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Russell Connor

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Employee engagement – finding the missing link


It is a truth, almost universally acknowledged, that an organisation full of engaged employees will outperform its competitors. Universally acknowledged it might be, but it seems that few organisations are achieving this. This is despite a great deal of effort including compelling vision and mission statements, leadership training, performance management systems and incentive schemes. Russell Connor identifies the vital role of line managers and specifies the ideal ‘climate’ that sets the conditions for engagement.


Employee engagement arises from the inter-relationship between the manager and the employee.

This may come as a surprise to many executives that have sweated over their mission/vision/values statements; the line-manager and not the fine corporate words is the determining factor in employee engagement.

The line-manager creates the working climate that influences and affects the people working for them. It is this climate that sets the conditions for engagement.

Sometimes this climate reflects the general climate of the organisation and sometimes this climate is a direct result of the very specific style of the manager and they way that they empower, involve and motivate others.

The prerequisites
There are three simple conditions that people want and need prior to making discretionary effort.

Discretionary effort ensures that something happens a little better than what was planned. As the term implies, the exercise of personal choice – not the prescribed job description or the processes that a person has to follow – is at the heart of engagement.

These three conditions are:

•    Clarity: People want to be clear about what they are expected to do
•    Trust: People want to feel that they can use their own judgement and be allowed to get on with work within their level of competence
•    Purpose: People want to know that the work undertaken is heading in the right direction and at the right pace and they want to know that the tasks undertaken link to a broader purpose.

 These conditions are likely to be met if a manager demonstrates a balance of clarifying, enabling and reviewing.
Clarifying consists of tasking and involving
•    Tasking is about establishing the core purpose of a person’s job and identifying their accountabilities. It is about specifying intended outcomes and a time-scale for completion of tasks
•    Involving is the process of ensuring that clarifying is not simply a one-way process. It requires recognition that the only real expert is the person doing the job.

Enabling consists of providing the means and space to do the job required:
•    Providing the means involves equipping the person with the necessary tools, skills, knowledge and procedures that are safe and appropriate for the work to be undertaken.

•    Providing the space for people is about creating the conditions for them to make their own judgements to the limit of their current capabilities.

Reviewing consists of maintaining contact and making connection:
•    Contact is monitoring without crowding. It ensures that the work assigned is still relevant to the organisation and that the resources required are being used appropriately according to the current priorities. Contact also involves measuring performance against the intended outcome.

•    Connection is about recognising achievement. Most importantly of all, it is about communicating a sense of purpose and relevance for the work so that all individuals are clear as to how the job links to that of others and how the work is part of a broader goal.

The optimal climate
The optimal situation is where a manager provides a balance of clarifying, enabling and reviewing. This leads to people making sensible decisions that build good customer relations, cement supplier relationships and minimise rework and waste.

People are clear as to what is expected and what they hold accountability for. They feel that they are trusted to make their own judgements within their area of competence and they have a clear understanding as to how their work connects to a wider purpose. In short, they are engaged with their work.

Sub–optimal climates
However, as we know from our experience, not all managers operate in a balanced way. Some take on the organisation style which may stress one or more of these activities. Others just adopt what they have been shown or feel is the right style.

An imbalance of these management conditions has negative consequences and can lead to either ‘foggy’ or ‘hot and barren’ climates.

Foggy climates are established when managers, instead of clarifying simply hand-over decisions to their subordinates. Instead of enabling, they overly-trust a person to get on with their job in whatever way that they feel is right. Instead of reviewing, they neglect.

People can be given too much space to make their own judgements. The result is a diffuse environment in which people operate by guesswork. When there is guesswork, people generally feel more comfortable when they consult with everyone and when a collective view emerges. Therefore formal and informal meetings proliferate. A diffuse environment definitely results in rework and waste. Personal engagement is made difficult as ownership of outputs and accountabilities are unclear.

Hot and barren climates are established when instead of clarifying, managers simply dictate their requirements. Instead of enabling, they disable and see themselves as knowing best or they retain control over key parts of the role. Instead of reviewing, they police and recognise only non-compliance.

When people are given too little space and are driven by tasks and unrelenting processes, the result is a rigid working environment characterised by ‘rule-following’. When there is rule-following, people carry on doing something that they know results in waste or poor quality. This ‘jobs-worth’ attitude is a classic symptom of disengagement. When senior people realise that things need to improve and start change initiatives, they wonder why these run into the ground.

Employee engagement is dependent upon treating people at all levels as people who can make independent choices.

In treating people as people, organisations will recognise that managing people is messy; fortunately they don’t conform to the same laws as machines and as such creativity and judgement can lead to unexpected and wonderful outcomes. They will see people not as objects or resources that can be switched on and off like electrical apparatus. Instead they will understand that motivation is generated from within the person.

Motivation cannot be imposed; it is a choice that individuals make. They will respect the individual and truly believe that all individuals are purposeful, intentional creatures. They will understand that the meaning that we make of our situation and context shapes our choices.

When a manager absorbs this general attitude and provides the optimal climate, people give more of themselves as they are treated as human-beings that can make choices.

In creating the climate, a manager must be able to balance, sometimes contradictory, behaviours. As this is a balancing act that is largely dictated by the needs of individual employees, there is no simple step-by-step competency formula.

Online survey techniques make it possible to measure the climate that is provided by managers. Collecting feedback from individuals across the organisation can also be aggregated to inform the executive; ‘What is it like to work for us – as an organisation?’

Russell Connor is the Managing Director of Dynamic Link (


Gillian Stamp, Director, BIOSS.
Christopher Bones: Engagement is at the heart of successful M&A, Ivey Business Journal, February 2007


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