising attitude and mindset.
But how do we do this? Right now, this may seem an unreasonable expectation – another thing to confront, unravel and stay on top of. And, if you happen to be in a rut at the moment, it can be even harder to lift yourself up, take a few steps back and adopt a new and more positive position and perspective.
We totally understand – we’ve all been there. Breaking out of a challenging spiral and changing direction is not always easy. You may feel that it demands more than you’re capable of. But answering these questions may not be as challenging as you might think. Chances are that you already have a feel for the answers. We strongly advise carving out some private time to focus, reflect and be honest with yourself.
And ask yourself this question: “Is it right for me to expect this of my team if I don’t expect it of myself?”
Going a step further, in their article, ‘Employees are responsible for their engagement too’, Gallup advise the following exercises as a way forward:
Beyond this, whilst the next two parts of the Engaging Managers’ Zone have been written to help you better understand the opportunities and challenges regarding the engagement of team members, you may find it beneficial to apply it to yourself.
In Part 4 we’re going to explore your employee engagement landscape – the background factors that may be already shaping and influencing employee engagement in the working world around you.
In Part 5 we’ll look at your local drivers of engagement – where and how levels of employee engagement may be within your control and influence, and potential areas of opportunity.
We recommend you browse Parts 4 and 5 twice: once for yourself and once for your team. Doing so may help you to define your own engagement in greater detail and cultivate the conditions in which it is easier for you to be an engaged, and therefore engaging, manager. By familiarising yourself with how and why engagement ebbs and flows around you and your team, you’ll be in a much stronger position to plan, pursue and achieve your objectives.
The Engaging Managers’ Zone
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