How Leadership Influences Employee Engagement. Where do Surveys Fit in?

How Leadership Influences Employee Engagement. Where do Surveys Fit in?

Table of Contents

Leadership is universally touted as one of the ways to drive engagement. But why? What is it about certain leaders that is considered a difference-maker in achieving higher engagement? What sort of leadership is best suited to optimize engagement? When does a survey enter the picture? These are all questions that will be answered throughout the course of this article.

Let’s begin…

The importance of employee engagement and its tie to leadership

Is Employee Engagement Necessary?

Business units with more engaged employees increase their profitability by 21%. It does not get more bottom-line than that! Whatever good employee engagement does to a company translates into more dollars at the end of the day. It’s no wonder then, why highly engaged employees are so coveted. How do you build such an enthusiastic workforce in the first place?

If we take a quick look at talent development resource pages, plenty of employee engagement drivers are listed. There are many arrows in the ‘human resources (HR) quiver’ for driving greater participation from employees.

Drivers of Employee Engagement

To quickly recap, the main drivers can be listed under the following categories: Direct Manager, Career Growth, Company Outlook, Senior Leadership, DE&I, Trust & Safety, Enablement, Goals & Alignment, Job Satisfaction, Learning and Development, Compensation & Benefits, Recognition, and Team & Collaboration.

If we take the time to think about each driver, we can easily connect the dots between them and a greater cognitive and emotional connection with an organization. It’s not hard to see how each factor elicits greater engagement out of employees if done right. But do such activities fall squarely on the shoulders of HR?

Leadership has a unique role to play when it comes to contributing to employee engagement. Not only is Direct Manager and Senior Leadership a driver on their own, but they have a huge impact as it relates to sentiment around the other drivers of engagement and play a unique role in contributing to improvements.

Leadership’s Role in Employee Engagement

On the one hand, leadership is entrusted with articulating vision and ensuring buy-in, which has an effect on employee engagement in its own right. People are more motivated to do their work when they believe in a higher purpose and are aligned with the company’s mission.

Senior leadership and management in general can influence how employees are treated (one-to-one relationship), what type of employees are hired (such as those with high motivation), how performance is evaluated and rewarded (continuous performance conversations), how an employee’s growth is structured (career growth) and how the company’s image gels with the type of talent it attracts (organizational image).

To use a sports analogy, think of basketball.  Employee engagement is a basket scored. The leader has the ball. They can take a shot and score, or they can pass to a teammate for an assist, who will then score. Teammates here are all the traditional engagement drivers.

So in the context of employee engagement, HR cannot do it alone. In fact, it’s often argued engagement isn’t the responsibility of HR (beyond thought leadership and facilitation). Direct managers and senior leaders have an intinsic role to play.

Leaders are already predisposed to care about employee engagement

Leaders are Accountable for All Employees

In a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, 71% of company executives cite employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organizational success. Only customer service and effective communications have a higher prioritization among respondents, at 80% and 73% respectively.

Interestingly enough, one of the reasons for communicating effectively is to drive higher employee engagement. Employees display a greater commitment to the company’s cause when they understand the organization’s values and their roles within the framework of the organization.

Also in that same study, employee engagement was found to be prioritized more by senior leaders as opposed to middle managers. While mid-level executives focused more on cutting costs, top-level leadership focused more on success factors such as customer service and employee engagement.

It makes sense, as the higher up the organization you are, the more accountable you have to be for all people, processes and assets that make up organization. So in a way, leaders don’t have a choice but to think of their employees.

Employees Look Towards Leaders

The leader-employee dynamic is not one-directional. While the leader thinks about employee engagement, the employee thinks about leader capability.

Deloitte found a 35 % point differential in trust in leadership between those employees who want to stay versus those who want to leave. Employee retention is a big part of employee engagement of course, as disengagement is one of the early symptoms of a high turnover. Engaged employees trust their leaders more.

The same gap in beliefs also applied to leadership communication, where those who expected to stay with the same organization thought their leaders communicated effectively versus those who wanted to part ways.

So then, we see that leaders at the very top level have reasons to be invested in employee engagement. Not just because of their own perceptions, but the employee’s perception as well.

We can think back to our basketball analogy. The point guard on the team is often the leader because their role is that primarily of a facilitator. They must enable their teammates (the employees in this case) by passing them the ball for open looks. They do this not just because it’s their job to do so. But because their skills as a point guard will be questioned by their teammates if they do not.

How do leaders drive employee engagement?

Leadership Styles

Having understood the key role leadership plays in employee engagement, what type of leadership style is most effective? After all, leaders, like employees, come in all different shapes and sizes. No two people are the same. What has been effective thus far?

There have been three types of leadership styles that have been studied extensively by academia. These are employee orientation, change orientation and production orientation. The many dimensions of leadership styles are best captured by these three types of orientation.

Employee oriented leaders are sensitive to the employee’s needs and develop relationships based on mutual trust and respect. Change oriented leaders are focused on innovation and are willing to change and adapt to find new ways to accomplish tasks. Production oriented leaders are concerned with meeting goals and ensuring that work activities are geared towards accomplishing those goals.

It’s no surprise that the employee orientation style was found to be a significant indicator of high employee engagement. When the employee comes first, even before vision and goals, it’s easy to see why they would feel more valued.

But there are potential dangers of employee orientation

There can be a gap between what is ideal and what is real. Many times, the reality on the ground doesn’t match what was promised in an employee orientation program. It’s easier said than done to implement a true employee-oriented leadership style. There’s a free-rider effect. There are always those in a team who’d take the opportunity to slack off on the efforts of others. Thus, there’s potential for abuse in the system where people take advantage of the trust placed in them.

Lastly, some personalities may not be suited for employee orientation. Especially at the beginning of their careers, some people may need a structured system based on goals and performance feedback. Without it, they feel lost.

Production-Orientation Infused with The Right Communication

In that same study, production-oriented leaders were also able to extract high engagement from employees provided they followed a joining communication style. More so than any other communication style, a joining style delegates total authority to employees, allowing them to set their own targets and make their own decisions.

So, while employees are given the freedom to plan and act, the end goal is based on the achievements of tasks. Employees are first and foremost judged on meeting goals, but they receive continuous direction and coaching to do so. Their interaction with management is bi-directional. Such a system fosters engagement as well as a people orientation leadership style.

Leadership Characteristics

There have been other studies looking at the relationship between the characteristics of a leader and employee engagement. All of the behaviors leaders exhibit boil down to 5 dimensions:

  • Good management and mentoring
  • Vision articulation
  • Self-management and inner balance
  • Collaboration with others
  • Bureaucratic inclinations

Out of these, good management and mentoring, and vision articulation have been validated over the years to be drivers of employee engagement. Good management and mentoring consist of effectively communicating expectations, recognizing and rewarding performance, and monitoring activities over time.

For the entrepreneur leader, however, there’s another characteristic that leads to higher employee engagement. It’s vision articulation. Employee engagement doesn’t only rise with good management and mentorship in this category. It’s also influenced by how the entrepreneurial leader communicates their vision for the organization.

We have approached leadership suited for building employee engagement from two viewpoints. Leadership styles and leadership characteristics. Both converge at a place of clear communication.

We learn two things in particular.

  • It’s good to have a structure in place that clarifies expectations and goals right from the start.
  • A bi-directional collaborative approach is a favored method to accomplish tasks in this structure.

Where do surveys fit in?

The Three States of Leadership-Employee Engagement Influx

There’s a reason why we slowly worked our way up to this moment. We first had to set the table.

Thus far we’ve established one important truth: Intended or not, leadership has an impact on employee engagement.

State 1: No Action

If leadership is silent on building engagement, the perception of apathy spreads in the organization. No actual measures are put in place to motivate employees and encourage participation. The employees in turn are further discouraged by seeing such an attitude, only worsening the situation. It has a net negative effect on engagement.

State 2: Action

If leadership takes initiatives to build engagement, at least the employees view them as making a concerted effort to do so. Higher engagement is not guaranteed just yet, because that depends on the right leadership styles and characteristics. It neither has a negative nor positive effect on employee engagement.

State 3: Right Action

If leadership takes the right initiative to build engagement, employees don’t just feel cared for but respond with more involvement.  By clearly articulating the vision of the company and adopting a mentorship approach to management, the leader takes action to drive engagement but also build trust. It has a net positive effect on employee engagement.

For States 2 and 3, implementing surveys is an essential part of the process.

Implementing Surveys

If you’ve ever worked for an organization that has at least 10 employees, you’d have noticed there’s usually a mechanism in place to collect feedback. It might be the good old suggestion box, where employees can write their feedback on a note and drop it in the box.

Of course, such a suggestion box has been digitized in many ways in today’s age. There are feedback channels created on work chat platforms like Slack, there are team meetings and automated tools intended expressly for feedback, and then there are employee engagement surveys.

Creates a System

At the Start of State 2

The survey stands out because it’s incorporated as part of the process. Boxes and channels for feedback are usually voluntary. But by standardizing feedback pluse surveys, you ensure the collection of feedback continually throughout the work year. You get insights in real-time about what your employees think of management and leadership. You can compare such feedback to what other leaders and managers receive to benchmark yourself. There’s no hiding behind voluntary mediums.

Fine tunes Leadership

At the Start of State 3

Surveys cover multiple areas of feedback that can be provided to the leader or the manager.

Leadership feedback includes multiple-choice questions and open-ended questions that capture all areas that make up effective leadership. It includes work acknowledgement, clarity of communication, level of autonomy, etc.

We’ve seen just how important communicating vision and good mentorship is to increasing employee engagement. By including such questions, you’re effectively ensuring the right leadership styles and behavior are monitored to optimize employee engagement. You’re not leaving it up to leaders and managers to take action. You’re making them accountable via surveys.

Let’s think back to our basketball analogy one last time. Hero ball is frowned upon, which is when one player dribbles too much and the basketball sticks. Ideally, it should not be the case, and the ball must zip through the court to create a free-flowing offenses.

If absolutely nothing is done, the one holding on to the basketball doesn’t change their behavior. Teammates grow increasingly apathetic, sensing no one cares. But if metrics are introduced that make it obvious the basketball is not being shared, suddenly both parties have the impetus to change. The introduction of metrics here is akin to the introduction of leadership feedback surveys.

Moving forward

It’s important to take action. Leaders implementing surveys to understand and improve employee engagement may seem like a commonplace activity. But over 30% of leaders report to only occasionally think, or worse, never think about employee engagement. Just 26% of them say that it is something that they think about every day. Clearly, there is a diversity of opinions across the board about just how much to commit to employee engagement.

Indeed, whether true or not,  60% of employees believe a companywide employee engagement strategy doesn’t even exist. If there’s one party that can enforce change the quickest, it’s leaders. By deploying surveys, the intent to develop a culture of engagement is crystalized.

As an organization leader, you’ll have a perception of your own management style and how conducive that style is to driving employee engagement. But if you rely on anecdotal evidence only, it can be misleading.