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How Leaders Can Make or Break Employee Engagement

How Leaders Can Make or Break Employee Engagement

By: Fred Kiel, author of Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)

An organization with a clear vision, a strategic focus, and a culture of accountability will go nowhere unless the workforce is organized to work well together and is eager to perform.

Every individual has a good deal of discretionary personal energy he or she can devote to his or her work life or spend in other ways. Employees who feel little connection to the organization’s goals and missions, who see little correlation between their performance and their compensation, or who have been alienated from the organization’s leadership through false promises, disinformation, or outright neglect are likely to be disengaged.

Disengaged employees are much more likely to spend their discretionary time planning their next vacation, surfing the Internet, texting endlessly to friends, or simply daydreaming, rather than doing the work they were hired to do.

On the other hand, when workers know that their success is directly tied to that of their organization or unit, and when they embrace their leadership’s vision, they have a natural incentive to work diligently toward achieving the organization’s goals.

Workforce Engagement “Killers”
So what do we know about the conditions that create an engaged workforce? Organizations that engage their workforces have four features in common:

1. They treat their employees with respect. Employees experience the culture as one that cares for them as people -- where they are not treated as “human capital.”

2. Employees view policies and practices regarding hiring, compensation, promotions, and recognition as fair and impartial.

3. The organizational culture provides care and support.

4. Employees have a high level of confidence in the executive team.

One could assume that the conditions that contribute or detract from workforce engagement  are painfully obvious. But our research -- and much casual observation -- points to real disconnects in the way some companies treat their workers and the level of engagement they expect those employees to demonstrate in their performance.

To be fully engaged, for example, people need to feel that management respects them. Most people begin to feel extremely disrespected when their leaders assign them unreasonable workloads for weeks or
months on end.

Individuals who work for high-energy start-ups might have signed on to that kind of marathon stretch, but most workers want to feel that the organizational leadership acknowledges and supports their need for a manageable workload.

Another workforce engagement “killer” comes in the form of unfair hiring, promotion, and compensation policies. A workforce that believes that the best way to get ahead is to curry favor with one or more members of the management team has no incentive to fully embrace the company’s vision and strategic goals.

Unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with these and many other examples of the lack of workforce engagement in some organizations. As a result, the differences between the virtuoso CEOs and leadership teams and their self-focused counterparts in this critical area of organizational success should come as no surprise.

How Employees View their Company Culture
Here are some of the ways employees of the self-focused leaders describe the level of workforce engagement that dominates their organizations:

  • “The company does not stay true to its own stated goals and ethics sometimes. Certain people are favored, and once you have a bad year, it is hard to get your good name back.”
  • “It is difficult to feel satisfied at this job when you are just a number.”
  • “Recent policy changes clearly show the lack of concern for employees’ personal lives. All of senior management needs to get real about the high turnover and start asking the hard questions.”

Contrast those disheartening statements with these much more vibrant and positive comments from the employees of the virtuoso CEOs and their teams:

  • “The work environment is always motivating. Most of the people I work with are great to work with and are very values oriented.”
  • “The collective employee population seems to share a passion for this industry and the products and services we offer. The community giving and spirit of this company is also a shared passion. The company is often gathered for recognition and fun events, which generates our competitive spirit and will to win in the marketplace! I strive to be better every day and help lead with the values, integrity and acumen consistently demonstrated by our CEO.”
  • “During a time when things were really tough for our company, our CEO demonstrated confidence in his team that we could find a way out -- that he believed we could do it and that he was there to lead us through it. It motivated everyone to come together and get the job done. And in two years, we hit it out of the park!”

In numerous ways, our research underscored the connection between the level of workforce engagement in an organization and the executive team’s strength of character.

When an executive team displays strong character habits, it naturally tends to create a positive, caring, supportive, fair, and respectful work environment -- the kind of work environments most people are drawn to.

Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win by Fred Kiel

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win . Copyright 2015 Fred Kiel. All rights reserved.


Author Bio:
Fred Kiel, PhD, co-founder of KRW International, is the author of Return on Character (Harvard Business Review Press) and the co-author of Moral Intelligence. For more than thirty years, he has helped Fortune 500 CEOs and senior executives build organizational effectiveness through leadership excellence and mission alignment. His rigorous data gathering and customized development process provide executives with transformative feedback. He lives in Minnesota.