Who is Responsible for Employee Engagement?

There has been a lot of discussion in professional circles and in business magazines about a shift in thinking about the responsibility for employee engagement, with this new shift now placing this responsibility back on the employee.  Yes, employees do have the ability to make a decision about their attitudes towards the organization, but that only goes so far, especially if they are working in a toxic environment that is generated by the policies of management.  Yes, personal issues, such as finances, health, and family relationships have an impact on an employee’s ability to focus and be engaged.  And, yes, other employees’ attitudes about work and those that they work with also can have an impact on other employees’ engagement levels.  But the question isn’t “what impacts employee engagement” but “who is responsible.”

The research is clear that employee engagement is a major driver and competitive advantage for an organization to become high performing and achieve its goals.  This, alone, should be a reason for desiring as many engaged employees in an organization’s workforce.  But engaged employees also provide better responses to customer issues, find better solutions to problems, and provide less hassles for their managers.  Obviously, this is something that managers would want for their organization and themselves, right?

On the other hand, employees want to be able to do good work that is important and makes a difference.  They also need to insure that their work meets their economic needs.   If they can only have one, then they often will choose survival of themselves and their families.  When they do, then the work that they do tends to matter less, and their motivation tends to shifted towards doing what they have to in order to “get by” and not get in trouble.  This places their focus on trying to avoid trouble, not about trying to achieve great things for the organization.  Obviously, their motivation is not towards engagement.

So if employees want to just keep a job, and managers want engaged employees, whose responsibility is it for employee engagement?  The answer, of course, is that it is the responsibility of the people who want the employee engagement; managers.  So the focus on managers in creating employee engagement is properly placed.  On the other hand, if we continue down this road of now shifting the responsibility of employee engagement to employees, then we will get the same kind of results that we got from the “cheese movement” and “fish tossing” of the past; no markedly real results.

There is a reason for this lack of results from these kinds of mentalities.  By placing the responsibility on the employees for their attitudes about change or engagement, we ignore the power structure of the organization.  If managers continue to approach power in an organization as they typically have in the past, then employees simply are not allowed to exercise their Personal Power to adequately make decisions about their jobs. Managers make the decisions and then tell employees that they have the power to like those decisions, and that they “need to get with the plan, change their attitudes, and support the plan.”  Yeah, that goes over like a lead balloon!

It is no wonder that the research shows that the longer an employee works with an organization that the less likely they are to be engaged.  You can hire all the engaged employees that you can find, but put them in a toxic work environment and they won’t stay engaged for very long!

Managers have to understand that they control the environment and the culture of the organization.  After all, culture is “how we do things around here,” and managers control how work is being done, how people relate to other people, and who gets to make what decisions in the organization.  They control who will be allowed to be a part of the organization and they control the departure of someone from the organization.  This is not necessarily “bad control,” as it is the responsibility of management to set the long-term goals of the organization as part of its Vision, and help keep employees focused on those that are impacted by them.  This is, after all, a manager’s job.

It only becomes a detriment when managers don’t allow employees to take responsibility for their jobs by making decisions about their areas of their work.  Managers steal their employees personal power when they make decisions for employees that the employees should be making for themselves.

Yes, there are a lot of things that do impact an employee’s ability to be engaged, and a manager doesn’t have a lot of control over many of them.  Certainly a manager can’t make an employee’s health better, or the health of a loved one.  And a manager can’t make financial problems or problems with family relationships disappear.  But a manager can build a relationship with an employee and offer to listen to problems and help an employee take advantage of resources that are available to help, either within or outside of the organization.

Yes, a manager can’t control an employee’s attitude towards the organization because of past wrongs.  But a manager can act in ways that Build Trust with the employee by accepting the employee and their feelings as real, share open and straightforward communications with them, and work in ways that are reliable in the future so that Trust is not broken with the employee by the organization.

A manager can insure that the employees that the organization selects to be a member of the organization are well above average, provide a good working environment for them, and insure that everyone has a connection between what they are doing and how it impacts the organization’s ability to accomplish its goals.  They can insure that employees do work that fits their unique talents and strengths, and that they aren’t trying to “fix” the employee.  They can insure that the employee is given a lot of opportunities to try new things and develop their talents and explore the ranges of their talents, strengths, and skills.  And a manager can insure that employees know what decisions that they get to make about their jobs, and then not take that decision-making ability away from them by making those decisions for them.

A manager can care about their employees, Build Trust with them, connect them to the Vision of the organization, help them to develop their Strengths and encourage them to become masters at their work, and develop and allow them to exhibit Personal Responsibility.  This is the Diamond of Engaged Performance™; the four drivers that research says allows an employee to become personally engaged with their work.

Granted, in most organizations a single manager is going to have a hard time dealing with some of these issues if managers above them are not interested in putting the Diamond of Engaged Performance™ to work in the organization.  Yes, they can make limited progress, but in many cases these managers who wish to excel at being a leader of their employees often end up becoming unengaged, themselves.  And when you end up having an unengaged or actively disengaged manager, how engaged do you think their employees will be?  This is one reason why we shun a focus on individual manager development and advocate organizational management development (I will provide more on this concept in a future posting, although we did address this to some extent in the whitepaper “Training’s Role in Achieving High Performance.”)

Engagement isn’t something that an employee does, or that a manager does to an employee.  It is simply the natural outcome of managers doing the key things that allow their employees to be able to do great work.  If managers want this outcome, then it is going to be their responsibility to do the things that managers need to do in order to allow that outcome to naturally occur.  Shirking that responsibility while demanding it of employees will get the same results that it has always gotten… mediocrity, at best.

Make a Great Day!