Leading an “Employee Engagement” Revolution

Published on March 15, 2013 by

A consulting colleague told me today about a four day leadership meeting he facilitated. Everyone was excited. The CEO had been talking the event up and made sure everyone knew he would be there ready to participate. But the leadership event came and went--without the top leader--and without any explanations as to why he wasn't there for this "important" leadership training meeting.

Another colleague told me yesterday about a CEO who had asked him to do 360 feedback sessions with the "leadership" of her company. What the CEO meant to say was "I want you to do the 360's with everyone on a 'leadership' level--except for me and my senior leadership team."

There's a lot of talk today about employee engagement and the consensus is, "Houston, we have a problem." I agree, we do have a problem--but maybe not the problem we think. Do we really have an employee engagement problem or do we have (first and foremost) a leadership engagement problem? I think it's the latter.

Our so called employee engagement problem is really a leadership problem in disguise. To get at the employee engagement problem, we have to get at the leadership engagement problem. If we want to raise the level of employee passion and performance, we have to raise the levels of leadership engagement (how leaders engage "employees") in our companies and organizations. That's the first step in leading an employee engagement revolution.

If leaders want their employees to be engaged, they have to go first. That is what leaders do--they go first. They provide an example; they provide a living example of their vision in action--especially in how they think about and how they engage their followers. The fact is, we don't have an employee engagement problem, not really. But we do have a leadership engagement problem.

What most leaders don't realize, is how they create the problem of "employee engagement." That's because most leaders think they are doing "just fine, thank you." On a conscious level, most leaders think they can always improve. But on the subconscious level, they don't really believe it's critical that they do improve--at least not today.

Leaders need to rethink the employee leadership problem and ask this question: "What do I have to change in myself to begin an employee engagement revolution in my company?" The leader who asks self this question is the kind of leader who  recognizes that employee engagement begins with leadership engagement. That kind of leader is the leader who  attracts and develops engaged employees.

Anything less than that will get "less than" results.

The truth is it takes engaged leadership to lead an employee engagement revolution.

Let me know what you think.



  1. JoAnn Corley

    You are so right Alan, you are addressing the "leadership ripple effect" - which many do not see and others do not have the courage to inform. Behind every great team is a great coach. Additionally making sure folks in are the right fit for the role is huge! As discussed in Good to Great by Jim Collins - get the right people on the bus and then make sure they are in the right seat!

  2. Alan Allard

    Hi JoAnn, thanks for the additional insights. You are so right, having the right people "on the bus" and then in the "right seat" is the foundation for employee engagement. I love the work you do JoAnne, thanks for stopping by and weighing in on this!

  3. Rob

    Great reminder, Alan. Ironically it seems the biggest challenge in creating additional “employee engagement” is for leaders to hear and prioritize this message. From my own experience one of the biggest pitfalls is believing you are too busy to do this “additional work”. Recently I have seen my direct leader take the lead in supporting a change initiative and it makes all the difference in the world.

    • Alan Allard

      Hi Rob. You are right, when leaders are out front in a change initiative, their action gives substance to what they way. Without that, whatever they say is met with doubt at best, and cynicism at worst. You seem to have a great manager that has earned your respect and loyalty. Thanks for you comments!

  4. Dana

    The PICU that I work in has been struggling with "lack of engagement" and "low morale" for about a year now. What's interesting after reading this is the changes that the leadership structure has made. They have stepped away from the bedside and retreated into their offices. What's more, when there used to be 8 nursing managers and 2 APN managers, there is now only 3 nursing and 1 APN manager. Even more interesting are the few staff that do feel engaged and truly have job satisfaction are all under the leadership of the one manager who is known for taking time with her people, and getting involved! Certainly I think that the lack of engagement stems from the lack of involvement of the leadership. While steps are being made to rectify the low volume of managers, I don't think changes will be seen in staff until there is a full volume of active leaders.

    • Alan Allard

      Dana, thanks for sharing your experience and insights. What you described is sad, but typical. Leaders retreat into their offices because its safe there and because they feel powerless to turn things around. You have a manager that really "gets" what leadership is about, knowing each person on her team and being "involved" with them, as you said.

      Few managers have been trained beyond the mere basics, but somehow we think they will somehow do better before they know how to do better. I wonder if your manager's peers have noticed her effectiveness and have asked her for help with their leadership skills?

      Thanks for stopping by and for weighing in on this discussion!

  5. Celena Collins

    I agree with your argument, that a lack of engagement would begin with the leaders, since they are the ones that go first. My own experience of little engagement from both management and team members was quite miserable, and now, after reading articles like yours, I can put myself in the shoes of those that let me down. These under-trained managers were doing what they were told, they had multiple jobs to perform where the least important was to "lead" their teams.

    These old managers of mine were afraid, uncertain, and felt they had to either retreat or lash out in attempts to look like they were in control. I was grateful to be laid off when I was, however, I feel badly for them now, and I would see them receive effective leadership coaching and management training to improve that working environment.

    I totally agree with you Allan, managers set the stage, whether they are confident or fearful, both are contagious. If we want employees engaged, we need to train our managers to lead them into that engagement.

    • Alan Allard

      Hi Celena,

      You are so right when you say, "managers set the stage, whether they are confident or fearful, both are contagious. If we want employees engaged, we need to train our managers to lead them into that engagement."

      Few managers are really trained and coached to lead their teams effectively. Of course, that's a failure in leadership to begin with. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your insights. I'm off to a client's work site now, but I will check out your website later today.


  6. Roxane Hettinger

    A study conducted by Dale Carnegie determined there are 3 key factors in determining employee engagement: employee relationship with supervisor, leadership’s goals, and organizational pride

    In order to feel engaged (have a positive attachment to their employer), employees need to feel valued. They also need to feel proud of what they do and of the company they work for.

    According to the Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci), “Employee engagement is a direct reflection of how employees feel about their relationship with the boss.”

    How you feel about your boss is influenced by many factors including how well you communicate with them, how clear they are about your job performance, the level of recognition/reward they give for a job well done, and their level of commitment to the employee’s career development.

    Unfortunately, in today’s lean market place, bosses are given little time to develop the factors needed to build employee engagement. What more, many managers (typically in sales) have their own quotas to make; which often times are in direct opposition with employee engagement since they are in competition for the same resources.

    While direct supervisors are the scapegoat for lack of employee engagement, I cannot help but wonder if the blame would be more appropriate if put on the senior leadership/owners whose goals put the direct supervisor at odds with employee engagement.

    • Alan Allard

      Roxane, thanks for stopping by and for your insights and the references to studies on employee engagement. You point out something significant: "Unfortunately, in today’s lean market place, bosses are given little time to develop the factors needed to build employee engagement." All of us can be guilty at times of being short-sighted. When senior management does't take the time, make the effort and invest in what is required to build a culture of engagement--from the top down--everyone suffers; not just short term, but long term. Thanks again for your insights.

  7. Jo Dodds

    Really good article, thanks Alan, including some great insight in the comments too, thanks everyone! We talk about getting buy in from CEOs on the importance of engagement and often we get it, because they themselves are naturally engaged with the business (you would hope so!). But clearly knowing it's important and being able to do it are two completely separate things, and therein lies the challenge.

    Really excited that there is increasingly so much conversation around this topic with a view to trying to improve things - little by little!

    Within the Engage for Success movement in the UK we talk about 'the four enablers' - having a strong strategic narrative, engaging managers, employee voice and integrity, which can be helpful when thinking about development in this area.

    • Alan Allard

      Hi Jo and thanks for dropping in from across the pond. You are so right when you say, "But clearly knowing it's important and being able to do it are two completely separate things, and therein lies the challenge." Managers and supervisors need more training and coaching--on an ongoing basis--to learn how to lead their teams more effectively. That means senior leadership has to prioritize continued learning and development.

      I am happy to hear of the Engage for Success movement in the UK--and I like the four enablers you mentioned.

      Thanks for your insights Jo.

  8. Jo Moffatt

    We ran a survey in the UK to uncover the extent to which organisations use their brands to help create a healthy internal culture. One of the questions we asked was "Your exec team, do they: Live the values 41%, Pick and Choose the ones they like 33%, Abandon when the going gets tough 12% or Dismiss altogether 14%. Says it all really.

    • Alan Allard

      Jo, thanks for your comments and for your survey results. I'm not surprised, as I'm sure you weren't. We have a lot of work to do and we all need to take responsibility to do what we can.

      • Jo Moffatt

        Thanks Alan - it occurs to me you may find the survey report of interest so here's the link http://bit.ly/KHvQgQ

        • Alan Allard

          Jo, you read my mind--I meant to ask about the report!

          • Jo Moffatt

            My pleasure

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