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As a manager, you have a powerful effect on how engaged your organization will ultimately be. Employee engagement is ultimately a viral phenomenon. True, the word is terribly overused in a time when everyone’s talking about viral marketing, viral memes on social networks, and so on. But it makes sense when you’re talking about an organization — a living organism in which every employee is a cell. Inside the organization, ideas, emotions and attitudes spread in the same way that a virus spreads from cell to cell in the body.
An organization can’t say, “You will now be engaged.” Beyond choosing to be engaged herself, however, a manager can (and should) create conditions under which engagement can thrive, and then step back and see who “catches” the “engagement bug.” As a manager, you have a great deal of influence over this process. By virtue of your own level of engagement — what you say and do, rather than the orders you give or memos you write — you can help create an environment in which people will choose to be engaged or choose to be cynical and indifferent. You’re the boots on the ground, and your behavior as a leader can have a far greater impact on organization-wide engagement than decrees from the C-suite. After all, if you go all-in, your followers are more likely to do the same.
Our manager engagement research shows us something very interesting (and somewhat surprising): an engaged manager has a greater ability to uplift a team’s engagement level than a disengaged manager does to drag a team’s engagement down. According to the data, a team’s employee engagement increases by an average of 23% when that team’s manager is fully engaged. On the other hand, the team’s percentage of fully disengaged employees only increases by 7% when a manager is fully disengaged, versus fully engaged. In other words, if I’m an engaged manager, my team is quite a bit more likely to engage as well. If I’m a disengaged manager, well, human nature takes over.
So, what is a manager’s role in engagement? First of all, be transformational, not transactional. When I see articles that talk about this or that company’s “engagement programs,” and go into detail about awarding cruises to high-performing personnel, I cringe. Perks are important, but they don’t equal engagement. Perks are transactional. If I give you a cruise to the Caribbean this year, what happens when I don’t give you a cruise on the Rhine next year?
Our research into engaged teams and engaged managers has consistently revealed six common things that good managers do to create engaged teams:
- They are personally engaged. Not only do these managers preach engagement, they live it. They are engaged as both individuals and managers. They bring their hearts, spirits, minds, and hands to their work. It’s contagious.
- They are involved. We often see “management by exception,” which means the only time a subordinate interacts with her leader is when she does something well or really steps in it. Engaged managers are there day-to-day, taking the temperature, learning what people need to be inspired to give discretionary effort.
- They hire wisely. You may not have total discretion over hiring for your team or department. But you probably have influence. The engaged manager does whatever he or she can to ensure that new hires are people likely to get on board with the organization’s engagement environment.
- They create an environment of “MAGIC”: Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection. They understand the key components of engagement, and don’t try to substitute imitation satisfaction factors for what’s truly important.
- They don’t mess it up. When your team is fully engaged, sometimes your job is just to get out of the way and adjust the sails.
- They lead by example. More than anything, the engaged manager’s role is to lead by example. In the words of Gandhi, “be the change you wish to create.”
Engagement is the innate default setting of the great majority of human beings. We naturally crave engagement, and we will stretch to find it even in circumstances where it is not made readily available. If this doesn’t make sense, think of it this way. When was the last day you showed up at work and thought, “I sure hope today sucks”? Rarely, I would guess. One thing working to a manager’s advantage, then, is that human nature is to want to be engaged, regardless of the circumstances that surround us. It’s simply easier to do when my manager is also engaged, and creates that environment in which I can also choose to engage.