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Employee Engagement? Start with Leadership Engagement

Employee engagement is certainly a hot topic in companies these days, having a direct effect as it does on organizational success, employee retention and the bottom line. Unfortunately, I still see and hear too many instances of employees “checking out” and disengaging from work. The most common thread I see? Disengaged leadership, especially at the level of front line managers or project/team leads.  People tend to disengage when they have disengaged leadership.  After all, it is hard to stay excited about work when your supervisor or team lead doesn’t appear excited about the work, doesn’t seem to care about you, or shows no inclination to improve.

I once worked for someone who frequently told his team that “Happiness is a warm charge code.” Translated this means, “I don’t really care if what we are doing has any value whatsoever, as long as I’m paid and can make my mortgage payment.”  It was really hard to stay excited about working there and when the opportunity to go somewhere else came along I took it.

Leaders appear disengaged for a variety of reasons. Some, like the individual I worked for, really are disengaged.  Others are engaged in the work, but don’t know how to be engaged leaders.  Either they haven’t learned how, or are too busy trying to keep their head above water to realize how their actions appear to the team. The latter is especially true for new front line leaders. Often they were given leadership positions because of star performance as an individual contributor. They may also still be responsible for work as an individual contributor with leadership duties added on.  The tendency then is to focus on what they know best and not realize that their leadership role is equally if not more important.

How to be an engaged leader? Think UP, DOWN, and ON.

Engagement UP the chain. Know where you fit in the big picture. How does your team or unit affect the overall mission of the company? Do you have a clear vision of where you need to take your team to support that mission? How does your team interact with other units in the company?  Are you competing for resources? Are there interdependencies? Do others depend on you?  Are the demands being placed on your team reasonable? Do you find yourself complaining about other units or actively working to build positive relationships? Your team expects you to take care of that “stuff” so they can do their jobs. They also want to know that you have their backs or to run interference when necessary.

Engagement DOWN the chain.  Remember the adage that folks don’t care what you know, they want to know that you care. You need to make it a leadership priority to engage with your team, making individual connections on a frequent and consistent basis. Recognition, appreciation, and feedback need to become natural and expected. Being consistent and fair is a must. If you haven’t published your personal leadership philosophy, doing so is a great start.

Own your leadership role and make it a priority. Yes, we all get busy doing “the job”, but you need to find ways to thread leadership into every aspect of that work. As tempting as it is to want to be “part of the gang” you must remember that your words and actions have a greater effect because of your position. Others will emulate and mirror what you say and do. This creates additional responsibility that you must bear.  If you are a cynic, your team will tend to be as well.  Maintain a positive manner, and your team has a better chance of staying positive as well. Instill a culture of accountability both in yourself and your team. Ensure your team knows how they fit into the larger picture.

Engagement ON the chain. Realize that the skills that first got you into a leadership position, while important, are different than the skills you need to be a successful leader.  Leadership does not come naturally for most people.  John F. Kennedy famously said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Make a commitment to learn and improve your leadership abilities.

Honestly seek feedback both up and down the chain on your performance as a leader. Find the areas you do well and leverage them to greater impact. Discover your weaknesses and seek ways to overcome or improve. Don’t worry that those you lead will think that you are less than perfect. You should be more worried that they have the impression that YOU think you are perfect! We trust those that are aware of their own limitations. We distrust fakes that put on airs or who refuse to see their own shortcomings.

Being an engaged leader requires a commitment of us to care about something other than ourselves. We need to care about those we work for, those who work for us, and how we can be the best leader that we can be.


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