In the last entry, I focused in part on what I see as the responsibility of every leader, at any level of an organization. To me, we all have a responsibility to create a space where people willingly participate and express themselves, where they contribute their talent, energy and passion. Unfortunately, my experience has shown that managers who truly take this undertaking seriously are the exception rather than the rule.
Of course, we have seen that engagement of the managers themselves is a significant issue. Even a casual observer of today’s business press cannot help but notice an abundance of evidence that middle managers in large organizations often perceive their jobs in less than positive terms. In describing their daily routines, they often use such words as unfulfilling, depressing and stagnant. A recent example, from a few weeks ago in the Financial Times, has the striking title, “Identity crisis of the middle manager”. One of the people quoted in the article—a planning manager for Santa Clara County in California—described his position as a sort of “purgatory”, where he was often unsure of his role or purpose in the overall structure.
When I work with teams in organizations, or when I teach executive seminars, I am often confronted directly by some of these “classic” frustrations of middle managers. They feel stuck in the middle of things, without the authority or latitude to influence the firm’s direction, or its corporate culture. Often, they are disappointed in the leadership qualities of their superiors, and discouraged by the work environment in general.
Engaging people should be job one: There are two things I always try to do when I observe lack of enthusiasm on the part of managers, and both of them involve simple changes of mindset. First, I often find that engaging them more fully in their work means getting them to focus on their possibilities rather than on the limitations of the job. In almost every situation I have seen, people in organizations tend to have more latitude than they realize, in particular the freedom to design and co-create their group’s culture, regardless of what is happening above them in the company.
The second element of changing management mindsets is getting people to see their roles in human, rather than purely functional, terms. My experience working and consulting in all types of organizations has left me with a simple conviction: a manager’s most important job is engaging people. At first glance, this assertion may seem counterintuitive, but if we turn our attention first to engaging human beings, rather than merely performing tasks, results will follow.
As we have seen in an earlier blog post, the Gallup Organization’s research over the years has clearly demonstrated the link between employee engagement and virtually every key performance indicator. Business units with highly engaged individuals have lower turnover, fewer process errors, higher productivity and profitability, and fewer days lost to absenteeism and accidents. Stated quite simply: as engagement levels rise, everything improves.
Another interesting aspect of Gallup’s findings points clearly to the potential that middle managers have to influence systems. In a Harvard Business Review piece from March 2014 entitled “Why good managers are so rare”, the authors—two Gallup Organization researchers—state that “managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores across business units”.
Consider these two points together. First, managers are a 70% “swing factor” in determining worker levels of commitment to their jobs. In other words, they have an enormous impact on whether their subordinates are highly engaged. And second, when levels of employee engagement rise, everything gets better. Thus, engaging one’s people may very well be the most crucial function of any manager.
So, how do the most effective group leaders achieve sustained engagement of those around them? Of course, individuals do this in their own unique ways. At the same time, I have found that managers who infuse their teams with high levels of engagement often share two behaviors. First, they cultivate ongoing relationships with the individual members, not just with the group as a whole. And second, they succeed in inspiring their followers by connecting them to a quest, a meaningful mission, something greater that goes beyond the work itself.
Image: Flickr-user Damian Gadal