Employees get a lot of blame for their lack of engagement. Leadership initiatives to improve engagement often focus on techniques and programs to increase organizational engagement . . . by focusing on what to do to, or with, the employees. For the leaders themselves, the focus is on how to create the right environment or push the right "levers." Few leaders really know what they should focus on in their own leadership style. Below, we will give you 3 attributes to "set your sites on" to increase the likelihood to modeling engagement as a leader and increasing the odds that employees will follow your example.
If you read leadership material, a lot of the "talk" around employee engagement is about how to get the employees to be engaged. That is, how to get them to voluntarily be connected to the organization and be willing to use their discretionary effort to reach it's goals.
Many authors note that this engagement is more than a list of actions or behaviors, it is a relationship as well, but they then, despite noting the reciprocal nature of engagement, focus on the employees . . . and ignore the leadership side of the equation. This leaves the impression often that engagement is something leaders get employees to do. Transformative leaders focus on becoming . . . and helping others become . . . aligned with the values of engagement.
So, here are a few, brief, thoughts to help focus on leadership's role in developing an engaged workforce.
Another term for engagement is "betrothal" which is defined as a "formal agreement to get married." (Seen in this light--leaders and employers are in a marriage-like relationship--is it surprising that there are so many challenges. Note that this engagement includes, a decision to enter an agreement or contract and, that contract is aimed at creating a more permanent relationship between two parties.
Leaders who want to have engaged employees need to model engagement behaviors themselves. This doesn't mean "preaching" about engagement or creating incentive to engagement behavior. Carrots and sticks only work in the short-term and ultimately disencentivze employees.
Remember, it's about a relationship . . . and no one prefers to be in a manipulative, coercive, or unsupportive relationship. Yes, unhealthy relationships exist and even persevere . . . as long as there is no better option. When another option becomes possible the relationship ends.
While leaders often acknowledge both sides to this engagement relationship, i.e" "we want the best for our employees"; very few have thought through what it takes for a leader to engage with their employees on a deep level.
But leaders don't have time to a deep in-depth study of what it takes to become an engagement exercise. So let's boil it down to it's roots. What does it take to model healthy engaged behaviors? Here's what I think it takes . . . 3 primary attributes of an engaged leader . . . plus 2 for good measure!
1. Being Present
We hear a lot about "dead-beat Dads" or Mother's who "abandon" their children. We understand that to have a healthy relationship you must be present. Employees know when a leader is only "putting in the time" and not really "there for them."
2. absence can present itself in terms of a burned-out leader, an overly committed leader, traumatic events, or other factors. A leader who is not physically, emotionally, or behaviorally present will not have an engaged workforce--or if they do, it will be inspire of the leader and due to informal leadership within the work team itself.
2. A Non-Anxious Presence
Once of the biggest killers of engagement comes through leaders that cannot operate as a "non-anxious presence." They react. They drive. They create an uncertain, anxious, fearful, environment where some employees feel threatened and cannot predict what the leader will do. Thus they engage in a lot of unhealthy coping strategies . . . lying, avoiding, playing-it-safe.
3. High-level Communication
People think they communicate well. They don't. If you are trained and experienced in communication you know this. Within just two or three sentences, a trained expert can't identify elements that will make communication difficult, if not all-together, misleading. At it's worst it is corrosive or volitile. We do team training on communication utilizing a simple "disarm the bomb" electronic program. The teams are always terrible in the beginning. How can it be difficult to describe the color of wires or the buttons to push and in what sequence? Well, it is difficult. Imagine what happens to communication when their are emotions real consequences on people's lives in the mix.
Yet, like it or not, people are judged through the patterns of communication they employ. This includes both verbal and non-verbal communication. It is impacted by the tendencies and trends over time but can be undone by one or more single events during high stress moments (see non-anxious presence above).
4. A Desire to Improve . . . that is stronger than a desire to protect one's since or "self!"
One of the biggest problems in working with executives or their teams is that they give "lip service" to wanting to improve but act like they are protecting their fragile egos. To date, I have never had a senior executive admit to me that they are afraid to get honest feedback, fear the challenges of changing to help their team's success, or say they are satisfied with their level of competence. I have had them resist taking negative feedback, being defensive, blaming others, or avoiding. After all, they are human, despite being accomplished and successful. This is a "blind spot" they need to get over. They need a hunger to improve that will keep them engaged when it is tough.
In some form, every accomplishment is done for a reason. But reasons are not all alike in their ability to sustain effort. A reason that has deep meaning to the leader can sustains them through the difficult times . . . and keep them from "leaping ships" when experiencing quick success. The leader needs a deep commitment to something to risk engaging fully in the success of his organization. Without it employees will likely not engage deeply either. So, ask yourself this, "Why should I, as a leader, want to be present, non-anxious, and communicative? Why strive to continue to improve? Without good answers to these questions, your commitment, and your employees, is likely to wane with time.
All the best!