Even though I was a teacher for 25 years, I was not a model student. And whenever I was in trouble at school, I knew it not because of my teachers’ words, but based on his or her actions. A simple look or some tense body language and I knew. I also remember not just thinking “I’m in trouble,” but also “She doesn’t like me” or “He’s judging me.”
At the time, I’d probably done plenty to earn this frustration. But the memory holds a lesson: our actions send an emotional message to the people around us.
In my experience, people are often unaware of how their actions are speaking for them. For example, if a manager schedules a coffee meeting with an employee to talk about their progress, but then finds they have to reschedule it, the action might say to the employee: you are not my priority. Of course, this was not the likely message sent by the manager, but it’s one the employee could easily internalize.
This kind of unspoken interplay has a huge impact: According to a Gallup study, managers account for 70% or more variance in employee engagement. To avoid the negative impacts of unspoken communication, managers (or anyone in a leadership role) should take a step back and assess the many different ways they might be sending messages to employees. To understand how, as a manager, you are helping — or harming — a team’s engagement just ask yourself the following questions:
1. Have I set the right expectations?
My team at Cornerstone has grown recently — which I’m really excited about — but because we have new faces and a new dynamic, I made sure to gather everyone together to reset expectations. One of the most important things I wanted to accomplish was to create an environment where everyone felt comfortable giving, and taking, feedback.
In her book, Radical Candor, Kim Scott writes about how Steve Jobs made a habit of putting a strong point of view on the table and demanding responses from the team; he called this “loud listening.” In the meeting, I encouraged my team to adopt this practice. Now, just putting a bullet on my slide about loud listening doesn’t make it easy for my team to do right away. But saying “It’s okay to disagree,” lays the groundwork for a more open, honest relationship in the future.
2. Have I asked for feedback?
If you’re not confident that your actions, or the expectations that you set, are being received by your team, run an informal review on yourself. Ask your employees for feedback about how you’re managing (and let them be anonymous if they’d prefer).
This exercise does double duty: you’re gathering information about your own performance, and you’re also modeling vulnerability for your team. The same way we model our behavior after role models as children, employees will model their behavior after people in positions of influence in the workplace. And the best way to know where you stand as a manager is to create an environment where employees feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback.
3. Can I apologize authentically?
The most important thing when it comes to enhancing team engagement is to know how to apologize. It’s something we tell kids over and over again, but many adults don’t do it well. I’ve been on the receiving end of a bad apology (or lack thereof) in my career: I once told a manager that I thought I was owed an apology for the way they spoke to me in front of a group of people. The response was something like, “I’m older than you, I have more experience than you, I don’t owe you an apology for anything.”
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An apology doesn’t have to be an admission that someone is right or wrong. I would have been happy to hear something like: “Listen, my intention was not to embarrass or humiliate you. I stand by what I said, but maybe there was a way that I could have done it a little differently.” This kind of emotional connection and vulnerability helps rebuild trust.
It might feel overwhelming to be “always on” to keep your team on track. Start by assessing your effectiveness as a manager with these questions, and search for ways to improve. When you’re managing to the best of your ability, you’ll start to see a major improvement in your team: Managers, research shows, can not only make or break an employee’s work experience — they can make or break a company’s success. High-performing managers (i.e. those who are successful at engaging their team members) contribute 48% higher profit to their companies than the average manager.