What Matters Most in Employee Engagement?

Simply put, an employee’s direct manager or supervisor has the greatest impact on an individual’s engagement in the workplace. While organizational culture, competitive pay practices, inspiring mission statements, and exceptional top leadership have an influence, it is the daily interaction and relationship with their manager/supervisor that drives employee engagement. Solid statistical analyses support this fact across all types of industries and organizations. Knowing this, how can leaders and owners of firms most readily impact the performance, retention, and satisfaction of their valuable employees? Three lessons from exceptional organizations stand out:

The Best Players are Not Necessarily the Best Coaches

Coaching (i.e. managing/supervising) typically draws on a much different skill set than playing the game. Tendencies in sports teams are to elevate the top players. When they retire from actual play, it seems logical that they would make great coaches. After all, they mastered the game and have the “street cred” to teach and train others. They typically worked hard to achieve their success and should be able to inspire others to do the same. Do not make this common error.

Great players may or may not be great coaches. Many are horrendous at inspiring others. Effectively managing, coaching, and leading requires strong interpersonal skills, a selfless desire to help others achieve, and an ability to pull people together toward a common goal. These are not the same talents that create great players.

Compounding the problem, many high performing individual contributors express a desire to manage because their ego or yearning for higher pay drives them. Some may feel entitled to a supervisory position because of their longevity and strong skill set. Be careful, such people will find success engaging others only if they also have strong desire to see others succeed. Great managers focus on people. Their success is about their team member’s success. In the end, engagement with all its benefits in performance, retention, and satisfaction comes from great coaches, not great players.

Constantly Identify Potential Managers and Supervisors

Understanding the concepts above is step one, identifying those with the genuine potential for supervisory or management responsibilities is step two. If you want highly-engaged employees, selecting and promoting great supervisors is absolutely essential. Here are some key lessons learned from a twenty plus year deep dive into how extraordinary organizations find those with supervisory or management talent:

Look for people that seek to discover what each person does best and endeavor to define and delineate roles around each person’s strengths. Look for people that others feel they can trust and that others feel will “have their back.” Look for people who can connect with others and genuinely care about the people on their team. Look for those that others seek out when bad things happen in their lives or in their work? Look for people that are stable and consistent. Great managers are not like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates—where you never quite know what you are going to get. Look for people that consistently recognize the contributions of others and acknowledge the accomplishments of different people in different ways.

Exceptional organizations endeavor to institutionalize this identification processes—they match those with managerial talents into managerial positions. They also are not afraid to move ineffective managers or supervisors back to individual contributor roles, or, if necessary, out of the organization. When the organization develops a consciousness for recognizing managerial talent, those crucial decisions to put the right person into the right role become almost second nature.

Focus on Your Most Talented People

Once you have identified those with the essential ingredients for management and supervision, training and coaching can help maximize their effectiveness. However, companies often miss the mark with their outside training dollars. It is typical to send struggling managers to management training courses. Many leaders also spend inordinate amounts of their personal time with a struggling manager in attempt to bring them up to par. While noble, such efforts are not usually the best use of the leader’s time or the firm’s resources. The returns are much greater if you put your time and effort into your most talented.

The situation is analogous to the selection of people for a speed reading course. Many think that someone who reads only 200 words a minute would greatly benefit from such training. Indeed, many 200 words per minute people increase their speed to as much as 600 words following the training, a three-fold increase. However, the 1000 word per minute person who is naturally a fast reader often reaches 10,000-20,000 words per minute as a result of the training, a 10X-20X improvement. The cost for the training is the same, but look how far the more talented reader advanced. If you want a high performance and high engagement organization send your most talented to extra training.

The same equation holds true for senior leader’s personal time allocation. The best leaders spend the time with their best people, because the payback is so much greater. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was one of the most extreme examples of this attribute. He was often criticized for his brashness and impatience with average people. For Jobs, it was all about “A” players. He had no patience for working with anyone but the best. While extreme, there was wisdom in Steve’s approach as it helped him create the world’s most valuable company.

A Primer on Employee Engagement

In many industries and services throughout the world, owners and senior managers are increasingly realizing the incredibly high correlation between employee engagement and critical outcomes: customer satisfaction, customer retention, employee retention, business unit profitability, and job satisfaction. The experience of extraordinary organizations clearly points to an employee’s first line supervisor as the person that most impacts engagement. Knowing this, avoid the trap of assuming that your best performer at a job should be in charge of people doing the same task. Develop a methodology to identify those with genuine supervisory/managerial talent and follow it. Finally, spend your time and resources on your most talented people. The returns in doing so will be much greater than trying to change a tiger’s stripes.

For more information including details on engaging your employees in a business or military environment, read my new book Commanding Excellence.

West Point distinguished graduate Gary Morton served as a tank officer, and then joined Stryker where he co-founded a highly innovative EMS Equipment business that redefined patient handling in the pre-hospital. His highly recommended new book is Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership That Matters see:


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