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Is Your Leadership Style Engagement-Focused?

Traci Cumbay
Traci Cumbay

In earlier days, employee engagement looked to leaders like an annual opportunity to assess and adjust. You hired the right people, you gave them the right incentives, and magic happened. Only it usually didn’t. Engagement is much more than good hiring and an annual check-up. Instead, think of engagement as the lens through which you view all workplace opportunities and challenges.

Maybe you’ve seen for yourself how much disengaged employees cost, even before they exit and leave you to find something new. Keeping employees engaged isn’t magic, and it doesn’t just happen — we have the research to prove it. If you aren’t actively working toward engagement, you’re facilitating disengagement.

We’ve said before that culture arises whether you cultivate it or not, and the same theory applies here. Something’s going to grow in the soil. You decide whether it’s the plants you want or the weeds the wind blows your way.

For example, everybody needs to feel challenged to do their best work. Employees who are underutilized perform well with the skills they’ve already developed, which makes their dissatisfaction easy to miss. Unless you ask. An employee who is bored, overdue for a promotion, or has dormant skills will be thrilled you did. (And if you don’t, that employee is probably going to continue to slide toward disengagement — and a new job elsewhere.)

As father of employee engagement William Kahn himself put it in a Workforce interview, engagement requires a partnership among leaders and employees, as well as “continuous dialogues and processes about how to design and alter their roles, tasks and working relationships — which means that leaders need to make it safe enough for employees to speak openly of their experiences at work.”

A foundation for engagement-centric leadership

We advocate for a shift in focus that puts employee engagement at the heart of your leadership strategy. It’s not like painting a room; you don’t do a lot of work over a short window and then enjoy your efforts for years to come. It’s a slow integration that never stops.

What’s more, getting started and maintaining that focus means you can avoid big problems instead of playing catch-up because employees are underutilized, unmotivated, and generally uninterested.

If you’re looking for a place to start, the following are game-changing elements for leading with an engagement focus.

Create a psychologically-safe space.
Even the go-getters go quiet when a workplace fails to ensure they feel safe to speak up. That means providing opportunities to check in, like one-on-one meetings, and creating a culture of openness. Those first recommendations are easier than the last one, most definitely.

If you’re letting one-on-ones slip off your calendar, you can’t fault employees for feeling that their perspective isn’t important to you. You’re not doing much for instilling trust, either.

Creating a culture of safety and openness not only means that you welcome feedback but that you share your own stories of challenge and failure. An atmosphere where people feel pressured not to make mistakes isn’t one where they feel free to offer their own suggestions and insights, let alone their concerns.

Foster autonomy.
Autonomy is another element of trust (and the opposite of delegating, which can go hand in hand with micromanagement). Employees with greater autonomy feel trusted to use their knowledge and skills to do their jobs according to their best judgment, including asking questions when they don’t know what they need and offering feedback when they have insight that would benefit the organization.

In addition to developing trust, autonomy enables employees to inject their projects with personal meaning, and that adds up to greater motivation and satisfaction. If you don’t know where the opportunities for autonomy lie, our advice is the same as is a callback to the previous point: ask.

Regularly solicit feedback.
Moving the bar on engagement requires regular, ongoing feedback. Inviting employees to participate in confidential quarterly surveys along with regular employee-manager check-ins provides leaders with insights and highlights issues. Those things add up to quick problem resolution. Solving problems you haven’t identified isn’t smart management but dumb luck. Acting quickly for those that have come to light, though — that’s the stuff that giants are built from.

We go into detail on these recommendations and the science behind them in our report: The Qualities of Effective Managers. Download your copy.

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