Article main image
Jun 3, 2013

Recently I came across a sponsored article in Fast Company, titled Happiness Secrets from the Staff of Delivering Happiness at Work. Apparently Zappos’  leadership team has launched a new consulting business on how to achieve Zappos’ fun culture — using fun culture as a measure of engagement.

Who knew? One picture in the article shows three employees with rubber noses. That’d go over well with customers interested in effective growth of their investment portfolio …

Several blog sites that I frequent post myriad articles on employee engagement – from how important it is, to how much additional revenue is generated by engaged employees, to why it is different than satisfaction. And then, there was the “happiness” article.

Has the word “engagement” lost all meaning?

Inc. magazine carried a post, The Dark Side of Employee Engagementin which the authors cite Leadership IQ’s recent study showing that those who were most “engaged” might not be the best performers. They caution the reader to clearly understand the definition of engagement, when embarking on a study to determine engagement levels.

I have come to the conclusion that “engagement” has become one of those buzzwords that has lost its meaning because it is so overused. And I fear that focusing on “engagement” has caused us to lose sight of what is really important – skilled leaders who can move teams forward.

I watched an organization spend six figures annually on engagement surveys, while totally missing the opportunity to develop new leaders, identify future leaders, and help those leaders lead effectively. Year after year, the organization patted itself on the back for slight movement in engagement scores. Yay – we’re moving from mediocre to a little bit less mediocre!

How in heaven’s name can an organization measure or improve engagement without investing in leaders who have the skill to engage?

Conceptually, engagement is complex. Is the employee productive? Is the employee achieving the critical business goals? Is the employee going to look elsewhere for employment, thereby leaving a vacancy that costs money?

It isn’t simply performance and it isn’t simply being committed to the organization. The complexity comes in recognizing that those two elements are different for every employee.

Developing a committed, productive workforce

So who is in the best position to lead employees to high performance and commitment? My thought: their leader.

So how does the organization know if leaders are effective in developing a committed and productive workforce?

Ah, so that’s the big question that leads to engagement surveys. Senior leadership needs empirical data to know if the subordinate leaders are effective. That’s a pretty costly venture to acquire empirical data when the data might be right there staring them in the face.

“Leaders of leaders” – those individuals to whom leaders report – have a challenge that is unique to their role. Like all leaders, they need to effectively develop their talent. But the talent they need to be developing is skill and competence in leading others.

I contend that “leaders of leaders” have tools available to them that are low cost and high payoff. These tools provide insight into subordinate manager leadership skills, connect them to the employees and may, in fact, uncover innovation and process improvement.

Tools that “leaders of leaders” can utilize

Give some of these a try. They may sound a bit simplistic, but they work.

  • Read the performance reviews subordinate managers writeabout their employees. Make the performance review system work for you by using it to observe managers’ skills in talent development.
    • Do they differentiate in performance?
    • Do they provide helpful feedback?
    • Do the employees make comments? What happens to those comments?
    • What are the follow up plans when employees are not performing?
    • How are they developing their top talent?
  • Walk through work areas frequently and talk to the employees. Will this cause anxiety for their leader? Perhaps, but that makes it even more important and once they see you are doing it to learn and help, their trust in you builds.
  • Ask to sit in on staff meetings. What a wealth of information that will provide….everything from how effectively the leader leads a meeting, to what they talk about, and whether or not they leave with an actionable plan. It also gives an opportunity for a Q&A.
  • Ask about the interview and hire process when a subordinate is filling a vacancy. Even more fundamental, ask “how do you know that you need this position?” If they cannot tell you that, they have not done their due diligence.
  • Ask about the on-boarding plan for a new hire. How will they help the new hire assimilate quickly and efficiently. Talk with the new hire after a couple months and find out about his/her experience.
  • Host “coffee with the leader” for small groups of employees and let them plan ask questions. Asking questions of them gives you a sense of how well they know the business, the strategy and the goals. A key responsibility of leaders is to communicate and align the messaging throughout the organization.

Engagement is all about effective leadership

As I have said before, this is not the time for a heavy hand. If you don’t like what you see or hear, this is your opportunity to model mentoring and coaching. Share what you learned with the subordinate leader and work together to figure out how you feel about what you learned, then make a plan and follow through. This is dialogue, and it works wonders.

Don’t have time to do this? Oops, wrong answer. This IS leadership.

Engagement? It’s all about effective leadership. Help leaders learn to dialogue.

And lest I offend my colleagues who offer surveys, I don’t mean to say I don’t think they are necessary, particularly when the organization becomes very large. The empirical data from a good survey provides valuable insight into an important part of the business.

But regular and honest dialogue throughout all levels of the organization is, in my mind, the best way to customize the concept of engagement to all of the different employees.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.