It’s Not True That Managers Are the Biggest Drivers of Employee Engagement

We’ve all heard that managers are the primary drivers of employee engagement, but that’s not true. And once you see why that tired platitude is wrong, you’ll understand the damage we’ve been doing to our workforces.

Have you ever seen two employees in the same department who have radically different feelings about their manager? One employee thinks, “Sure, the boss pushes us to develop our weaknesses, but it’s helped me learn so many new skills, and I love conquering big challenges.”

Meanwhile, the other employee feels like, “The boss is never satisfied, and I’m constantly stuck outside my comfort zone, having to learn new things instead of getting to do the work that I’m already good at.”

Those employees have the same manager, and yet, their feelings about their boss are diametrically opposed. Why?

It’s a safe bet that both have very different outlooks and mindsets. The first employee likely has much greater optimism and resilience, with an internal locus of control. By contrast, the second is more pessimistic and fragile, with an external locus of control.

The manager isn’t the primary driver of those employees’ engagement. Their happiness and fulfillment have far more to do with their own outlooks and mindsets.

Mindsets Over Managers

In the study ”Employee Engagement Is Less Dependent on Managers Than You Think,” my colleagues and I discovered that workers’ mindsets around like optimism, resilience, assertiveness, and locus of control are statistically bigger engagement drivers than managers’ actions.

For example, having a manager who considers your ideas is certainly a positive, and it explains about 22% of why an employee will (or won’t) be inspired to give their best effort at work. But having an internal locus of control is a better predictor of an employee’s engagement, explaining 26% of their inspiration at work.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, people with an internal locus of control believe that they control their own success or failure. That is, their success or failure is not the result of chance or fate. Furthermore, there’s an abundance of research demonstrating that people with an internal locus of control typically experience more career success, better health, less anxiety, and lower stress.  

We found similar results for characteristics like optimism, resilience, and assertiveness. Having a boss who recognizes employees’ accomplishments is a solid predictor of engagement (explaining 21% of employee inspiration). But being optimistic is a far better predictor of whether an employee will or won’t be inspired at work (explaining 30%).

I’m not saying that managers don’t matter when it comes to engaging employees. Of course, good managers drive more engagement than bad ones. But an employee’s mindset is an even more influential driver of engagement — and that gets overlooked in the vast majority of companies.

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A Misplaced Reliance on Managers

When we put the onus for employee engagement solely, or even mainly, on managers, two bad things happen.

First, we miss a huge opportunity for improving employee engagement. In the past few decades, we’ve seen incredible advancements in smartphones, electric cars, Bluetooth, and more. But engagement scores have barely moved more than a few points. We could travel back in time 30 years and see familiar (and equally ineffective) approaches to engaging employees. Conduct a survey, give some reports to managers, and hope those leaders do something constructive.

If our efforts to increase engagement by focusing on managers haven’t delivered results, perhaps after a few decades, it’s time for a different approach. And the data makes clear that we’re likely to have more success engaging employees by helping them develop greater resilience, optimism, etc.

Second, focusing exclusively on managers to engage employees puts people in a passive state. It essentially communicates that your happiness is solely dependent on your boss, so just sit patiently, and if you’re lucky, your boss might engage you. 

A far better and emotionally healthier message would be this: “While we’re teaching managers how to lead more effectively, we want to help you assert more control over your life and career by teaching you skills like optimism, resilience, and internal locus of control.”

This isn’t an either-or proposition; we can and should develop both managers and employees simultaneously. But when we focus exclusively on the former as the biggest driver of employees’ engagement, we miss a tremendous opportunity for significantly improving our workplaces.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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