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Employee Engagement is Leadership Engagement in Hiding!

Employee Engagement has become the buzzword to describe a motivated and switched-on team of workers. Cast your mind back twenty plus years ago and people wouldn’t understand what the term meant let alone how to go about influencing it. What we now speak of as employee engagement was, in the past, referred to as Industrial Relations – an environment in which two adversarial groups did battle. The outcome from this confrontation resulted in winners and losers, where the former felt smug with their negotiating achievements, and the latter disgruntled by their failure to achieve improved working conditions. At every stage of the contest each side would target their efforts on either discrediting or outsmarting the other by fair means or foul.

Fast forward to 2017 and, whilst the term industrial relations may have been removed from the lexicon of ‘leadership speak’ its ethos remains a defining undercurrent of ‘leadership behaviour’. Many of today’s leaders are ‘baby boomers’ weaned into the world of work on the back of a hierarchical, command and control working environment. Often with a background in old-fashioned industries, such leaders learnt their trade at a time when manual labour was still at its peak.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that employee engagement hasn’t yet filtered through into the consciousness of leadership understanding and into their resultant behaviours. Employee engagement isn’t a top down command to the troops to get on board and rally round; nor is it a series of ‘smiley face’ initiatives designed to make everyone feel part of the wider family, usually in a parent-child capacity.

The impact a leader has on the commitment and contribution of his or her team is grossly underestimated – usually by the leaders themselves. Various studies conclude that the quality of the relationship between a leader and a direct report is the single biggest influencer on performance and ultimately, continuing employment.

I’ve argued that the term employee engagement is a bit of a misnomer in that it infers responsibility for engagement rests firmly on the shoulders of the employee. Of course, deep down we all know that it doesn’t. The responsibility for employee engagement starts with the leader. It’s the leader who creates the working environment in which his or her people operate. It’s the leader who is responsible for identifying the development needs of an individual to perform well within a role and to reconcile their appetite and ambition for future roles.

As leaders we have a tendency to overlook our responsibility to our people, believing that our charisma and a regular paycheck alone are sufficient to engage and enthuse. We are also prone to undervalue the personal contribution we can make to the lives of others.

If our people don’t feel valued then they’re unlikely to deliver value; go the extra mile, use their discretion to ensure a live situation is handled sensitively and professionally. That’s not a difficult concept to comprehend, is it? So aside from the ‘hail fellow, well met’ moments that are important to oiling the daily wheels of business life, how do we really acknowledge the efforts of our people and of the individual capability that each person possesses? What are the sacrosanct activities that confirm to our people that they are more than productive components in the business machine?

As Charles Handy said, “For the first time in the human experience we have a chance to shape our work to suit the way we live, instead of our lives to fit our work…we would be mad to miss this chance.” That’s great news for us as individuals, but it also represents a massive challenge for us as leaders.

In the fullness of time I expect the term leader to be augmented with the word Coach, to become Coach Leader. A Coach Leader is someone who recognises not only the choice to which Charles Handy referred, but also the importance of their role in developing the capability and potential of others. In this environment people are more likely to give of their best and be even more receptive and supportive to the evolving demands of your business. In a world where change really is the only constant, this dynamic capability is not just desirable, it’s essential to your very survival.

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