Leveraging the Manager-Employee Relationship to Drive Employee Engagement

Karen Knox

It is well recognized that driving employee engagement throughout the organization is a critical task for organizational and human resources leaders. Enterprise-wide engagement initiatives can be effective – and expensive – but one of the most significant factors that impacts employee engagement is the manager-employee relationship.

We know that people join organizations but leave managers. On the flip side, managers can drive employee engagement, performance, development and retention. If the manager-employee relationship is so critical, it should not be left to chance.

Exploring the psychological contract

In a previous post on HRIQ, Vera Hillman addresses an unwritten, often unspoken "psychological contract" between an organization and employee, the fulfillment of which directly impacts employee engagement. What makes up the "contract" can vary with the unique needs and aspirations of each employee, and I am not suggesting that an organization seek to satisfy each employee’s unspoken expectations.

But this is clearly an area where an organization can leverage the employee-manager relationship by equipping and encouraging managers to discuss and address psychological contract expectations with employees. Managers can help employees explore and, if necessary, modify their expectations, offsetting negative reactions when unrealistic expectations are not met.

A recent article in HR Magazine suggests using such manager-employee discussions to "re-recruit" top talent. HR can help managers by providing suggested questions to guide the discussion. These questions might include:

  • What attracted you to this organization?
  • Do you still feel the same way? Why or why not?
  • Do you feel like you are doing your best work? Why or why not?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • How can we help you get there?

By initiating the one-on-one conversation and listening uncritically, managers demonstrate that they care, thereby improving communications and strengthening the manager-employee relationship.

Helping managers crank the five levers driving employee engagement

Writing for the Journal of Quality & Participation, organizational development expert Michael Cardus describes five levers of employee engagement: a competent manager, contextual goals, objective metrics, resources and autonomy. Managers have a direct impact on each.

  • By a competent manager, Cardus means one who adds value and enables employees to do their best work. HR can assist managers by training them to coach their employees to enhanced performance through observing and providing constructive feedback.
  • Employees are encouraged when they know how their work is supporting larger organizational goals. Managers can drive employee engagement by helping their employees set objective performance goals that are linked to departmental and organizational priorities and, to the best extent possible, also engage the employee’s abilities, ambitions and interests.
  • Objective metrics are the means by which progress toward the performance goals is measured. Managers and employees should establish them during the goal-setting process and review them during formal and informal meetings throughout the year.
  • Identifying and providing appropriate resources to enable employees to do their best work is a key responsibility of the manager. Encourage managers to ask their employees what they need to be successful. Resources may include such things as direction, clarity, encouragement, information, training, time as well as physical resources.
  • One of the most difficult aspects of management and one of the most impactful is getting the right balance in facilitating employee autonomy. By viewing themselves as resources and coaches, managers can avoid micro-managing. Frequent discussions using the tools described above will allow managers to monitor employee progress and provide just enough intervention to head off failure while helping employees stretch and develop through taking on more and more responsibility.

If there is an unspoken psychological contract between an organization and employee, the manager is clearly the best person to unpack it and leverage it as a tool for employee engagement. An organization’s best engagement initiative is to get the manager-employee relationship right.

Karen Knox is a Talent Management Evangelist who helps organizations build world-class workforces through best practices talent management at Halogen Software. Connect with Karen on LinkedIn.