Miscellaneous Fast Company

The Key To Employee Engagement Has Less To Do With Management Than You’d Think


Mark Lukens

May 20, 2014

Engaging workers in their jobs is vital to success, leading to better work and lower turnover. But it’s also a real challenge. In an age when 74% of workers want to walk away from their job, companies clearly aren’t creating that sense of commitment.

Engagement is about creating an emotional connection between employees and their work so that they want to put in the extra effort.

But while a lot of talk centers on how management teams can create engagement, real engagement comes from taking the opposite approach, by engaging from the frontline back.

Customer focus: creating frontline engagement

A recent survey by Bain & Company found that engagement was lowest in the lower tiers of the company where people have less control but more customer contact.

This is therefore where engagement activity can make the most difference, and it is also the place where real change can take root.

Employees at the frontline collectively have the best knowledge of what customers want and what bothers them. This is what they care about. If they can satisfy those customers then they will be satisfied in their jobs, feeling like they’re achieving something.

To create real engagement start by talking with those workers about what their customers want and the obstacles to their satisfaction. Empower your customer-facing employees to solve these problems whenever possible, and as they feel more successful and deal with happier customers, they’ll also feel more engaged.

Meaningful progress: spreading the passion

This initial engagement is only the tip of the iceberg. If you want your employees to be emotionally committed to your organization then you need them to feel involved with its purpose and direction. This means giving them some ownership over strategy.

Don’t get a bunch of consultants to define your strategy, and don’t let it be dictated by management: consult with your employees.

They know your company, its customers, and its workings better than anybody else. Set up working groups, intranet forums, and whatever else it takes to gather their opinions on where the company should be headed, how, and why. They’ll help you come up with a better strategy, and because they’ve been involved in creating it they’ll be more committed to seeing it through.

When you bring about changes in the organization as you must to improve engagement, involve employees in implementing these changes.

Don’t just go through shallow consultations: Involve them in the work and the decision making, no matter what their day job. Tap into their knowledge of their area, respect their expertise and interest in their customers, and they’ll return that respect to the company, deepening their engagement.

Supporters not statues: the role of management

So how does management fit into all of this?

Senior management are not the best people to lead engagement. They tend to resort to throwing perks at the problem instead of real change. And when they step in, this takes control from employees, weakening their engagement.

The answer is to let line managers take responsibility for shaping engagement in their area. Of course they may need support in how to do this, but that means providing training and guidance, not telling them what to do. They’ll feel more engaged and be better able to engage their teams.

To achieve engagement, senior managers need to stop acting like great kings of old, raising statues in their own honor to boost morale. Instead they should be like a sports team’s supporters, cheering everyone else on.

Mark Lukens is a Founding Partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20 plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.

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