Not Enough Employee Engagement? Blame Your Boss

Wally Bock

Today, Jeff Immelt is CEO of General Electric (GE). His father, Joe, worked for GE, as well, but he worked on the assembly line in an aircraft engine plant. That's where Jeff learned the power of supervision.

"When I would sit around the kitchen table with my dad, I never knew who the CEO of GE was," Jeff said, "I knew my dad's boss." And he always knew by his dad's mood and stories whether that boss was any good.

There are mountains of research to support the impact of the immediate supervisor on employees and the business. Having a good leader means having a team that's productive and engaged. And today, "engaged" is a major buzzword.

Engagement is a lot like pornography. Everybody knows it when they see it, but hardly anyone can define it in a way that works for everyone else.

Consulting firms are a huge part of the problem. Each has its own definition, instruments and methods. None of them admits that their competition may actually have something worthwhile.

The good news is that we don't need the high-priced consulting firms to identify employee engagement. We know employee engagement when we see it. Employee engagement is nothing more than a worker pitching in enthusiastically to get the job done.

If you want high-performing teams, employee engagement is necessary. However, it's not enough. You need productivity, too. The good news is that you get both engagement and productivity the same way.

You increase productivity and employee engagement when you have good supervisors. We've known this for decades. But still most companies don't pay attention.

We as organizations need to do a better job of selecting people who are likely to do a good job as supervisors. We need to give them the proper training in supervisory skills and support them in their work. Most importantly, we need to help them develop.
br /> Before we put someone in a position where he or she is responsible for group performance, we need to assess whether that person has the aptitude to make a go of it.

People without the aptitude can probably do the job, but it costs them in energy and conscious attention. If they do OK, it's usually only at the lowest level of performance. In most cases they wind up giving you performance at the expense of morale. Here are some questions to judge aptitude for the job of supervisor.

Does he or she like helping other people succeed? A supervisor's job is to help the team and its members succeed.

Has he or she demonstrated a willingness to talk to others about employee engagement and performance? This is a key part of any supervisor's job. We can give someone the tools to do it better, but we can't make them willing to do it.

Has he or she demonstrated the willingness to make decisions and take responsibility for results? How many supervisors have you seen who simply don't decide? They buck the issue up the chain. Or they decide not to decide. Or they dump the problem back in a team member's lap, then walk away with their hands in the air.

We need to give them training in supervisory skills. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, less than 10 percent of training budgets are spent on first line supervisors. Most of that is spend on how to fill out forms and classes on prophylactic HR. That's not good enough.

New supervisors need some training in basic role identification. They need skills training in communication and confrontation skills. And they need help understanding their transition.

We need to support them in their work. Support means more training. The transition period, which takes 12 to 18 months, is the time when lots of small training sessions are needed. New supervisors also need to identify role models and mentors and learn self-critique skills.

After that, some form of peer support is vital. That can be a formal program in a large company or a joint program among smaller companies. In many cases, mentors and coaches are part of the mix.

We need to help them develop. One of the great things about supervision is that there's always something more to learn. We need to help bosses create development plans and then follow them. We need to provide resources and point them to more resources.

The best way to leverage employee engagement is to have an engaged boss. There are "great places to work" with "pockets of awfulness." There are horrid slave ships with beacons of excellence.

None of this is simple. It won't be quick. But if what you want is an engaged workforce, do the things that create a solid cadre of good supervisors. Engage them and good things will follow.