Why leadership will make and break employee engagement

In the bid to create a highly engaged workforce, it is all too easy to focus on the expectations of the employees themselves and the supporting organisational processes, tools and culture. Often, however, the most crucial driver of great employee engagement is overlooked entirely; that of the business’s leadership.

The value of great leadership

Great leadership is associated with higher performance, greater commitment, better organisational well-being and higher levels of creativity. The role of leaders is to transform everyday work into something that offers intrinsic meaning and value. Excellent leaders know how to instil a sense of pride, belonging and passion for the organisation and its mission – bringing the workforce along in a shared journey and experience that motivates them intellectually, socially and collectively.

Get your leadership right and your employee engagement will follow. Get it wrong and it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at a culture change programme – your engagement efforts simply won’t stick. Why? Because your leaders set the tone and expectation of the business. The ‘shadow of the leader’ effect means that employees want to see leaders who ‘walk the walk’ as well as talking the talk; acting with integrity and demonstrating the desired behaviours, values and performance-driven ethos that the business wants to see.

Do what I do…

The purpose of an employee engagement programme is to elicit that vital discretionary effort from your workforce. To encourage that kind of culture whereby people feel happy to remain for a little longer – continuing those innovative conversations and wrapping up interesting work – they must see that their leaders are prepared to do the same. Leaders who are rarely present in the office or who seem to spend time wining and dining rather than working and being part of the action will invariably fail to elicit commitment from their teams.

Employees need to see that passion for the company’s purpose and vision translated into meaningful action at the top. This visible commitment will filter down and guide behaviours at all levels of the organisation. The takeaway for leaders? Amongst the leadership team, make sure some of you are visible first thing when your staff arrive, some of you are present after 5 pm and – if there is a night shift – that at least one of you makes an appearance alongside shift workers and takes the time to speak to them and interact. This is a powerful motivator and demonstrates that you are one of the team.

Charisma and storytelling

Excellent leaders will very often exude charisma too. This translates into excellent storytelling about the company’s purpose, mission, objectives and values. When shared with passion, employees will invariably feel that they are part of something and attribute real meaning to their work. This drives forward that all-important discretionary effort, as individuals put their own immediate needs to one side and focus on the collective outputs of the team, and the desire to create something meaningful, positive and bigger than themselves. This is one reason why it is so important for leaders to be able to tell their corporate story in a compelling, immediate way that stimulates action and it’s something that we will talk about in more detail in another blog post.

Participative management

In old models of business, leaders would simply dictate what’s needed to be done and workers would deliver it in a prescribed way. However, modern leadership models seek to engage the full intellectual and creative capabilities of talented teams by working in a participative way that encourages input and involvement. This is a natural way of growing engagement with employees at all levels and can be as simple as asking teams what they think about business issues, listening to their responses and then acting on them. If employees feel that their leaders want to hear their ideas, experiences and know-how from the front line, they will naturally make more effort to get involved in change initiatives to better the company.

Reward and recognition

Leaders have a vital role to play in recognising employees’ achievements and efforts. By praising the desired behaviours of an engaged individual and providing reward where appropriate, leaders can send visible signals that hard work and effort translates into positive action for individuals. Reward can take different forms – from one-off monetary bonuses or equivalent gifts, through to promotion or visible responsibility. The important thing is to publicly praise the performance that follows on from engagement. When leaders are inspirational, passionate, act with integrity and demonstrate excellence themselves, the prospect of being recognised and rewarded by them can be a strong motivational factor.

These are just some examples of how strong leadership can be a powerful enabler of employee engagement. So remember not to overly focus on processes and tools – but remember to look inwards and at leadership capability before launching any internal change programme to better employee engagement levels. Satisfy that you have the right leadership credentials in place first – and invest in meeting any gaps which might currently exist.

Once your leadership team is strong and ready to act, you will have the foundation necessary to take your strategic change plans forward.