Lead from the front


Question: What made you want to come into work today? Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • I need the money

  • I enjoy what I do

  • It’s easy and I don’t have to think too much

  • I feel I contribute and make a difference

  • I believe in what the company

  • I work for does

  • It’s better than staring at the husband/wife/kids/dog/four walls all day.

This may seem a simple question and our answers may vary from day to day. But answering the question and looking at what motivates us at work, going beyond the obvious financial driver, can be a thought-provoking question and a mirror into organisational culture.

This question connects with the concept of employee engagement. This can seem a woolly HR topic, but it’s not something to be dismissed into the ‘nice to do’ pile. The cost of employee disengagement to the UK economy is substantial. One study estimated this cost to be in the region of £340billion, although an alternative study went for a more modest cost of ‘only’ £85billion.

Lack of employee engagement in your organisation may impact negatively on current profitability and could result in missed opportunities well into the future.

Research this topic and you will read research that elevates Employee Engagement to the lofty position of a ‘silver bullet’ that can cure all organisational ills and increase profitability. Other more cautious assessments don’t make such wildly optimistic claims, but do generally seem to agree that it’s a good thing and that the output will outweigh the effort.

Employee engagement should not be confused with factors around workforce satisfaction. A place can be judged as good to work, have high levels of employee retention and low absenteeism and a workforce that is generally happy but still suffer from a lack of employee engagement. Factors that contribute to a happy workforce such as fair pay, a safe and clean working environment and good working terms and conditions are essential. If these fundamental needs aren’t met, employees are highly likely to be disengaged. But meeting these needs alone is not a guarantee of engagement.

So what is employee engagement?

There are many different definitions of employee engagement. One by Mercer describes it as “a state of mind in which employees feel a vested interest in the company’s success and are both willing and motivated to perform at levels that exceed the stated job requirements. It is the result of how employees feel about the work experience – the organisation, its leaders, the work and the work environment”.

Employee engagement starts at the top of an organisation, with top managers responsible for creating the culture that encourages it. Senior management must set a clear organisational strategy that people can understand and buy into. Employees need to understand the goals of the organisation and their part in meeting them. They need organisational systems that encourage employees to have autonomy within their roles and also welcome input and ideas from all levels. It’s not possible to have employee engagement without these qualities being embedded in the work culture.

Statistics on employee engagement vary but tend to follow the same broad pattern. Research suggests that only about 25% of employees are actively engaged. Actively disengaged employees – defined as those who actively work against your organisation – make up only a small portion of the UK workforce (about 15%). That leaves a silent majority of employees across the UK who are neither engaged nor disengaged. For me this is an indication that many organisations are not fully utilising their greatest resource – their people.

An important factor that can impact on employee engagement is the influence of immediate line managers. A line manager plays a key role in ensuring employees feel connected with the organisation, has the opportunity to contribute to the organisation’s success and can lead in ensuring that their team members feel valued. But a line manager alone is not solely responsible for the levels of employee engagement in their team; many of the factors that influence engagement are the responsibility of top management. However, poor line management can destroy engagement regardless of what happens in the wider organisation.

Leading from the front

Approaches to build employee engagement link with the same skills that make a manager a great leader. There is a need to focus less on task management and more on seeing the role of a manager as a facilitator, supporter and mentor. This is about focusing on lifting the role of a manager to its higher purpose, which includes:

  • Ensuring the team understands its role in the bigger organisational picture

  • Create a working environment that encourages autonomy

  • Creating a culture that is blame-free and positive

  • Developing team talents and providing team members with opportunity

  • Ensure teams’ contributions are recognised, both privately and publicly

  • Ensuring each individual is challenged at the right level for them

  • Providing support to help teams overcome problems

  • Creating a culture that encourages change, ideas and innovation.

That is quite a list, and the saying that ‘managers are made not born’ rings true. Fortunately there are many ways managers can develop their skills. Self-awareness is the first key step.

Likewise, back to the broader topic of engagement, much of the work that an organisation can do to cultivate and improve employee engagement takes conscious choice and focus.

It can be difficult to divert the attention needed away from the day-to-day running of an organisation to focus on subjective concepts such as employee engagement. But when the outcome has the potential to impact on profits and the ongoing success of the organisation, it may be time well spent.

SELECT offers a year-round Management Training Programme in partnership with Edinburgh Napier University, which can fit around a full-time job. Contact SELECT Training for further information on 0131 445 5577.

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