A new lens for looking at engagement

In a recent post I urged people to remove their rose-colored glasses with regard to employee engagement, and in the last post, I suggested we consider the concept of fit as an alternate lens for looking at engagement. In this post, I want to specifically consider the relationship between the individual employee and the manager as a specific lens that can be most valuable for amplifying engagement potential.

Previously I suggested that the various factors that influence engagement can be conceived as operating within widening spheres of influence, beginning with job-specific factors (person-job fit), to supervisory factors (employee-manager fit), to senior leadership (values congruence), to the broader organization factors (culture alignment), and finally to work-life factors (balance). Among these dimensions, the role of one’s immediate supervisor is arguably the most influential, for two reasons. First, actions in each dimension can have a ripple effect in both directions. Sandwiched between person-job elements and broader organization factors, managers are situated to have a ranging impact on the things that influence engagement. Secondly, due to the nature of their relationship, the degree of personality fit can contribute the greatest source of either positive or negative emotions associated with the job.

For example, consider the way person-job fit impacts engagement. Both challenge and autonomy are job factors that have been shown to be related to engagement levels. But again I argue that there is a sweet spot – both too much challenge and too little challenge will be associated with lower levels of engagement. My skills and interests need to jibe with the tasks and roles of the job, or I will be either bored or overwhelmed. One’s immediate manager is situated to perceive the extent of fit and make changes to improve it by changing job tasks or providing training. Likewise, different people desire different levels of autonomy. I may want my boss to tell me what the goal is and let me run with it, figuring out the “how” along the way, while my counterpart may want more structure and direction to be comfortable. A good manager needs to be able to read people and modify tasks and goals accordingly. This process also requires appropriate feedback and development to keep people on the shifting fulcrum between mastery/boredom and ineptitude/anxiety. From selection to advancement, the manager has the ability and responsibility for ensuring adequate person-job fit to promote feelings of confidence and competence instead of apathy and anxiety.

Additionally, as the most immediate conduit for organizational communications and actions, managers can shape perceptions of and reactions to them. Does he or she throw senior leaders under the bus during turbulent times, or try to help employees understand their decisions in a positive light? Managers are crucial to ensuring employees understand how their work fits in the broader scheme of things; they show people how the organizations values and purpose underpin executive decisions. Engaged employees understand and care about the direction of the organization so that they’re actions are aligned with them – this is an important basis for empowerment, because power without a clear aim fizzles out. The role of the direct manager for helping employees appreciate the big picture and how they – well, fit – into it cannot be understated.

Further, one’s immediate supervisor can exert considerable influence on how people perceive the balance between their work life and home life. Research shows that decreased engagement among people aged 40-49 as a function of external family pressures can be offset by a caring manager who takes interest in employees as individuals. While it may seem like a no-brainer, I’m continually surprised by the stories I hear about people who feel a lack of support from their manager when they need time off for a family emergency. But respect for people’s time matters in non-emergencies as well. We have talked time and again about how time away from work promotes productivity and wellbeing and positively impacts work-life balance. An “engaged” manager is one who will not only respect your life outside of work but actively help you manage the spillover so that you can be as effective as you can be.

Finally, we all have people we naturally get along with better than others. There are no friction-less relationships, even the ones that we actively seek out. Because of the nature of the relationship between a supervisor and a direct report, this friction (or lack thereof) will have an enormous impact on how people feel about their job overall. If I’m an extravert who likes a hands-on guidance, there is going to be more friction between me and a manager who is strongly introverted and tends to give me enough rope to hang with (or vice versa, if I want to take the ball and run with it, but my manager wants to get down in the weeds with me). These are just a couple of examples of mismatches of style that can lead to frustration, annoyance, irritation, or insult. Relationships are hard, no matter what form they take. We all bring different needs, styles, and skills to the table. How aware, open, and adaptable we are to others’ is the foundation of good interpersonal skills.

For all these reasons and more, excellent managers are at the heart of an engaged organization. In the coming months, we will spend more time talking about the constellation of characteristics and competencies managers need to possess today in order to nurture their employees in a way that ignites and engages them.

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