Engagement: Stop Blaming the Supervisor . . . !

Sep 29, 2009 by William Schiemann

Carla called last year from a medium sized energy company and said “Our Engagement is not growing and we can’t figure out why. We put our supervisors through a full Engagement training program offered by a global HR consulting firm. Despite that, Engagement has actually declined in a number of units!

Wait a minute—I thought the supervisor was the focal point for employee Engagement! Perhaps not as much as you have been led to believe. As early as 1983, Brian Morgan and I wrote a book entitled Supervision in the 80s that documented the critical role that the supervisor plays in motivating employees to create satisfaction and energy. It is important not to forget, however, that other factors play an equally important role. I was disturbed to see that, with the growth of focus on engagement, and on the immediate supervisor, top management was no longer being held accountable for its role.

Unfortunately, the supervisor only controls so many cards in an Engagement deck that is largely designed by top leaders and function heads, such as Human Resources. I have spoken with many supervisors who are frustrated (and themselves becoming disengaged!) at their inability to deliver on engagement commitments due to a lack of adequate tools and resources. For example, at many companies there are clear examples of supervisors who are great at recognizing their people—a big driver of Engagement–but if the “big boss” doesn’t even say hello to employees he/she encounters, it can negate the supervisors efforts.

I find the pay debate to include both level of pay and the way pay is managed and communicated. The emphasis tends to be on the former, but in many companies, the supervisor can influence only the latter. When the plan doesn’t demonstrate a clear connection between contribution and pay, the supervisor can do little beyond administering (and apologizing for) the weak pay plan.

Growth is another major driver of employee engagement, especially among younger generation workers. People want to be able to develop new skills, take on new responsibilities, and grow into more challenging roles. Strong supervisors will be able to find new skills and challenges through job rotation or expansion, but if the organization has no training budget, little job movement and poor career growth opportunities, the supervisor cannot create these on his or her own. And, if the top team does not have a clear, well communicated vision about the future of the company, including new opportunities for the employees, even the most compelling communicator simply has no story to tell.
I’d like to see more top leaders taking a strong hand in Engagement, working with, rather than passing the buck to front line managers. Actions that I have seen to be successful include:

  • Creating a compelling vision and direction for the organization among its workforce—(notice that I did not say “communicating” because too often that means a video and “back to work”)
  • Challenging Human Resources to create people systems that drive high engagement—a climate of growth, recognition opportunities, practices that engender feelings of fairness, reward systems that truly motivate, and performance management systems that create growth and improvement—not simply punishment and scoring!
  • Get out and talk to employees. Executives don’t have lots of free time. But part of being leaders is talking to followers. I am always impressed at how important a few words can be to a front line service employee or someone in the “back room” when it comes from a caring senior leader.

How do you compare the supervisor and leadership roles in creating engagement in your organization?
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by William Schiemann | Categories: Engagement |

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  1. Tom Janz
    October 14th, 2009 at 4:17 pm #

    As someone both not immersed in engagement on a daily basis and guilty of citing the Gallup research that highlights the role of supervisors in determining engagement levels, this piece is a very nice reality check. We used to call engagement ‘corporate culture’ and while the immediate supervisor has an important influence, its clearly not the only important influence, as you point out so well.