A Key to Employee Engagement: Enlightened Leadership

Published on May 23, 2014 by

According to the most recent research from Gallup, our “employee engagement” problem isn’t getting better. What is employee engagement and what does it mean to be engaged at work? Being engaged at work means you have an emotional connection to what you do and to the people you do it with and you’re willing to give what’s called “discretionary effort.” In other words, you go above and beyond, not because you feel compelled to, but because you want to.

We have more unengaged employees than we do engaged employees. Who are they? They are the team members who only give what they believe they have to in order to keep their jobs. However, I’m not just talking about the ones who are weak performers. Unengaged team members might do good work. They meet their manager’s expectations, but their mind and heart really isn’t in their work. They’re not passionate about what they do and who they do it with. They come to work and they do good work, but they don’t do great work.

Why is it that our employment engagement problem isn’t getting better?  

One reason is that we have done such a mediocre, if not poor, job of selecting and preparing team leaders, supervisors and managers. Most of them were put in the leadership role because they were good or outstanding individual performers and individual contributors. They weren’t put into leadership positions because they know how to get the best out of others—that is rarely a deciding factor in who gets promoted to a supervisor or management level.

Why is the ability to understand people, connect with others and inspire them not at the heart of the question of “Who will be our managers?” I believe there are two reasons:

  • Because we can get by with what we’re doing.

Most organizations are successful enough to stay in business and they get lulled by that success. They’re not leading their industry, but they’re doing good enough to get complacent. If what we’ve been doing seems to be working, we have to be motivated to change either by pain or a drive to excel. Our problem with employee engagement is we don’t feel it’s that big of a problem.

If the organization is stable and profitable enough, how do we determine if we have a problem? Why don’t we have more leaders who say, “The problem is that we are getting by in terms of doing what we’ve been doing, but we can’t let our current success stop us from greater success.” We need more leaders who say, “Our people deserve better from us and we’re going to give it to them. Yes, it will cost us, but the good news is that investment will pay off.”

  • Senior leaders are isolated and protected.

Most senior leaders don’t realize there is a real problem with the quality of leadership because they don’t have to deal with it. They live in an isolated and protected universe where the real truth of what’s happening far below them never reaches them. Oftentimes, it’s because their people know better than to tell it like it is. That happens in organizations of all sizes and it’s the norm, not the exception.

We can’t expect employees at large to be super motivated and committed to their work and organization when the top leaders don’t even deal with the reality of what work life is like for them. Leaders who want their people to be engaged but who aren’t engaged enough with them to do the hard work of finding out what’s going on are never going to get what they want. If you want to get what you want, you have to be the first to give.

How do we fix our problem?

We would see engagement rise considerably, even dramatically, if we would provide employees with a “manager” that knew how to lead, inspire and coach others. That would be a manager that truly cared and knew how to communicate they cared. Give people a team leader, supervisor or manager who has a compelling vision, communicates clear expectations, holds team members responsible for outstanding work ,  is comfortable with conflict and who loves their team and you will fix your employee engagement problem.

You might say all that is a tall order and I’m not being realistic. However, there are a few enlightened leaders that prove otherwise. They are the ones who have said,  ”Let’s  invest in our team leaders, supervisors and managers and do it consistently." They also say, "Let's only put someone in  a leadership position that is already demonstrating the ability to inspire others to be their best." We already have some leaders like that. They're the ones leading organizations that are in the top ten percent of their industry or who are leading their industry—and have the highest percentage, by far, of passionate and committed employees. (Think Whole Foods Market, Southwest and Google.)

The employee engagement challenge is not without solutions. The challenge is that the solutions will only be enacted by enlightened leaders. All others will continue with business as usual.