Who's Responsible For Employee Engagement?

The scene was a corporate cliché - the annual management meeting. There was the usual banner, banter, and baked potato. The CEO was about to begin his eighty slide State of the Company PowerPoint presentation.

I was a consultant to the company and sat as a guest at a table of eight managers toward the back of the hotel ballroom.

The guy beside me leaned over and knowingly whispered, “He doesn’t give a rat’s butt about the managers here tonight.” He paused to gauge my interest, and then continued.

“Our benefits suck, we have to stay in cheap hotels when we’re on the road, and he took away the daycare, casual Friday, and office parties at Christmas time.”

Before I could respond, the lights lowered, and the CEO started his show.

The CEO by no means seemed to be the ogre described by my seatmate. He convincingly outlined his rationale for austerity and sacrifice. His slides painted an unmistakable picture of economic challenge. But instead of doom and gloom, the CEO spoke of hope and opportunity. Rather than dwell on the errors of the past, he delivered his enthusiasm for the future.

His passion was indisputable; his words, inspirational. He closed by inviting his top management team to the stage. One by one, he complimented their unique contribution with a sentence or two about each manager’s primary mission in the weeks ahead. I was super-psyched by the end of the presentation - ready to rush out and sell something - and I was just a guest.

The lights came up, the audience warmly applauded, and the group on the stage marched off in harmony. I looked around to see that most attendees were visibly moved by the stirring call to action. Their nods were up and down rather than side to side. Their buzz had a supportive tone.

But my seatmate was unmoved. “See what I mean,” he announced. “Not a single word about what he’s going to do for us out here in the trenches.”

Though I wanted to say, “There’s no crying in baseball” I could see this guy was not interested in letting go of either his position of entitlement or his disappointment in not getting his share.

I walked away wondering, “What lessons do you think this man’s attitude teaches his kids about life and work?” And what insights for leadership can be gleaned from my experience?

A Cantankerous View Of Employee Engagement

We used to call it employee morale but it got changed to employee engagement. It means the level of emotional investment employees make in the work goals they assume or are assigned. Every year organizations around the world hire an outside firm to assess employee engagement. When the results are sliced and diced, meetings are typically held to discuss the results.

Leaders are charged with crafting improvement plans for increasing engagement scores. This is often initiated by hearing anecdotal commentary from employees about the leadership or organizational practices they believe contribute to less-than-desired scores.

But, are leaders the only ones charged with improving employee engagement scores? Now, I know there are draconian ogres in leadership roles that view their job as dictatorial shepherds. They abuse, use, and emotionally bruise. However, I believe most leaders in most organizations know such antiquated irritating behavior works completely counter to high productivity and morale. So, what role do employees play in their engagement scores? And, what part should great leaders play?

My seatmate probably had low employee engagement. It was clear to me he cynically enjoyed the “blame game” so he would not have to engage in the “aim game.” He viewed his leader’s job as “taking care of me” and seemed to relish being an entitled victim. He no doubt had previously labored under people in oppressive leader roles (including his parents) and conveniently chose to paint all authority figures with the same gloomy brush. I suspect had he been a free agent, not an employee, his contract would not be renewed.

Leaders are not surrogate parents. Their job is to communicate a clear mission, demonstrate a passion for that mission, provide important tools needed to carry out that mission, and telegraph to employees both encouragement and affirmation along the way. They are effective when they exhibit trust, maintain high standards for performance, take time to listen, patiently mentor, and hold employees accountable for commitments made. As soon as we look to leaders to be chief motivators (instead of being responsible for fostering conditions for employees to motivate themselves), we are on a slippery slope to leader parenting not leader partnering.

Great Leaders Are About Execution, Not Excuses

My business partner, John Patterson, was a former senior executive with a major hotel chain. After the hotel was sold to another company, he started a consulting practice. Several months into his growing practice, he was invited to attend an executive meeting of a new client. Scheduled to run for three hours, John was just twenty minutes into the meeting when the outcome was clear. The group had no intention of making the important decisions on their meeting agenda.

“They were involved in a serious game of shake and fake” reports John. “Shake and bake is what employees should be responsible for doing,” continues John.

“They plan and execute. But each member of this team, no doubt with more on their plates then each thought reasonable, had one goal: to sound passionate and committed but to exit the meeting with no decisions made that would result in any more to do’s.”

John laments how sad it was to watch a doomed meeting get pretended long enough to use up three hours.

Great leaders get things done. They waste neither their time nor that of others with fake rationalizations and lame excuses. They enjoy both the process of accomplishment as well as the outcome of achievement. They truly believe that closing is as sweet as commencing. And, they enjoy getting others to partner with them on their journey

Great Leaders View Mediocrity As A Nasty Enemy, Not A Necessary Evil

Mediocrity can usurp the energy from passion and the opportunity from initiative. Leaders who tolerate mediocrity signal that their real standards are much lower than what they generally state. Great organizations can in fact be populated by only winners - people who have a passion for their work and constantly seek to improve their surroundings. The proverbial bell shaped curve of performance and attitude, i.e. there will always a small percentage of superstars and an equal number who do just enough to get by, is by no means a cultural necessity. How many mediocre members of the Navy Seals, an Olympic team, or a Super Bowl winning team are tolerated to balance the superstars on the bell-shaped curve of performance?

When Bob Patton was head of SBC Global Markets Customer Care Group, he frequently would tell his employees to “stand up and be counted or go somewhere else where sitting down is tolerated. We are about passion here. We cannot make you passionate - it’s something that comes from within you. We are passionate and excited about what we have ahead of us. We will do our best to create an opportunity and a supportive environment for you to contribute with zeal and enthusiasm. But it is partly up to you. And, if you can’t get turned on about what we are striving to be here at Global Markets, we both made a poor employment decision. We will help undo that mistake by making it real easy for you to go to work someplace else.”

Great Leaders Are Not Just People in Charge

Organizations that sparkle with employee engagement are those populated by employees who take pride in the spirit of their work environment. Slackers are called out; excuse-makers are given a peer-to-peer pep talk. Their sense of ownership in the well being of their unit or company runs deep enough to surface the courage for candid confrontation when they spot mediocrity or questionable commitment. They know placing total responsibility for morale on the boss diminishes their own personal power and weakens the capability of their team. They opt instead to share that responsibility - to stand and be counted.

Spartacus was the true-life story of a slave who led a massive grassroots uprising against the Roman Empire. The movie was a major hit with a cast of silver screen giants like Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, Lawrence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov. After the severely outnumbered slaves were defeated in a bloody battle by the Roman Army and several of their allies, the Emperor coveted the head of the person who started the slave revolt. Surveying the field of defeated survivors, he announced that if anyone would reveal which one of them was Spartacus, all but Spartacus would be freed. If they did not, all would be crucified. One by one each of the hundreds of survivors stood and proudly proclaimed, “I am Spartacus!”

When leaders boldly stand up, they rarely stand alone. When they fail to coddle crybabies more interested in complaining than accomplishing, they harness the commitment of those with a passion for excellence. Employee engagement serves as the energy in the engine of performance. Great leaders are people who turn purpose into performance and partner with others to make it successful. So, who is responsible for employee engagement? In a word, everyone.