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Only One Thing Can Change Employee Engagement: Managers

For the past 20 years, organizations have been trying to improve employee engagement – and they have failed. Consistently, even the BEST places to work have employee engagement levels of no more than 69% - and again, those are the best workplaces in the nation. How can 20 years of study, employee rewards, leadership trainings, and organizational workshops not improve employee engagement one ounce? Because employee engagement isn't a leadership and systems issue. It’s a manager issue.




Managers are the key to engaging employees because engagement is driven locally, even if it is reported globally. Think about it. Most employees judge their connection and engagement with the organization through the relationship they have at the “local” level with their manager. Managers who are leveraging individuals’ strengths, working through local issues and concerns, and addressing performance where it happens, create that direct connection to the things that impact employees most. There is no need for an HR person 1,000 miles away and four levels up to be involved with that person’s ability to fulfill the company mission. But their manager must be.


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Any big system created to manage people – I’m looking at you HR – is really designed to take advantage of similarities, not differences, in data. Think about it. Every big system forces out variability to efficiently manage the data and the process. But people are infinitely variable. They don’t fit into a “common” format. That means the role of a manager, at the local level, is critical.


Managers (when allowed to actually manage) are able to build relationships that leverage that human variability. That, in turn, will unleash greater loyalty, engagement, performance and business success. It is a “win-win-win-win” – employee, manager, business, consumer.


On the flip side, managers who try to manage like a computer does – removing variability – can cause a lot of problems for employee engagement. This usually occurs when a manager is chosen because they were functionally competent (like promoting your best sales person to sales manager). They then try to make everyone “like them” because – hey – they were successful and therefore their way is the best way. The real problem is many companies don’t yet have the tools to identify or the resources to train great people managers. Without those tools companies default to “let’s just promote who’s best in ‘x’ department,” perpetuating the problem.


So, what do we do in the meantime?


We rely on our existing managers, equipping them the best we can: Managers must have the abilities and tools to listen, to recognize, to give feedback, and to have difficult conversations. Managers must be free of HR obligations and mountains of paperwork so they can actually build relationships with their employees.


HR, listen up: If you want to improve employee engagement, let your managers manage.


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