It’s all about the team’s leader


Engagement has become a boardroom priority because it delivers measurable bottom line impact improving productivity, speed, customer satisfaction and employee retention.

Engagement as a business term was first coined in 1990 by William Kahn, professor of organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who defined employee engagement as being dependent on three conditions:

  1. Psychological meaningfulness
  2. Psychological safety
  3. Psychological availability

Meaningfulness refers to an individual’s connection to his or her role and purpose at the organization.

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Safety pertains to the ability to share oneself openly, including one’s values and ideas, without fear of repercussion or conflict.

Availability involves the physical, emotional and intellectual resources an individual possesses to invest in his or her work.

For the first time since Gallup began tracking this metric in 2000, employee engagement last year reached 35%, an all-time high.

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What’s driving this uptick? Not surprisingly, the level of trust shared with the immediate team leader.

The 2019 Global Study of Engagement Technical Report produced by ADP Research Institute shows that “being on a team” and “trust in team leader” are the two primary contributors to high engagement. According to the survey, employees are 12 times more likely to be fully engaged if he or she trusts the team leader, and this happens when employees rate two conditions as positive:

  • At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  • I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work. 

This research stands on the shoulders of other studies that confirm people quit their bosses, not their companies. In other words, if you work for a boss who you trust and respect, you will stay at a company even if you don’t like the culture. But if you work for a boss who you don’t respect, even if the company culture is great, you will likely leave that boss or the company.

What distinguishes the best team leaders from all others is that, in addition to their ability to meet the above two categories for the people on their teams, the leader makes people feel that the work they are doing is meaningful while also taking time to acknowledge and recognize each individual for their contribution.   

According to the ADPRI study, at companies with more than 150 employees, 91% of employees who report working on teams, including virtual teams, report engagement levels that are almost double other employees.

What does that mean? To some degree, it means that we need to slow down to go fast. In other words, managers and team leaders need to communicate why the work is important and how each team member’s contribution makes a difference.

I recall interviewing the president of a plastics manufacturing company who hung photos of the manufactured products near each cell so employees could see how the particular part they were molding contributed to a safe motorcycle, piece of mining equipment, or complex industrial machine. This changed how people interpreted the meaning and importance of their work.

With the latest research showing that teamwork and purpose drive engagement, we need to ask ourselves: How can we better empower our frontline managers so they are able to communicate, inspire, recognize and develop their direct reports?

A Harvard Business Review Analytics report titled “Frontline managers: Are they given the leadership tools to succeed?” shows that only 20% of frontline managers are competent to develop talent and 19% inspire others. Certainly, we can do better than that.

Recognizing the cost of turnover, talent acquisition, lost productivity and the burnout experienced by team members who “pick up” the extra work, I submit that by investing in input (high development), we will generate measurably higher output (high performance).   

But, for this to happen, managers need to learn how to become better coaches. They need to shift from being the problem solver to empowering others with the strategies and tools to solve their own problems, from being the criticizer to catching people doing the right thing, and from focusing on development opportunities to leveraging individual strengths.

Professor Kahn’s research reinforces that teamwork builds a culture of trust. People who are empowered up, down and across the organization make a meaningful difference and are recognized for their effort. In a high trust environment, engagement increases and becomes self-perpetuating.

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