Why Some Managers Don’t Believe in Employee Engagement

1 Apr

by Leigh Branham

I was following a thread of posts on LinkedIn recently on the topic of employee engagement, and was a little taken aback by the following statement from one contributor to the lively conversation:

“Some managers don’t believe in employee engagement.”

Yep, I knew it was true.  Yet, my rational/advocate self asked, “how could they NOT believe in employee engagement?!  Engaged employees are both more satisfied and more productive.  Don’t we all know this by now?!  Engaged employees get better results and please more customers and clients.  An overwhelming body of research shows the strong linkage between employee engagement and business success (for more go to Keeping The People). And besides, engaged employees make their managers look better!  Not to mention the fact that there simply not enough of them—most surveys show the average percentage of engaged employees in U.S. workplaces ranging between only about 25% and 40%.  So, wouldn’t you think all managers would be straining at the bit to raise the engagement levels of their direct reports?!

Nope…and for some reasons that are at least understandable, if not defensible.  Here are the ones I’ve identified or heard managers express before:

Reason No. 1:  “It’s not my job to keep employees engaged!…They should already BE engaged!”

This one’s hard to disagree with.  There’s no denying that all employees should know it’s in their best interest to give their best effort on the job each day.  I believe that most employees start out engaged on day one and stay that way until some triggering event sends them down the road to disengagement…until and unless something is done to re-engage them.  Of course, some of those we hire will never fall into the fully-engaged category.  But then, as hiring managers, we have to accept responsibility of hiring those people and for, all-too-often, hiring warm bodies rather than having the patience and persistence to seek and find the right person.

Employees must know that engagement is a shared responsibility and own their part of the equation.  But ultimately, all managers need to accept that it IS the job of managers to maximize employee performance, which means doing everything possible to keep employees engaged.

Managers have control over five of the six Universal Engagement Drivers that Mark Hirschfeld and I write about in our new book, Re-Engage.  The driver they don’t control?  It’s Senior Leaders—leaders who care enough to hold managers accountable for keeping employees engaged!  So, as we have seen in so many workplaces, the commitment and the mindsets that distinguish winning workplace cultures have to start at the top and cascade down.

Reason No. 2:  “Employees are too entitled already…they should feel lucky to have a job!”

Chances are you’ve heard this one lately.  Usually, it’s said by a Boomer or X’er manager about a Millennial (GenY) employee.  Entitlement isn’t necessarily age-related, but the rap on Millennials—born from 1981 to 1995 (or thereabouts), is that they were over-praised and over-parented by their mostly Boomer parents.  Ironic isn’t it?  Remember the Fortune magazine cover of a couple of years ago—“You Raised ‘Em, Now You Manage ‘Em”?

There’s just enough truth there to make this one stick. Many Millennials expect far more coaching, feedback, instant gratification, and recognition than their parents did, which inspires the following reaction from many Boomer managers: “Who do they think they are?!” or  “They need to get real!” or “Nobody ever had to keep me engaged!”  As one Boomer CEO told me about three years ago, “What these youngsters need is a good recession!”  Well, he certainly got his wish.  No doubt many Millennials are indeed getting a wake-up call and learning to feel fortunate to have jobs in the current economy.

Younger employees will always need to adjust their unrealistic expectations.  Still, there’s another side to the coin—because of the way they grew up, with new technologies that conditioned them to expect more immediate responses, Millennials will continue to expect more of the same from the workplace as they age.  They want to be engaged, but their managers will need to let go of the “My way good…your way bad” mentality and meet them halfway.

Both sides need to give a little—managers, for example, need to challenge Millennials to keep themselves engaged while giving a little more frequent feedback, and understand that not all feedback needs to be criticism.  For their part, Millennials need to adjust their expectations to workplace realities while learning to ask for feedback when they need it instead of feeling quietly victimized, and to understand that not all feedback is praise.  (It needs to be said here that these are stereotypical generalizations that may not apply to many Boomers or Millennials, and, as we emphasize in Re-Engage, individual uniqueness trumps generational membership.)

Again, this reason is no excuse.  The job description of manager still includes keeping employees engaged, which today means confronting entitlement when it’s unreasonable while knowing that engagement requires meeting certain human needs in the workplace, regardless of what generation a person grew up in.  Mostly, managers need to focus on removing the impediments, irritations, and barriers that frustrate the otherwise self-engaged employee.

Reason No. 3: “I’ve got too much to do already!”

As we know, the recent spate of corporate downsizings has only increased the amount of work for many managers.  Brian Kropp, an analyst with the Corporate Executive Board, has reported that the average manager worked about 10 percent more hours a week in the first half of 2009 compared with the first half of 2008, but spent 20 percent less time with their team members.  A CEB survey found that 60 percent of employees said they had a change in manager in the past six months or expect one in the coming six months, thus reducing the long-term commitment to employee coaching and mentoring.  The degree of difficulty only gets worse with the increasing adoption of matrix reporting relationships that leave employees uncertain about who their real “manager” is.

What to do about it?  It seems we have three choices:  1) senior leaders can reconsider their decisions to downsize in response to business declines and consider other options, such as cutting back employee work hours, as many companies have done to avoid laying people off; 2) make it clearer than ever to managers that their real job is not “to do”, but to lead, manage, and delegate to the people who “do.”  This may mean streamlining business processes, off-loading some work to consultants, temps, or part-timers, and conducting people management skill-building training for managers who have not developed those critical interpersonal skills.  This alternative requires that senior leaders also find ways to hold managers accountable for demonstrating these skills.  Selecting and promoting managers who have these skills in the first place would also go a long way toward addressing this issue; and 3) equip all employees with the information, autonomy, training, resources, tools, feedback, challenge, and responsibility they need to be self-engaging, while reminding them that they need to focus on supporting their managers, taking as much as they can off the overworked manager’s desk, and demonstrating their value to the organization as the key to job security.

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