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How to increase employee engagement from the top down


Want a surefire strategy to increase employee engagement and develop a more committed workforce? Here’s a hint: It starts at the top. Before you start looking for a new business solution or industry buzzword, reach out to your managers first.

But are your managers engaged, or are they taking a quiet leadership approach that’s less about not micromanaging and more about feeling disengaged themselves. The business world is flush with research and statistics about the importance of employee engagement – loosely defined as an employee’s involvement with, commitment to, and satisfaction with work.

It’s clear employee engagement is important. But do you think your employees are likely to be engaged if their managers aren’t?

Probably not.

Managers drive increases in employee engagement

According to the Gallup, only 32 percent of U.S. employees are engaged (passionate and committed) at work.

That means two-thirds of the American workforce is either not engaged (essentially sleepwalking through the workday) or, worse yet, actively disengaged (deliberately trying to undermine their company and fellow employees).

So, how does low employee engagement affect your business? Another Gallup report states that businesses with engaged workers have 23% higher profit compared to those with unhappy employees.

So now that we can see the numbers show there is a high amount of disengaged employees, and we know that this can impact a company’s bottom line, where do managers and higher leadership fit in?

When managers are visibly committed to their work and role as leaders – coaching and encouraging employees, celebrating successes and proactively addressing challenges – employees often follow suit, and are more engaged themselves. They’re more productive, provide better customer service and are less likely to leave the company. Managers clearly set the tone to increase employee engagement.

How can you tell whether your managers are truly engaged, or they’re just going through the motions?

What disengaged managers look like

1. Lack enthusiasm for their work and the company: They may appear distracted and not invested in the company’s growth or future.

2. Don’t break a sweat: They do what’s required to get by, but not much else.

3. Avoid conflict: Disengaged managers may steer clear of difficult conversations or addressing employee performance issues – letting problems fester.

4. Take a reactive approach to management: They do little planning ahead and spend considerable time putting out fires.

5. Miss a lot of work: Frequently coming in late and leaving early is a sign of a checked-out manager.

6. Pass the buck: They often shift ownership and accountability for an issue to employees in order to avoid potential conflict or extra work. For example, if an employee asks for help dealing with a difficult customer, the manager may respond with something like, “That’s your job – you need to handle it.”

7. Complain: They’re quick to criticize difficult leadership decisions but don’t advocate for their employees or offer alternative solutions. A disengaged manager might say: “The head office is making us work weekends over the next three months. But there’s nothing I can do about it. This company just doesn’t care about its employees.”

8. Limit interaction with employees: They hide out in their offices, or conversely, make it a point to be anywhere but their offices.

9. Have a negative attitude: They generally appear bored and unhappy.

What engaged managers look like

1. Take pride in their contributions: They show enthusiasm, passion and excitement for their work and the team they lead.

2. Go above and beyond: They come in early and stay late when necessary, make an extra effort to learn new skills, and stay on top of changes in their industry.

3. Coach their team: Engaged managers offer their employees regular guidance and feedback to help them meet company and professional goals.

4. Apply a proactive approach to management: They take the time to strategically plan for their team, and ask for help when they need it.

5. Support their staff: If their team must work overtime, so will they, and they’ll bring in lunch or dinner for the team – whatever it takes to help make the experience better.

6. Address tough issues head-on: They deal with employee disciplinary or performance problems promptly, and take steps to improve the situation. In some cases that may mean terminating the employee, for the benefit of the team.

7. Are positive, but honest: Engaged managers are open with their staff about challenges, and what needs to be done to address them. For instance, “We’re understaffed, but here’s how we’ll get by until we hire new employees.”

8. Make the best of difficult situations: Instead of casting blame, they seek solutions. “It’s not great that we’re working weekends, but I’ve worked out a staffing plan that gives everyone one weekend off a month.”

9. Celebrate wins: When their team meets a goal – successfully launching a new product, for example, or going three months without a safety incident – they take time to savor the achievement. They may throw an impromptu office party, give employees time off, or some other reward.

10. Lead instead of manage: They understand what the company needs and inspire others to make it happen.

Employee engagement starts at the top

How do your managers stack up? Is there room for improvement? If so, it may be time to shift your attention to who manages your managers, because ultimately, engagement must come from top leadership.

Engaged managers and employees happen when your company’s leadership promotes effective communication, a culture of transparency, and policies that support the health and wellbeing of your workforce – at every level.

Ask yourself:

  • Do we empower managers to make decisions?
  • Are there opportunities for reward and recognition?
  • Do we show our managers that we respect their work and leadership?
  • Are there opportunities for managers to learn new skills or to advance?
  • Do we give managers enough time or resources to do their jobs?
  • Are our managers’ abilities and skills being put to good use?
  • Do we effectively communicate decisions, and our company strategy and vision, to managers?

If you answered “no” to more than one of the questions above, or were unsure, you may want to fine-tune your approach to manager engagement. Consider the HR outsourcing services offered by a professional employer organization (PEO). A reputable PEO can help assess your challenges and guide you in creating an action plan using strategies proven to increase employee engagement.

To learn more about engaging your entire workforce, download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to employee engagement.