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Employee Engagement Begins with Leadership

August 23, 2017

Employee Engagement is all the rage these days. Companies across industries and geographical divides are all scrambling to get on the engagement train.  On the surface this is good news for the global workforce; bosses are finally waking up to the reality that having a happy, well-adjusted workforce is more than just a “nice-to-have”— it is a necessity in running a successful business.

Unfortunately, this engagement movement has begun to take on a “slogan management” feeling that threatens to see it go the way of TQM. Companies are focusing on perks they can offer and enhancements to employee benefits — more time off, better 401k, bring your pets to work (you get the idea). 

In my experience, what is being overlooked—perhaps overlooked is too generous… what is devoid in most efforts is the stark reality that no strategy, vision, service, product, or business success occurs without people. People are not a resource to be dealt with. People are the only true essential to any human endeavor. 

Geoffery Toffetti

I cannot tell you how many times I have sat in corporate executive meetings listening to strategies being devised, and there is no discussion about how to motivate their employees to execute them.  It’s as if a strategy is a magical process by which human feelings and perceptions are numbed, and where workers will simply give all of their effort.

For a person to exert all of their passion, effort, and creativity (what employee engagement seeks), they must first believe in their value. They must see themselves as essential to the plan and understand what role they play in it. They must be inspired by their leaders who push them beyond their comfort zone, to performance levels they did not think were reachable.

Sounds like hoity-toity philosophy, doesn’t it? Too much to hope for in the day-to-day grind of running a business?  I want to let you in on a profound secret: if you are not fostering the kind of environment I just described, you are causing yourself and all of the managers in your business to work much harder than necessary.

You see, when you become the inspirational leader who reinforces employee belief in themselves and the role they play, they will grant you their full effort, thereby making your job much simpler and in turn offering you more time to spend strengthening the environment.  It’s a chicken and egg thing.

There is a concept I like called “discretionary effort.”  Discretionary effort is defined as the difference between doing enough to be considered a “good” employee and doing enough to be a top performer.  If you assess the KPIs you use to measure performance, you will likely see a huge delta between those employees in good standing and those considered to be “the best.”  The difference in the performance you are seeing is the manifestation of “discretionary effort.”

The common assumption is that the top employees are self-motivated and ambitious, so therefore one cannot expect all employees to perform that well.  I have heard innumerable times “we can’t expect everyone to be a top performer.”  Why not?

The real issue is that there is a lack of leadership development. This lack begins in youth sports (everyone gets a trophy now, and no one is allowed to win), continues in K-12 and college education, and then makes its way into the workforce. Nowhere in any of these places are people taught the truth about leadership.

I am sure by now you are saying to yourself, “this is not true, my company offers developmental training for managers…”

The issue lies in the nature of leadership. Leadership is not management. Leadership is not measurement. Leadership is not policymaking, strategy development, or process optimization, or… well, you see where I’m going.

Leadership is how you make people feel.  Let me say that again, leadership is how you make people feel.

Sound strange?

I am not going to dive into brain/body connection and the physiology of emotion, though they are great topics for leaders to study; but I have studied engagement and leadership in great depth. People follow leaders who make them feel safe. People follow leaders who make them feel valued.  People follow leaders who make them feel confident, recognized, trusted, competent, liked, loved (yes loved), and a part of something greater than themselves.

There is a reason that the most successful leaders can jump to an industry they have no experience in and continue to be successful. It is because they fundamentally understand and believe that their job is to inspire and protect the people who have entrusted their wellbeing to them.

I am compelled to illustrate this point using my 11-year-old’s club soccer experience. By way of background, let me just say that he is as good of a soccer player as the others on his team.

When my son moved to club soccer he was so excited. He was coming from a developmental team where he was the top scorer and an anchor for the team. His confidence was high and he was so proud of himself for making it through the tryouts.

When the team began practicing the coach quickly formed an opinion that a few of the players were superior to him and gave them the positive reinforcement of that belief. My son received a lot of correction and negative reinforcement. By the time the games started, my son was benched and only played one quarter on average.

Within a few weeks, his confidence was shot and his play began to reflect that. He was tentative on the field and made mistakes that he never made when he was younger. The coach had convinced him that others were better and he believed him. At 11-years-old this is a very dangerous position for a coach to take and has had a devastating effect on my son’s love of soccer.

After the season, he was placed with another coach in the club. The new coach assessed him fairly and gave him consistent encouragement. Over the course of the next season, his confidence returned and he is now back on track. The former coach played his favorites the majority of the time (silly when you are supposed to be developing technical skills and not worrying about winning). The new coach rotates the players so they all get to blossom in gameplay.

I chose this analogy because there are too many variations of business model and product or service offering to find one that will resonate with everyone. In this example, you can conceptualize the point.  As a leader, your job is to make every player on your team feel valued by encouraging them and guiding their development. Spending disproportionate time with those who, in your perception, appear to perform better only stands to marginalize most of the team. How can a leader know who has the most potential if they grant faith to only one group of people over another? For more on this, Google the Pygmalion Effect.

If, as a leader, you form authentic relationships with everyone under your leadership and provide them consistent feedback that reinforces their strengths, you will begin to understand their potential. Only when you have provided this fair leadership can you truly assess performance. If you create a positive, trusting, performance-oriented culture, it becomes obvious to everyone if someone is not honoring that culture by granting you their discretionary effort. Ambiguity becomes clarity. Your job as a leader is simplified because the culture will not tolerate negative influence or apathy. When you have to remove an employee from the environment, it will not foster fear and anxiety among your team, it will be met with gratitude.

While there are certain skills and traits that must be well developed to achieve a high level of leadership—things like good judgment, situational experience, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence—the ultimate foundation of leadership reside in everyone. As the age-old adage goes, treat people the way you want to be treated. When people feel that you trust them and then experience that you treat them with dignity and respect they will be open to your leadership. When you demonstrate your willingness to put yourself in harm’s way to protect them, they will follow you. Just make sure that you do not lead them astray…