A lot of the discussion and research on employee engagement, or lack thereof, in the past year has focused on employee responsibility and actions that result in a lack of engagement, it is also clear that company culture and the actions of organizational leaders are creating problems too. However, Gallup research published in February shows that the actual culprit in engagement stories are company managers and executives.    

In fact, Gallup, found that managers are the ones that have the most significant impact on engagement, accounting for around 70 percent of the variations in employee engagement scores. The Employee Engagement and Performance study based on a survey of 112,312 business unit, found that after a rollercoaster 2020, U.S. employee engagement increased to 39% in January, up from 36% late last year.    

However, there were problems. Manager engagement, according to Gallup, is too low. In 2020, manager engagement, already low, declined from 34% to 33% in the first to second half of the year. The engagement of managers is critical because they set the tone for the engagement of the people who report to them — managers affect 70% of the variance in team engagement. They are responsible for keeping employees informed on what is going on in the organization, setting priorities, and providing ongoing feedback and accountability. The decreases in engagement during June of 2020 were associated with declines in manager engagement.

What Drives Engagement?

Elizabeth Gilbert is head of research at Toronto-based Psychology Compass where she focuses on developing science-backed lessons and interventions to help productivity. She explained that engagement — that elusive mix of motivation, absorption, and energy — occurs when people:      

  • Care about what they are working on (i.e., value the goal)  
  • Believe they have the resources to achieve it.    

 “Too often, organizations ignore the latter requirement. They simply don’t provide managers and mid-level leaders the resources needed to successfully complete their goals — whether it’s the training, time, workforce, or authority to implement needed change,” she said. “This erodes managers’ sense of what psychologists call 'self-efficacy.' Essentially, managers disengage because they no longer believe challenging work leads to achieving their goals.”     

Top leadership should thus step back and assess how to increase managers’ sense of self-efficacy. Ask managers what they need. Encourage managers to reflect and report on how they spend their time, common frustrations, and what resources would help them to achieve their work goals. Crucially, she added, the executives need to provide managers with the resources needed to complete their work goals.   

Guidance, clarifying job duties, or even a simple acknowledgement of their successes might be enough to boost their self-efficacy. But some projects may require more intensive sources like monetary investment, hiring employees with specific skillsets, or ongoing mentorship. If the company does not have the resources to empower its managers, then the goals may need to change.

Related Article: Think Employee Experience Is the Same as Employee Engagement? Don’t Be So Sure

Accountable Leaders

If leaders set the tone for their teams, weak or mediocre leaders quickly demotivate even the best performers in the workplace, Vince Molinaro, CEO of Canada-based Leadership Contract and author of the book Accountable Leaders, says.  Accountable leaders, on the other hand, take personal ownership of their roles and bring a sense of urgency, courage, and resilience to their work. They also inspire others to step up and get results. They act as a positive ripple in their organizations, where employees take the lead from their leaders. Accountability breeds accountability. The opposite is also true: mediocrity breeds mediocrity.    

"The problem is that poor leaders often go undetected. Unfortunately, there may be a lot of mediocre leadership happening in our organizations right now," he said. "I have spoken to a lot of burnt-out leaders recently. People are feeling stretched past their limits by the events of the past year. They are losing the ability to motivate their teams and continue to drive the change that their organizations need."   

In sum, organizations today are at a crossroads, he added. Leaders are burnt out just now when they are being asked to drive transformational change. Leaders need to understand this critical obligation that they have. They will need to find a way to dig deep, reconnect to their leadership purpose, and remain accountable, even in the toughest of times. “HR leaders have a crucial role to play in setting the tone for leadership accountability and supporting leaders to develop resilience and resolve and build a leadership community, where leaders support each other at a time when it matters most,” he concluded.

Engaging Workers and Managers

But it is not just about managers, Halelly Azulay, the Founder & CEO of Calabasas, Calif.based TalentGrow and a leadership development strategist, said. She says companies must keep employees and managers engaged and connected while everyone is working remotely. To do so, one of the first keys is that companies must invest in training their managers to support this effort. Managers need skills for how to motivate and support employee engagement. For example, managers need to be taught how to have regular conversations with employees one on one or in groups — where the manager shows interest and curiosity in learning more about them as people, their career aspirations, strengths, hopes, goals, and challenges. Teaching managers about these kinds of conversations and how to have them is a great first step towards this crucial goal of creating a highly engaged workforce. It also helps to keep managers feeling supported and engaged themselves.   

“Highly engaged employees and managers are motivated, connected, excited, and willing to give discretionary effort,” she said. “They're likely to go the extra mile, ask for extra work, and look forward to coming to work every day, even remotely. When there is an important level of engagement in your workplace, naturally morale is high as well.” But there are several obstacles for workers and managers alike that include the following.     

Learning Opportunities

  • They are not given a chance to use their strengths   
  • They do not have sufficient opportunities to grow and develop
  • Their manager does not care about them
  • They are isolated from others and do not have meaningful relationships
  • Their work is not connected to a deeper or bigger purpose 
  •  They do not have any autonomy over how, when, with whom, or where they do their work — being overly micromanaged 

She added: “Employees and managers face many obstacles and challenges in the course of their daily work. To be able to persevere 'uphill' in the face of these obstacles, employees and managers alike must be able to tap into a strong intrinsic motivation for sustenance and resilience. Long-term results are fueled by a strong connection, an important level of engagement, and a drive to achieve the mission."

When it comes to high performance and engagement, organizations should not focus on extrinsic motivators like money, gifts, or other tangible benefits. Intrinsic motivation, like autonomy, proficiency, and purpose, trumps extrinsic motivation according to studies. And not only should we focus on creating more and better connection to intrinsic motivators, but we should also consciously reduce any emphasis on extrinsic ones because research shows that, incredibly, their presence can lower performance.  

Michael Levy is CEO of Cincinnati, Ohio-based WorkProud which focuses on change management and the development of employee engagement strategies. He points out that providing managers with the support they need can go a long way — especially for the employees and the organization. The key for building engaged leaders is to connect them on an individual basis with satisfaction from the work they do and with the mission and purpose of the company. To engage managers to lead teams effectively, help them feel proud of their work and proud of your company.   

“At the heart of any business or leadership effort is one phrase: behavior change. Whether the interactions involve employees, or business-to-business partners, or customers, the end goal is to make it easier for others to perform at their best by helping them feel appreciated, validated, and seen,” he said. To do this he offers four different approaches    

1. Delegating Job Autonomy 

Remote working requires a unique skill set. Not all managers had a chance to obtain it before the pandemic. Offering practical support, adequate training, and requisite resources will help enhance manager performance and reduce the number of workplace conflicts.    

2. Practice Compassion      

It is important to understand that managers can struggle with challenges, feel burdened, and just feel overwhelmed. It is important that you show that you care and can really help raise morale. A simple question like “how are you?” can help managers feel much more valued. Encourage managers to exercise better delegation and trust. Focus on routinely checking in with your employees rather than checking on them. Regularly communicating with your employees and offering guidance will instill a greater sense of belonging, resulting in better performance and well-being      

3. Work-Life Balance    

Motivation and happiness remain an integral factor in determining productivity, therefore it is important to encourage a work-life balance among managers. Check-in with your managers and remain connected by providing mentorship, guidance, and support when needed.    

4. Emphasize Appreciation and Recognition    

It is time to change the stigma of negativity attached to the term “feedback.” Positive feedback is a necessary aspect of employee engagement and can warrant improved performance. Never miss a chance to compliment a job well done, which is especially important when the whole team is distributed outside the office.