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Employee Engagement: The Bad News-Good News No One Tells You

Jan 25, 2021

Business team having video conference in the conference room-1Every employer rightly wants employee engagement—but you don't get there with games, gimmicks, or by chanting slogans (even if teamwork does make the dream work). 

Employee engagement cannot be reduced to a catchphrase, relegated to a department, or relinquished as a lost cause. Employee engagement is not a lost cause.

But for employee engagement to endure, it has to rest on a foundation of leadership: personal leadership, interpersonal leadership and organizational leadership—leadership that permeates everything.

None of this is easy. That's the so-called bad news. 

The good news? If you're willing to embrace the demands of leadership, employees will engage. Together you'll achieve goals that are greater than yourselves. And because of this, your heart will overflow with some of life's best gifts: depth of purpose, fulfillment, and joys no one can take from you.

To get these benefits, here are the building blocks you will need:

1. Personal leadership: To increase employee engagement, start here

"So your first job is to work on yourself. The greatest thing you can do for another human being is to get your own house in order ..." — Ram Dass

Have you ever been around a leader who was constantly disorganized? Or late? Or a people-pleaser? These are signs of poor personal leadership. Simply put, personal leadership refers to how you lead—and manage—your own life.

Some practical examples of both personal leadership and self-management:

  • Staying current in your field
  • Cultivating an awareness of your strengths and limitations; making allowances for them
  • Developing a healthy self-confidence
  • Asking for help when necessary, including paid help
  • Prioritizing your day
  • Setting the goals, strategy and vision for your company or department
  • Taking care of your own needs: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually

Leading others doesn't require personal perfection. But you must commit to doing the hard work on yourself. Notice how in the examples listed above, no else can do these things for you. They are yours and yours alone. 

Without proper attention to personal leadership, interpersonal leadership—leading your team, for example—becomes shaky at best. Again, here are practical examples of what happens when personal leadership or self-management are not as strong as they should be: 

  • You'll constantly be frustrated with those around you
  • You will take things personally that aren't personal
  • You'll be threatened by other people's success or happiness 
  • You'll rely on titles and other forms of external power, rather than true authority
  • You may get compliance but you won't get commitment or true employee engagement

True employee engagement is self-propelling. It happens not because the team has someone looking over their shoulders but because the team is on a mission. 

What's one facet of personal leadership that would make the greatest difference if you improved it? What's one step you're willing to take toward that end?

2. Interpersonal leadership: your job and sacred call

“Holding your team accountable to do the jobs they’re being paid to do is not being mean; it’s being a manager, and that’s your job.” ― Liz Weber, Something Needs to Change Around Here

If those tasked with leadership spent more time on personal leadership, they would see interpersonal leadership not as something to be avoided or downplayed, but as a gift and a calling.

This is where proper attention to personal leadership yields great rewards. Strong personal leadership makes it possible to lead others with true confidence. More specifically, it produces the following benefits:

  • Trust and credibility from your team; for more about this topic and the benefits of trust, please see The Neuroscience of Trust from Harvard Business Review
  • The inner confidence to deal constructively with difficult situations (or difficult people)
  • The wisdom to know which parts of a problem are yours to solve—and which parts are yours to let go
  • The ability to listen and respond appropriately, even when you disagree
  • The ability to inspire strength and confidence in others 
  • The capacity to encourage and celebrate other people's success

When you lead from a place of inner strength, you're not using your team or your position to gain validation. On the contrary, you're looking for ways to strengthen those around you. Which leads us to the third type of leadership that builds employee engagement: organizational leadership.

3. Organizational leadership either helps employee engagement or destroys it

Another term for organizational leadership might be a culture of leadership. This is where you go from expecting strong leadership from yourself (and maybe your management team) to expecting some level of leadership from your entire team—and equipping them with the necessary tools and training. 

For example, how well versed are your employees on the following? 

  • Taking appropriate initiative
  • Managing workloads
  • Managing themselves
  • Setting priorities
  • Communicating with professionalism
  • Exercising good judgment

Though I've worked with many groups of new college hires on developing these skills, I have never been asked by their managers for the same training—even when it was clearly needed. Once again, this underscores the value of personal leadership in general and self-awareness in particular.

“There is no idea so bad that it cannot be made to look brilliant with the proper application of fonts and color.” ― Scott Adams, Dilbert's Guide to the Rest of Your Life: Dispatches from Cubicleland

Organizational leadership is also the stage where you look at all the policies and procedures of your company or department, and weed out the ones that demoralize otherwise stellar employees. For example, I have known companies that systematically penalize employees who leave work due to an emergency. 

I can hardly think of anything more corrosive to trust. There has to be a more humane way.

Because the fact is, life happens. A child needs to be picked up from school. An aging parent slips and falls, requiring immediate medical care. Or maybe the employee herself has to leave, due to not feeling well.

I'm still grateful to the boss I had in college who let me go home early, penalty free, due to a kidney stone. He didn't hit me when I was down. I returned the favor by not shrieking until I got into my car.

It's a matter of time before we're all "that one" who needs a little clemency. Why wait to create policies that affirm our humanity? 

Wrapping up

If you commit to personal and interpersonal leadership, and do the hard work of creating a culture of leadership, employee engagement is all but guaranteed. No games, gimmicks or slogans required.

P.S. Leadership coaching can help you reach your goals faster, with more confidence. Interested? More importantly, are you ready to invest in yourself? If so, I invite you to click here to tell me more about your needs. Together, at no obligation to you, we'll determine how I can help. 

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