Employee Engagement Is More About Leaders Than Employees

Much of employee engagement depends upon leadership engagement; it’s a two-way street. In fact, it may be even more of a one-way street from leaders to team members than the other way around.

So often when I talk to leaders about employee engagement, the strong temptation is to place the responsibility (and blame, if you will) on the employees when they don’t engage and do what leaders ask… or don’t do in the way leaders ask for it… or in the timeframe in which they request it. Leaders usually discuss the ever-present question of, “Why don’t they do what they’re supposed to do?” In fact, I’m often hired to motivate a team to engage and perform together as a cohesive unit, which is great because everyone needs education, inspiration and motivation on a regular basis.

But educating and motivating the team is only one piece of the equation. Leaders cannot go about business as usual, as if all responsibility rests on the team. Leaders must also engage because one-time motivation from an outside person will not cut it. I love it when I hear a leader ask, “What do I need to do differently to get them excited about doing what I need them to do?” (OK… maybe not excited, but at least committed and taking ownership for their responsibilities and duties.) This shows me that the leader is committed to engaging just as much as they expect their team members to do, and they’re willing to learn how to do it consistently to create a culture of engagement – rather than a one-time “motivational” event that makes things worse once it’s over and team members realize that there is no change (or ownership) on the part of their leaders.

I was talking to a leader last week who was sharing with me some great insights into his leadership style and why his people loved working with him so much, when suddenly he dropped the motherlode of insights with one quick little story that says it all! Here is what he shared.

He retired a couple of years ago from a company where he had worked for over 30 years. He was a Manager in the Maintenance Department, so his people were in charge of fixing anything and everything that needed attention on the property… a HUGE property. Light bulbs, fans, doors, windows, outdoor equipment… everything.

While he was leading the team, he would go out to the various locations on the property, talk to his people, say hello whenever he saw them individually or in a group, sometimes joke around with them. In other words, he built relationships with them because he showed them that he cared about them as people. Any time he needed anything, his people did everything in their power to not only do it, but do it immediately and do it exceptionally well. They all exhibited extreme pride in their work and in everyone on the team.

As he was preparing to retire, he was asked to train his replacement, which he gladly did. He told the new manager all about the job, but then passed along the best piece of advice he could offer: get to know your people; visit them at the different locations, learn who they are, go out there sometimes JUST to say hello. In other words, “don’t be a stranger.”

He retired, confident in the knowledge that he had done his best to train the new person and was leaving his team in good hands.

About a year later, he began hearing troubling reports. From the manager, he heard that when he requested something of the team, they didn’t always do it right away, but took their sweet time getting around to it. He’d have to go and hound them sometimes to get things done.

From the team members (some of whom had kept in touch with him from time to time, due to the relationships he had built while he was there), he heard, “Well, we never hear from him unless he needs something. He doesn’t care about us, so why should we care about him?”

And there it is: This is the same team, comprised of the same team members, that had gone to the wall for the previous leader (so you cannot make the argument that their work ethic was faulty or missing, as is so often suggested when a team doesn’t perform), but was now demonstrating a seemingly “faulty” work ethic under the new leadership.

Was their work ethic faulty? Absolutely not. The ONLY difference was the style of the new leader, who treated them as just another number… or possibly as a piece of the equipment they were supposed to maintain – only giving them attention when he needed something from them.

Humans rarely react positively to the feeling that you only care about what they can do for you on an as-needed basis… rather than building a two-way relationship with them that inspires them every day to care about whatever might come your way. The same team that responds positively to a mutually engaged leader will disengage just as quickly when that same leader (or any other) disengages from them as human beings and tries to engage them merely as “just another worker.”

But when we let them know we care about them as people, show them that we are there for them (physically, emotionally and in job-related ways), and just be present for them, they will go to the wall for us.

That is engaged leadership… and it inspires engaged followership.

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