Want More Engaged Employees? Help Your Leaders Improve

— March 7, 2017

Do an online search for “employee engagement” and you’ll get 10.6 million hits. Search for “employee attrition” and you’ll come up with 1.38 million hits. The old line is that employees don’t leave companies, they leave their manager. In fact, Gallup’s 2015 study, The State of the American Manager, found that fully 50 percent of employees left their jobs “to get away from their manager,” and that “managers account for up to 70 percent of variance in engagement.”

So, if we could do something about the managers that everyone seemed to be leaving, would we suddenly have a much better workplace? When I recently had the opportunity to interview Jean-Louis Van Doorne, Chief Franchise Advocate, Dale Carnegie Training, about their 2016 Global Leadership Study, I jumped at the chance to talk with someone who could help answer this question.

What Employees Want to See in Their Managers

Respondents to the survey reported that the qualities they found most important in their direct supervisors were often those that the supervisors were least likely to exhibit consistently if at all. Particularly poignant examples were employees’ desire to have “leaders who have the humility to admit when they are wrong, setting an example by modeling a willingness to learn from mistakes,” as well as leaders who encourage them, “making it safe to share their ideas, try new things, make mistakes, learn from them and improve.”

It turns out that Jean-Louis has read a couple of my pieces, Why Feedback Fails and What to Do Instead and The Painful Responsibility of Staff Failure, and he agreed strongly about how tough it can be to change a leader’s leadership without thoughtful structural and interpersonal support. He explained that many direct supervisors are “not really open,” so it’s the responsibility of senior leadership to “help them build confidence” and “make them comfortable to own their own mistakes.”

The Challenge of Change

“If we stop criticizing, they can start to take responsibility,” Jean-Louis noted. But he also acknowledged that today’s business environment is inherently pressured and stressful. This kind of deep behavior change “is a process — it is quite often the most challenging step.” He described three questions of self-awareness and commitment that leaders at all levels must be able to answer affirmatively before they can expect to have a realistic chance of improvement:

  1. “Do I recognize the need to change?” Typically this doesn’t occur without accurate behavioral feedback from surveys, 360 assessments, external coaching, or from a board or other leadership intervention;
  2. “Do I want to change?” Merely recognizing that change is desirable is rarely motivating enough; and
  3. “Do I have a desire to make the effort?” It takes deep commitment to create and sustain change, even when accompanied by coaching, mentoring, and other organizational support to help the individual feel capable of succeeding with the change.

Purpose Leads to Pride and Performance

I asked Jean-Louis whether workplace success depended specifically on employees having a strong relationship and positive emotional connection with their particular leader. He explained that the crucial sense of connection includes a positive relationship with their immediate supervisor, trust in their management, and pride in their organization. Unfortunately, therefore, even if direct supervision were to improve, employees still might not be fully engaged, because many organizations invest in the supervisor-to-employee link, but neglect the importance of the employees’ perceptions of the rest of the leadership and the organization as a whole.

Employees want “to be valued as a person who has skills,” according to Jean-Louis, rather than being valued only for their skills, as if they were walking skillsets, not whole human beings who are worthy and deserving of relationship. He recounted that employees ask him “all the time, ‘What’s the mission? How can I contribute to that?’”

So it may be that employees do leave managers, not jobs. But if organizational culture and communication provided the deep sense of purpose that comes from being treated and feeling like a meaningful part of the mission, both employees and employers could benefit from the powerful combination of personal commitment and developmental support.

With thanks to Jean-Louis Van Doorne of Dale Carnegie Training and Sabrina Burke of Burson-Marsteller for organizing our interview.

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Author: Liz Kislik

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