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Jane Sparrow


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Engaging for success: The key role of line managers


The recently formed government taskforce ‘Engage For Success’ is urging employers to prioritise staff engagement as means of achieving economic growth.

As Russell Grossman, director of communications at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, observed at this year’s Institute of Internal Communication conference, if the UK’s 4.8 million businesses could boost engagement levels by just 1%, the impact on growth could be incredible.
The problem is, however, that every year millions of pounds are invested in engagement programmes, which are intended to boost motivation levels and encourage employees to work harder. But every year, despite the best intentions of HR and business managers almost all of this time, money and effort is wasted.
Why? Because all too often their engagement strategies simply focus on staff communications rather than ensuring that HR, communications and line managers all work together in tandem.
A key challenge is that, once leadership events, kick-off meetings and values programmes are launched, many organisations find it difficult to maintain the commitment, energy and expertise that these initiatives require on an on-ongoing basis. 
Middle managers are just expected to ‘get on with it’, despite ever-increasing demands on their time.
While HR often contributes by revamping organisational design, learning and development and recruitment processes, even more important is that they build up the capacity, capability and confidence of line managers in order to ensure that engagement levels can be sustained day in, day out.
Engagement is key
This requires finding ways to embed positive managerial behaviour into everyday ways of working such as making changes to both business processes and recognition methods.
It also means that middle managers must be able to see that organisational initiatives in this area are not just about engagement for engagement’s sake. Instead, they need to understand that staff engagement is and must be a core part of their job.
For such an approach to be effective, however, HR must take control of the conversation about ‘how do we build (or re-build) our culture’. The function also needs to focus on a number of areas that it traditionally hasn’t such as stakeholder management and building up the strategic knowledge of the business.
Ask yourself, for example:
  • How well do you really know your stakeholders and when was the last time you talked to them as opposed to emailing them? 
  • Do you regularly make the effort to spend time in different areas of the business in order to understand how people are thinking, feeling and performing?
  • Could you honestly advise a departmental manager on how their team might react to any given announcement in the pipeline?
Moreover, most employers prefer to measure activity using key performance indicators and financial targets. So it’s hardly surprising that many managers feel that their number one focus is to deliver operationally, while the ‘soft’ people management and engagement stuff often comes a pretty poor second.
However, there are five key characteristics that managers must display if they are to truly engage and get the best from their people:
1. The prophet
Prophets are all about passion, vision and inspiration. They paint a visual picture of the future in a highly emotive way that others understand and are keen to be part of. Their vision packs an emotional punch, resonating with everyone and leaving people in doubt as to what exactly their values are.
2. The storyteller
Storytellers use a mix of emotion and logic to tell the tale of how their vision will be achieved and how people can live out their purpose. They describe what something looks and feel like, how to get there, what destinations will be passed on route and, crucially, what it means for both individuals and the wider team.
3. The strategist
Strategists know exactly who their talent is and have a plan for how to engage, retain and develop every person in their team or under their influence. They form the logical, rational side of management, taking intention and making it a reality.  
4. The coach
Coaches understand what makes an individual tick and works with that knowledge to help them grow and deliver more value. This role is both vital and rewarding as, at its core, engagement involves treating people as individuals. This means that the key role of a coach is to ensure employees feel that their own needs are being met and valued. 
5. The pilot
Pilots comprise the calm, measured component of managers. Their goal is to be a respected role model, the ‘parental’ adult with one hand on the tiller. Solid and trusting, they are able to balance a need to be authoritative with being facilitative. It is in this role that a manager’s personal style becomes most evident in the way in which they go about their everyday job of engaging and supporting others. 
My research into these five roles indicates that a high proportion of managers are weakest in the strategist and coach categories. But HR can have a big influence here through activities such as talent management and leadership development.
Next week, we’ll offer some practical suggestions on how HR can better support line managers in becoming expert people managers.

Jane Sparrow is managing director of behavioural change consultancy, Northern Flight, and author of The Culture Builders – Leadership Strategies for Employee Performance.




2 Responses

  1. Let’s Create Engagement

    Well said Peter. Most top executives are died in the wool command and control types thus using orders to gain engagement. Sadly, they don’t realize that orders are very destructive to engagement.

    Whatever happened to treating employees as if they are respected and valued? Whatever happened to allowing employees enough autonomy so that they can be proud of what they do?

    Top executives need to lead by listening to their people face to face and then responding to what they hear to the satisfaction of employees or better. The last time I did this as an executive, a very sick organization transformed into being highly motivated, highly committed, and fully engaged with sky high morale and innovation being at least 300% more productive than when I started.

    As you say Peter, executives need to know exactly what to do and how to do it to create full engagement before they embark on any effort. But then we know there are few who do know and surveys are only a way to waste scarce money.

    Best regards, Ben Simonton


  2. Weve decided, Engage everybody, and do it now!

    This article just about sums it up.

    Senior Management hold an "Engagement Event" and perfectly rightly convince themselves of the value of an engaged workforce.

    What does not happen at any of these events is an explanation of what has to happen on Monday morning to make the changes that will allow the workforce to engage.

    On Monday morning senior management set about a furious Email campaign to tell everybody to engage, and lacking any real understanding themselves of what is required, that is as far as they can go.

    The Middle managers who recieve this barrage of exhortation to engage have no idea how to do it either but since they assume that senior management know what they are talking about they don’t feel able to ask them how it should be done for fear of exposing their own ignorance. They know however that they must do something so they make an engagement survey. When that is done they wait a while then conduct another survey to see if levels of engagement have changed.

    This is an entirely useless strategy that wastes time and money but as far as the middle manager is concerned those are both advantages. Wasting time keeps senior management off his back and spending money shows that he is doing something.

    The middle manager is so busy trying to fend off his senior management that even if he did know what to do on Monday morning it is quite likely that he would not be allowed to because he was not either conducting a survey or spending wads of money.

    Neither of which are necessary to create the environment in which a workforce can choose to engage.


    — Peter A Hunter

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