Leadership Starts at the Top: Leadership-Based Engagement Drivers

By Dummies Press

How, exactly, does a strong leader engage employees? One way to answer that question is to mention three things a strong leader doesn’t do: spread negativity, cynicism, and skepticism. Instead, strong leaders engage employees by offering the following:

  • Trust: You don’t get trust unless you give trust. Strong leaders trust their employees. When employees feel trusted by their leaders, they’re more likely to trust their leaders and be engaged. If employees don’t feel trusted, they won’t trust in return — and engagement will take a dive.
  • Authority: For employees, feeling confident that someone is in charge can lay the foundation for engagement. If employees are worried that no one’s at the helm of the ship, engagement will suffer.
  • Security: Especially when the economy is suffering, security is key to engagement. Strong leaders leave their employees feeling like things will turn out okay, and in doing so, they boost engagement.
  • Direction: A key part of leading is knowing where you’re going — you can’t expect people to follow you if you lack direction. Engagement suffers when leaders lack direction.
  • Vision: Employees will be more engaged when their leaders have and convey a clear vision — one that inspires them to follow.
  • Structure: The organization’s structure must be such that everybody knows the organization’s boundaries. A lack of structure will quickly result in false assumptions, leading to disengagement.
  • Clarity: Employees must understand what’s expected of them.
  • A role model: Employees need someone to look up to. Role models enable employees to pinpoint — and then emulate — behaviors that result in success.
  • Reassurance: All employees seek reassurance. They want to feel as if someone is looking out for them. Failure to provide this can lead to a reduction in both confidence and engagement.
  • Cohesion: Think of your team as a symphony. Although each person has her own part to play, everyone must be playing from the same musical score. This cohesion plays a big part in employee engagement.
  • Inspiration: Giving people a sense of purpose inspires them, enabling them to feel good about what they’re doing.
  • Recognition: All employees want to feel that what they do matters. That’s where recognition comes in.

It’s not enough for line managers to work to engage employees. When it comes to engagement, leadership must come from the top.

Most CEOs are far more comfortable working their left (analytical, sequential, objective) brains than their right (random, creative, subjective) brains. As a result, many CEOs attempt to delegate the primary responsibility for engagement to HR or some “soft skill” function instead of championing the cause themselves.

Unless you want your employees’ engagement levels to go the way of the dodo, you must do all you can to prevent top leaders from delegating engagement efforts. With all due respect to HR, if it owns engagement, engagement will likely be perceived by employees as just another “flavor of the month” program. Senior leaders must support engagement to prevent employees from assuming it’s a touchy-feely, lip-service-only, employee-satisfaction initiative.

If the CEO lacks the time or talent to champion engagement, your firm must identify someone else at the senior level to take up the charge. This person must be senior enough to lend credibility to your engagement efforts, and preferably have the ear and support of the leader. Regardless of personal preferences, all senior leaders must speak the language of engagement and behave in demonstrably committed ways. Top leaders must believe in and be able to articulate engagement.

Holding leaders accountable for engagement levels in your firm is critical. Measurement is an important driver. Unless a CEO’s board measures the CEO on engagement, the CEO may not have an impetus to lead any differently. Only when senior management is regularly measured and judged on engagement criteria (by reporting on engagement every quarter and communicating the CEO’s performance metrics throughout the company) will they be motivated to measure up.

Although it’s critical that senior leaders make the push for engagement, the things that drive engagement are largely the province of an organization’s visionaries, role models, innovators, and counselors. These leaders may not be the most senior staff, hold the loftiest titles, or pull down the biggest salaries. But they make their mark on the company culture, inviting multiple perspectives and team decisions while retaining — and communicating — a strong sense of personal accountability.