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Managers are the Key to Unlocking Employee Engagement

Santiago Jaramillo
Santiago Jaramillo

This article first appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

If you’ve ever left a job (or stayed at one) because of your boss, you’re not alone. The relationship between an employee and their manager is one of the top drivers of employee engagement and leading indicators of employee turnover. When that relationship is strained, it can create a disconnect between an individual and their motivation to do their best work. When a manager is leading effectively, their team members are much more likely to be engaged.

The truth is, a frontline manager can be an executive’s greatest ally in the war against lackluster employee engagement. The challenge for business leaders is making sure their managers are set up for success.

Don’t expect a great contributor to automatically be a great manager.

In my work with hundreds of business leaders on their company’s engagement journey, this is one of the most common and costly mistakes I hear about. New managers — individuals who are leading a team for the very first time in their career — are often put into situations they’re unprepared for. When you have a rockstar employee, it’s natural to assume they’ll be an amazing people leader and manager. But while that employee may very well deserve a promotion, it doesn’t mean they’re prepared to manage a team right out of the gate.

In fact, when an employee is put into a people management role without proper vetting and leadership coaching, their entire team’s performance can suffer. That manager will become discouraged and they (and their direct reports) may lose the motivation and drive they once had.

Leaders can sometimes feel pressure to promote their high-performers — often from the individuals themselves. So it’s important to balance employees’ desire to move up with their readiness to do so. The last thing any leader wants is to lose a great employee because they were put into a role they were unprepared for. It isn’t fair to them or the people on their team.

There’s no one-size-fits-all management manual. (But there is employee feedback.)

Without an understanding of what motivates employees and what they truly need to do their best work, managers are stuck checking boxes and enforcing policies. It’s up to executives to make sure managers are leading effectively. Unfortunately, what works for one team may not work for another.

While the strategy for being a great manager varies by company and culture, there’s a powerful tool that all managers can wield toward managerial greatness: employee feedback. When done well, it gives managers insight into what different employee groups need and the most effective ways to lead them. The more specific and consistent the feedback, the more likely it is that action will be taken.

It’s important that organizations encourage and model direct one-on-one feedback between managers and direct reports, while also providing a company-wide mechanism for collecting confidential feedback to shape the company’s people & culture strategy. This way, individuals feel comfortable sharing how they really feel about their job, manager, leadership team, and organization as a whole.

Make managers co-owners of employee engagement transformation.

Bringing managers into the fold and giving them ownership over engagement initiatives can be hugely beneficial and make transformation happen faster. After all, managers know the day-to-day challenges of employees best, and the organization can only win when teams are firing on all cylinders.

Invite managers to partner with your leadership team to determine ideal employee engagement outcomes. Then, give them the space and autonomy they need to come up with creative solutions to achieve those goals. Let them take ownership of how changes are implemented and how those changes are communicated to employees.

Key questions to ask ourselves as leaders of managers:

  • How can we better coach managers on leading with employee engagement best practices in mind?
  • How can we hire or promote managers based on managerial capabilities and competencies, rather than skills as an individual contributor?
  • How do we set new managers up for success and help develop their managerial skills?
  • How can we use employee feedback to identify opportunities for managers to better engage their teams?
  • How can we give managers constructive feedback and ownership over employee engagement initiatives?

Want to learn more about unlocking employee engagement in your own organization?

Get valuable tips and tools from my fellow co-founder Adam Weber in his on-demand webinar, 7 Steps to Engaging and Retaining Top Talent.

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