Effective leadership is about influencing others to behave in a particular way. At work this means getting your employees to exert effort toward effective performance. You also want employees to follow policies and practices that are designed to maximize organizational effectiveness. But to be effective you need to not only get employees to go through the motions of following your directions. Employees need to enthusiastically participate. In other words you need to practice leadership that achieves employee engagement.
The Importance of Employee Engagement
Engaged employees are motivated and willing to put forth maximum effort to perform their jobs. Engaged employees feel valued and are enthusiastic about work. There are three areas that comprise the ABCs of engagement.
- Affective Engagement: Employees who are affectively engaged have positive feelings about work. They like their jobs and the people they work with. They enjoy the things they do at work, and experience pride in their accomplishments.
- Behavioral Engagement: Employees who are behaviorally engaged work hard to accomplish work goals. They actively support the organization by following policies and practices that are designed to meet organizational objectives. Many of these efforts support the climate and culture, whether the focus is on customer service, innovation, safety or something else.
- Cognitive Engagement: Cognitive engagement involves mental effort toward the job. Cognitively engaged employees concentrate on job tasks rather than day dream. They think of ways to do the job better. A cognitively engaged employee who enjoys job tasks can become totally absorbed in work, and might experience a flow state. In other words the employee gets so wrapped up in the task that he or she can lose track of time and pay little attention to other things.
Leadership That Achieves Employee Engagement
Leaders often focus their attention on directing the efforts of their followers by giving orders and making clear that they expect them to be followed. Some leaders feel they need to supervise closely to be sure their followers are performing the job correctly. To some extent providing structure to be sure employees know their roles, and checking to be sure the job is done correctly is needed. However, focusing too much attention on directing and supervising can lead employees to feel micro-managed and resentful. This approach undermines good working relationships as employees feel their leader doesn’t respect their abilities and doesn’t trust their integrity. This approach will undermine affective engagement by making employees unhappy, behavioral engagement because employees will often follow directions only when the supervisor is around, and cognitive engagement because employees will not be motivated to invest effort. Such leaders can create a self-fulfilling prophecy by producing employees who are disengaged and need constant attention to keep on track. In the extreme a leadership style that is overly directive can result in employees undermining the leader by failing to fully engage and by sabotaging the workplace when the supervisor is not around.
To achieve employee engagement requires a collaborative approach that empowers rather than directs employee effort. Such an approach is built on trust and mutual respect. The role of the leader is to support followers so they can achieve their potential. This is done through four leadership actions.
- Coaching: Leaders should act as coaches who provide feedback. Employees need to know when they are doing things well so they will continue to perform. They also need to know where they need improvement, but negative feedback should be done in a noncritical way. Keep in mind that people have a limited tolerance for negative feedback, so only one or two things should be addressed at one time. Further, feedback should focus on a particular action and not the person. Telling a follower something like “I have found that the following approach helps me do a better job” is likely to get a better response that saying “You really aren’t very good at this, are you?”
- Developing: A leaders role includes helping employees improve their capabilities in their current roles, as well as helping them gain the knowledge and skill to advance. This includes providing opportunities to hone current skills and learn new things on the job. This is done through the coaching function of providing feedback, as well as by providing challenging assignments and tasks that enable the employee to develop capabilities.
- Encouraging: Engaged employees feel confident and empowered to do their jobs. The leader should make efforts to encourage employees to take ownership of their jobs which means providing a reasonable level of autonomy over tasks. Encouraging employees involves positive feedback to recognize where employees are performing well. It also involves praising employees and showing appreciation for their efforts. You should not underestimate the power of a simple thank you as a form of reward that contributes to engagement.
- Protecting. Engagement is best encouraged in an environment where employees feel physically and psychologically safe. Leaders should make it clear that safety is an important goal and do their best to provide the knowledge and tools needed to avoid injuries on the job. At the same time leaders should assure a psychologically safe workplace where everyone feels accepted for who they are and is free to express opinions without being harshly criticized.
Leaders who build employee engagement have high standards for employee performance that are made clear, and they do not hesitate to take corrective actions when needed. However, their approach is to create an environment in which employees are comfortable and empowered to do their jobs well. Leadership that achieves employee engagement is leadership that is effective at getting the job done.