Employee Engagement: It’s All About the Manager

In spite of the continued wave of trendy training, “employee engagement” is not a program.

Yep, you heard it here first. No matter what outside consultants are telling your executives, HR department, and training people, employee engagement is just not a corporate wide, culturally driven initiative.

Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Then what is it?

It is what good managers do.

Individual managers, named Harry, Sylvia, Tish, Bob, Jeremy, and Jennifer. These are the people who’ve been promoted to a position where they are now “the boss” and good bosses recognize that they can’t do it alone. They need staff who are dedicated, excited, and passionate about their work and believe in the team’s goals—and skillful, too.

And how do managers get people to that level? How do they create “engaged” people?

Good old-fashioned people management.

Sadly, that’s tough for some supervisors, since somebody chose to elevate them but didn’t help them elevate their skill-set. As we’ve written before, happens all the time. Organizations take an effective “individual contributor,” make them a manager—and do nothing more!!!

I recently conducted a full day workshop for a venerable home appliance company. A brand name you’d know. At one point I asked the management team in the room, “How many of you have received quality management skills training designed to give you the ability to manage people?”

Even though I’ve been in the training industry since 1986, I was stunned to see fifteen folks stare back at me, each quietly shaking their heads. Not one of them had been trained to take on the mantle of management.

And yet, this is where employee engagement begins … with the manager.

In our research, here is what “engaged employees” tell us their manager does—regularly:

  • My boss communicates what I should do.
  • He talks to me—and listens.
  • When I get it right, she praises me.
  • He tells me when I am off track.
  • I am trained and coached.
  • She spends time with me.
  • He shows me respect.

Guess what? Every item listed above is a people management skill. A learnable, trainable skill. Not a “program.” These are the things effective managers do, day in and day out, with and for their people.

Are you a manager? If so, congrats! But instead of waiting for the organization to bring in yet another trendy training program, practice personal accountability—invest in yourself—and go get some training. We certainly wouldn’t want to ask a victim thinking kind of question like, “Why didn’t they train me?” but rather The Question Behind the Question (QBQ): “What can I do to develop myself?”

Believe me, your dedicated, excited, passionate, and skilled people will thank you for it.

Discussion questions:

What was the best people management training you’ve ever received?

What are the skills needed to be an outstanding manager?

Comment below, we’d love to hear from you!


27 Responses

  1. Two great pieces of advice I wish I had received earlier as a manager:
    1. Remember: you don’t have the answers, THEY do. Ask … and then LISTEN to their answers. “none of us is as smart as all of us.”
    2. WAIT! (Why Am I Talking) – LISTEN!!!

  2. Suggestions for what employees can do themselves to increase their engagement, when their managers exhibit very few of the characteristics/behaviors mentioned?

    1. Elizabeth, it’s a fair question. And also the heart and soul of the QBQ! book. Asking “What can I do to engage?” is the right – and the accountable – question! The answer(s) will depend on your culture and you. Be well!

  3. I enjoy your books, and the QBQ notes I get in my email…..sincerely think you should offer a seminar…gratis…to our congress…as well as a set of your books…perhaps a lightbulb or two would come on…

  4. Best training: Crucial Conversations was what I needed.
    Skills: Recognition! Think about a time when you did a little more than what was expected of you, and you didn’t get the recognition you wanted. How did you feel? Now think about your staff. For example, I loaded the dishwasher after dinner, but my wife did not not say a word. I personally felt crushed; I thought maybe she didn’t even notice. All I really wanted was a little ‘thanks’. Learning to recognize your employees is what will keep engaged employees from jumping ship when a recruiter reaches out to them. A side note, I don’t thank her every time she loads the dishwasher. 🙂

  5. While in college a did a two year study on leadership. My hypothesis is: “The productivity of an organization is directly related to the effectiveness of its leadership.” My leadership philosphy comes from the definition of leadership written by Joanne B. Ciulla (2004), leadership is not about an individual or a position. Instead, leadership is an intriate, moral relationship between a leader and the supporters. The relationship should be based on trust, commitment, emotions, and a shared vision of the good of the organization. The best leadership training I received came from my customer service training at QVC. Through that training, I learned that customer service is internal as well as external. I have five supporters and I subscribed to treat others as I would like to be treated when I am in a supporter role.

  6. John,

    Why do you think companies put such a low priority on training their managers in people skills? Is it too much emphasis on technical skills? Fear? They think they already know it?

  7. Jim, let me be blunt. Training mgrs costs MONEY and training forever will be the last item budgeted and first item cut! I know, I’ve sold it since 1986! Plus, people just don’t seem to get the truth which is this: Being a staff member and being the boss are simply two different skills. Excellent question!

  8. John,
    During my first four years after college, I worked first for a management team who had great people skills and then for a management team who had terrible people skills. This was a technical organization (within a huge corporation) where people were promoted into supervisory – management positions based on tenure and / or technical accomplishment, not people skills. No people skills training provided.

    As you say, “Modeling is the most powerful of all teachers.” How true! Based on my personal experience and observing how my colleagues reacted to these different management teams, I eventually developed my own philosophy / style for managing people.

    Many of us young engineers at the time must have unknowingly asked ourselves QBQ’s. Why? Because six young engineers quit in one six month period (I was almost the seventh), including two who quit after finding out they were being transferred into the group headed by management with poor people skills! All of this young talent which the company had spent almost four years developing was gone. This in an era when it was common to start and work for a company for 35 or 40 years before retiring.

    I have seen people clamor to get into a group where management’s people skills are great. They knew they would be treated fairly and with respect, and they didn’t mind working long and hard to help the group be outstanding. They knew their efforts would be recognized and rewarded by management.

    Sadly, I fear that many of today’s young people are so engrossed in their technical gadgets that they are not honing their oral communication and social skills, a critical part of those “people” skills. I can hear their whining already, “When is someone going to train me?”

  9. John…

    I agree it is all about the manager… It is also all about the employee…

    We run Culture Scans on our Clients – we ask all employees the words to describe their current culture and their desired culture and guess what is number one almost every single time?

    Personal Accountability.

    Isn’t that fascinating? People want Personal Accountability regardless of title, position, rank…

    Keep rockin’!
    Chris Young
    The Rainmaker Group, Inc. – One of your biggest fans.

  10. John, as you know I have been working in the training industry since 1975. Most of that time with management. It amazes me how many managers feel it is their job to control people and not seek their ideas. Not to grow them but to punish them.

    A manager’s job is to help their people become independent of them not dependent on them. As you know, you don’t rate a manager on how badly their people need them but what can their people do without them.

    I was talking to a Sales Manager the other day who flat said he did not have the time to train his people. After I tactfully share why he should but it fell on deaf ears, I said excuse me because you are not going to like what I’m about to say, but I need to say it. You need to MAKE the time to grow your people or why should you be their manager. Needless to say the conversation concluded quickly after that but just maybe he heard me!

    There are three things people must believe in to be successful:

    1. The company they represent and what it stands for as an institution.

    2. The products/service that their department supplies either to internal or external customers.

    3. They must believe in themselves.

    I feel too many managers kill belief in their people and do nothing to build their belief. They don’t do it intentionally but in unconsciously and in little ways by belittling them in front of their peers, not listening to their ideas, not effectively recognizing them when they do things right, and the worst manager goes out parting with their people and loses their respect because of his/her behavior.

    I could go on and on with this list and how so many managers are ineffective, however, I will stop here. Your quicknote was excellent and said it very well. The best managers recognize that leading a team of people is no different than leading their children, the people/children are not alike and must be treated differently!

    Thanks for a great article!


  11. I saw a seminar done by Rick Olson, and let me tell you, in one day, the guy totally gave me a reality check. He covered getting to know your team members, and having difficult discussions with them with an approach that was warm and open, even when difficult things had to be done. Things like negative attitudes, poor performers and gossip were all addressed quite frankly, and without an overly adversarial ‘script/tone’

    How many of us know our team members most favorite task? Which one they just hate? Do we check in and ask when they get frustrated to get to the real issue? We want to let our team members do their work, but often I think we don’t want to ‘micromanage’ so we kind of let them do their thing. As managers, we have to be involved. This is especially challenging because I manage remotely. I see my team member once a week. This means that I have to check in quite regularly to make sure he knows that I am here. If we are in the same building, do we assume they will know this? it’s interesting stuff, for sure. If we don’t engage them on a personal level, then we can’t expect them to personally engage in their work.

    It was a great seminar, full of real life demonstrations. I’d recommend it.

  12. Three places I learned how to manage people – more importantly, I learned how to manage myself!

    Years ago read: Leadership is an Art by Max Depree.

    Then more recently: The 12 Elements of Great Managing, by Wagner and Harter.

    And to work on myself, so as to be able to have meaningful discussions and being a good listener, I attended a Crucial Convesations Workshop.

  13. John, your observation about management/leadership development is dead on. That’s the program that’s missing. Very few companies invest in true leadership development. (This is different than training for specific job skills.)

    Research shows that the number 1 cause of derailment for executives is failure to put the same effort into aquiring leadership skills that they put into developing business skills or execution skills.

    The answer? If you want a successful career, make the investment in yourself.

    Read leadership literature, volunteer in leadership roles for non-profits or trade associations, or hire an executive coach. It’s life long learning that pays dividends not just to the company you work for…more importantly to your own success.

    Thanks for raising an important observation.

  14. Loved this post John… so important and true. The number one reason that employees leave a business is because of their immediate manager. Beyond that, it’s the immediate manager that creates the sub-culture that has the biggest impact on employees.

    It is my belief that to fully engage your employees you have to first start with the belief that all employees want to contribute and get things done… it’s human nature. The level to which they contribute depends largely on how well their motivational needs are being met by the business culture. Do they feel like a respected part of the team? Are they empowered with an understanding of how their role links to the business goals and the tools and resources necessary to achieve and get things done? Are they inspired by the industry, the product, the customer or some element of your business to make a difference? The level to which these questions and needs are met will determine whether you have employees that show up for a job, work for a career or are passionate about a calling. It’s not about a program, initiative or task force, it’s about the manager and the culture they create.

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