Aug 14, 2013

Have you ever wondered what your CEO really thinks about employee engagement?

Many of us have, and new research from the UK’s Ashridge Business School provides some answers.

The study found CEOs had a pretty good idea of what employee engagement is and what it could do for their organizations. They view engagement as a strategic narrative (and ongoing dialogue) within their organizations that creates emotional connections and purpose for employees. Their view of the end result is a culture where people choose to give the very best of themselves at work.

CEOs have the definition and outcome of engagement nailed, but when asked what stops them from getting more involved with engagement, three distinct and very personal barriers emerged.

1. Leadership capability

The first barrier relates to shortcomings in leadership skills and behaviors that are counter to building engagement. CEOs believe engagement takes a particular set of competencies, like the ability to forge deep trusting relationships at work, leading with emotion and authenticity, and operating with a genuine openness and honesty.

Yet some of the leaders were wary of behaving this way, believing it would lead to dissenting opinions and personal criticism. They agreed they need to be deeply self-aware, but admitted to difficulties reaching true self-awareness if conversations and feedback in their organizations don’t stem from a place of honesty and deep mutual trust.

2. Leadership attributes

Secondly, CEOs recognized themselves as a potential barrier to engagement. They’re cognizant of the fact that some attributes of a leader’s personality can lead to traits or behaviors that could disengage employees. These include being too proud, acting in self-interest, or an inability to show personal vulnerability.

CEOs admitted that insecure leaders tend to utilize a command and control approach, while self-confident leaders have learned to let go and share responsibility and decision-making more broadly.

3. Culture and systems

Finally, CEOs acknowledged organizational cultures, systems, and hierarchies can be an engagement road block.

Hierarchy creates physical and psychological barriers between staff and management which prevent honest conversations from taking place, and CEOs are especially susceptible to this barrier. Trying to find the proper balance of driving short-term business results and longer-term engagement initiatives are also challenges in a capitalist system which rewards CEOs for delivering short-term financial objectives.

Properly understanding and acknowledging a problem accelerates our ability to discover the solution. Will CEOs’ awareness of their own barriers to more effectively embrace and support employee engagement initiatives hasten their ability to turn their road blocks into stepping stones?

What CEOs need to do

It remains to be seen, but in most cases, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle once you’ve acknowledged its existence.

It’s great to hear directly from CEOs, but giving voice to their concerns is only the first step. CEOs now need to step up, work at overcoming these barriers, and invest in what’s important to their employees and the long-term benefit of their organizations.

They alone have the power to make these changes, and they need to trust that in doing so, their employees will be more willing — and better equipped — to deliver the short and long-term results that will create an engaged and successful organization.

This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.