Employee Engagement Starts with the Boss

Everyone wins when leaders help team members get more excited about their work. It’s not that hard–so why are so few bosses good at it?

By Jocelyn Hays

Imagine two employees. One is satisfied with her job. The other is engaged. Which will be more valuable to you and your business?

You already know the answer. While the satisfied employee shows up and does what you ask in exchange for her salary and benefits, the engaged employee goes above and beyond. She’ll show up more often, make fewer mistakes, and stay with your company longer. She does all that because she feels an emotional commitment to the business and works harder for its success.

Research shows a business with a highly engaged workforce will be more profitable and report higher shareholder returns, compared to one with less engagement. Employees in those companies are more productive, translating to higher sales, greater customer satisfaction, and increased client retention. 

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Unfortunately, a Gallup survey found just 32 percent of U.S. workers are engaged in their work. About half said they weren’t engaged, and 17 percent were disengaged. Imagine how costly it is for a company when two-thirds of its employees don’t feel invested.

So what changes the odds? Leaders. Engagement starts at the top.

How Leaders Improve Engagement

We know from research that specific personality characteristics in a boss help improve employees’ engagement. Personality itself is really two different things: 

  • Your self-image, or the you that you know. 
  • Your reputation, or the you that others know.

While your self-image might be an interesting story, reputation is what matters at work. If you’re seen as optimistic, self-assured, and calm in times of crisis, your employees are more likely to describe themselves as engaged and more likely to remain with your company when compared to employees whose bosses are more pessimistic or critical.

Either approach can be powerful and achieve results, but employees are more engaged by leaders who focus on opportunities for success rather than fear of failure. The optimistic leader can inspire a staff to work for the future of the organization in a way that more pessimistic leaders cannot. He’s seen as someone who removes obstacles to success and enables effective performance.

Employees also respond to bosses who appear “leader-like.” Those managers are confident in their role and promote their own successes along with the team’s. Engagement increases when leaders are willing to take charge while also creating a culture of accountability. They’re more likely to set high expectations for performance, focus on results, and hold employees individually and collectively responsible for reaching goals.

Being strong and confident is important, but employees also want to feel personally connected to their leaders. A boss who’s perceived as considerate, sensitive to individuals’ needs and concerns, and tactful in her communication style is more likely to have engaged employees. Those employees believe their boss respects them.

Employees want to work for a boss who provides the information they need to do their jobs, enables cooperation within and across teams, and considers their perspectives when making decisions. They also respect a high level of emotional intelligence, which a leader displays when she can recognize others’ emotions and regulate and express her own in good times and bad. 

A leader’s work style also matters. Employees will be more engaged if they have positive opinions of the boss’s integrity and trustworthiness. They’ll see you as more effective if they think you’re both dependable and systematic, as opposed to a maverick with an unpredictable, haphazard approach to your work.

It’s also possible to be too systematic, especially if your manner comes off as overly tactical or operational, with too much focus on short-term concerns or daily operations versus long-term strategy. Employees will respond better to a boss who’s seen as innovative, strategic, and forward thinking—someone who not only generates ideas of her own, but also inspires team members to challenge the status quo and seek creative solutions. That kind of leader can build team cultures that emphasize idea sharing, diverse perspectives, and continuous improvement. 

Finally, employee engagement rises when the boss appears knowledgeable about business trends. That kind of manager not only stays up-to-date, with a growing knowledge base and skill set, he shares important information with his employees, and encourages them to build new skills and take on stretch assignments.

How Leaders Impede Engagement

Every personality has a bright side and a dark side. Bright-side characteristics represent your day-today work style. They’re the foundation of your reputation and your daily approach to managing stress, overcoming challenges, leading teams, building and maintaining relationships, and executing your responsibilities. 

Dark-side characteristics, or derailers, are counterproductive tendencies that emerge when you lose some of your self control while under stress, or feeling insecure, or simply bored. When things go wrong, your derailers represent how you go wrong. As you’d expect, they negatively impact engagement.

Some leaders show greater emotional volatility than others. When they embark on projects, their passion and intensity can be infectious. But when challenges arise, they struggle to maintain their composure. Excitable behavior creates distance between the leader and his team, who over time may try to protect the boss from bad news and negative opinions. Feeling responsible for the boss’s emotional equilibrium takes their focus away from their work and reduces engagement. 

The overly cautious leader creates another challenge to employees’ engagement. In times of uncertainty, they want a boss who’s decisive and who’s willing to take action as the pressure rises. They’re frustrated by a leader who over-analyzes situations, delays decisions, or lives in fear of making a mistake that might lead to embarrassment or criticism.

Employees also desire transparency from their bosses. They don’t like to feel they’re in the dark about the boss’s priorities and how they align with the broader mission of the organization. They quickly see through a leader who’s outwardly cooperative and supportive but irritated by interruptions and requests for help, or one who fails to follow through on promises and commitments. They’ll see him as someone who only pays lip service to their ideas and opinions while acting on a private agenda.

A boss who’s openly skeptical of others’ intentions and motives will similarly struggle to build engagement. That kind of leader often questions employees who propose new ideas or solutions. He only shares information with his inner circle, leading everyone outside that group to feel untrusted. Deliberately or inadvertently, he undermines communications between individuals and teams and stymies opportunities to build professional networks.

Another type of boss responds to stress by distancing herself from others. She might do this physically, by removing herself from shared workspaces, or virtually, by not responding to emails, phone calls, or meeting requests. Or she might respond in a harsh or aggressive way that makes employees reluctant to reach out. Logically, employees can’t be engaged if the leader doesn’t engage with them in the form of frequent, meaningful interactions. 

Employees trust a leader who trusts them. A boss who struggles to appropriately delegate responsibilities, or who micromanages his employees after giving them critical tasks and projects, will end up with a less engaged team. An especially frustrating kind of micromanager is one who’s rigidly focused on adherence to rules, policies, and processes, even when those standards are outdated and become a barrier to getting the job done, or adapting to new realities in the marketplace. Engagement drops when employees feel the boss is more committed to the letter of the law than to its intent. 

How to Build More Engaging Leaders

Much of what I just described is common sense. So why do so many leaders struggle to connect with their employees?

The problem begins with the way we choose leaders. Managers typically earn promotions because of technical expertise, tenure, and political savvy. Some would argue that these qualifications, especially knowledge and expertise, are as important as the ability to build engaged teams. (For the record, I disagree.) We end up with leaders whose ascent to top management positions has nothing to do with their ability to manage people.

Organizations would be wise to consider each candidate’s potential impact on employee engagement when selecting, promoting, and placing leaders. All the characteristics I outlined can, and should, be quantified through personality-based assessments, behavioral interviews, or other measurements.

But what about managers you already have who lack those characteristics? Don’t lose hope; organizations can take steps to develop leaders who stimulate engagement.

The first step is to assess your current managers to build awareness of the natural, underlying characteristics that impact an individual’s reputation and her approach to leading others. Based on this understanding, companies can then pursue three specific developmental goals to help leaders increase their employees’ engagement levels.

Development Goal #1: Demonstrate executive presence. 

Leaders who are naturally confident and visible are likely to have more engaged employees. Thus, a manager whose natural style is subtler should identify specific ways in which he can articulate and promote his brand, demonstrate leadership capabilities, and live his values in a visible way every day.

He should also be coached to communicate the organization’s strategy and help team members understand how their individual efforts contribute to the broader mission. Employee engagement improves under bosses who connect the dots between the company’s vision and the team’s charter, with each individual understanding his or her role.

Leaders who provide positive feedback and praise to individual employees usually improve engagement within their teams. A boss with a more pessimistic style can learn specific ways to celebrate successes and offer positive feedback, not just the criticism that comes more naturally.

Development Goal #2: Build and maintain relationships.

A leader who was promoted based on technical expertise or individual performance may lack basic skills for managing people. Some can be taught. A leader can learn to identify and leverage team members’ strengths, communicate consistently, provide actionable feedback, and manage conflict.

Bosses who are introverted or have a hands-off style may need instruction on how to direct others, monitor performance, and provide support and feedback. 

Leaders should also be coached on how to coach. A manager who got promoted because of his skills may be frustrated with employees whose skills lag behind his own. He may not realize an important part of his job is to help his employees improve their abilities. 

Another type of manager may be so focused on helping individual employees that she loses sight of her impact on the broader team culture. She can learn to cultivate employee engagement by creating collaborative, trusting environments where positive peer relationships are the norm. 

Development Goal #3: Learn to delegate. 

Managers who were high performers, or who have a more controlling, detail-oriented style, often need to be taught how to appropriately delegate. It’s logical that employees who are challenged with interesting and exciting work are more likely to be engaged. The manager can then learn to redirect his focus to strategic issues. 

Engaged leaders have more engaged employees. That’s why leaders should be encouraged to take advantage of growth and development opportunities, especially those who are reluctant to take time away from the daily grind.

An engaged team is critical to the leader’s success. Leaders who are themselves engaged, and in turn promote employee engagement, give their organizations a strategic, competitive advantage. Everyone wins—especially the organization.

Jocelyn Hays is Manager, Direct Consulting at Hogan Assessment Systems in Indianapolis. She has a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology and more than a decade of experience in talent measurement, employee selection, and leadership development.