How important are managers in growing engagement?
A lot of the time, employee engagement tends to be looked at as an HR responsibility. They are the ‘people’ people after all. HR leaders may be able to do a lot to facilitate workplace engagement. But they’re far from the only ones responsible for keeping staff members engaged. A manager's influence on employee engagement is huge. They have an essential role to play in helping their teams to achieve their best work. Comparatively few employees have a close relationship with their HR team, unlike they often do with their manager.
Why a manager's influence is key to improving engagement
Our bosses play a key role in our working lives. Barring the handful of colleagues or subordinates that you might share a shift or an office with, there’s nobody else you’ll spend as much time with as your line manager. So, to employees, their boss is more or less the immediate face of the wider company as they know it.
It’s hard to oversell how important this is. It touches on a key aspect of our working definition of employee engagement. Specifically, their sense of attachment and commitment to the business and its goals. Someone might love their job and their colleagues. But they can still be alienated from the company and driven into turnover by a bad enough boss.
In 2015, Gallup found that managers account for 70% of variation in employee engagement. This could make managers’ influence on employee engagement one of your organisation’s biggest strengths. Or it could be one of your most glaring weaknesses.
Gallup haven't since followed up on that study. But more recent research shows that managers continue to have a strong influence on experience and engagement. In 2019, DDI surveyed 1,000 professionals including managers and senior leaders. They found that 57% of employees had left a job because of a manager. 14% had gone so far as to leave multiple employers for that reason.
What great managers do to influence employee engagement
Managers wear many hats. Which is to say, there are a lot of different traits and responsibilities that go into being a standout manager on any level. You have to be able to keep your team on task, but that’s just the start.
Set expectations early on
This doesn’t just apply to the beginning of the employee/manager relationship. You need to take the time to make your expectations clear about each project you assign. If you want something done right, you've got to give your team a reasonable idea of their upcoming responsibilities. Misunderstood expectations can be a huge hurdle to engagement.
Sometimes, employees aren’t clear on what’s expected of them. Other times, new employees can be poorly informed about what their new job will be like. That's why you need a solid onboarding process for new hires.
A great manager should strike the right balance with meetings. Create a consistent schedule of group meetings with room for any necessary 1:1s. And if something's not working, tweak it until you find what works for your team.
Too many meetings waste valuable time, sapping productivity. Not enough, and your team can start to become isolated from one another and miss out on valuable information. It’s also important for managers to keep the door open. And we mean that literally or metaphorically, so that employees feel like they can ask for their input.
Recognise employee accomplishments
It’s not enough that employees collect a pay check every month. They have to feel valued as part of the organisation too. Whether it’s highlighting an outstanding achievement, or just genuinely thanking someone for their hard work. Frequent recognition is more effective for boosting employee motivation and engagement than performance-based financial incentives.
Allow for reasonable personal autonomy
Obviously, how much leeway there is to take your own approach in any given job depends on the business and your role. But very few employees perform better with a manager breathing down the back of their neck. So long as employees know what their manager expects, giving them the room to approach projects in their own way often yields the best results.
Make time for feedback
It’s not enough to just wait for the annual performance review anymore. Feedback is most effective when offered in a timely manner. That's true regardless of whether it’s the manager giving the employee feedback, or the other way around. However they go about doing it, managers need to check in with their employees regularly.
Safeguard employee wellbeing
If the last year or so has made anything clear, it’s the importance of employee wellbeing. Managers have a duty of care to support employee wellbeing, in order to help them be resilient to job stress. Employees will quickly notice when leadership doesn’t care about them or their wellbeing. So, uncaring managers’ influence on employee engagement will quickly either become negative, or non-existent.
How HR can support a manager's influence on employee engagement at work
To take full advantage of leadership influence on employee engagement, managers need the full support of HR. HR need to ensure managers have the skills and tech to lead effectively in the modern workplace.
Invest in solid management training
Unfortunately, a lot of managers get thrown into the deep end and expected to learn on the job. But this is rarely the best way to educate employees who are new to the management level. That's because it makes it easy for bad habits to form.
Give managers the tools to succeed
As more businesses become digital-first, tech is playing an increasingly large role in the workplace. It’s never been more important to give managers the right tools, especially with so many staff working remotely. HR need to work with managers to identify their needs. That might be a better till system in a retail business. Or it could be new virtual workspaces for their remote staff, and an employee check-in for the whole organisation.
Enable non-management-related career development
Only 18% of businesses promote the right management candidate for the job. A lot of the time, the most skilled employees are promoted to management. But just because someone’s good at their job, that doesn’t mean they’re a good leader.
In fact, some people aren’t interested in managing others. For example, many doctors get into medicine for the satisfaction of patient care. Someone like that might not be interested in the admin of running a hospital. If managerial work would take someone away from their passion, find another way to reward and develop them.
After all, these employees will still want some form of career development. Find or create non-management-related ways of promoting these employees. Failing that, find some way of helping them achieve growth. This can help you separate out the employees with the best skillsets for management.