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How To Be an Engaging Manager

Employee engagement surveys typically ask employees how engaged they feel in their organization or job, not how well their manager engages them. But, if managers are critical to employee engagement, they need to know how to be engaging.

Some definitions of employee engagement re-package well known principles of employee motivation. Motivated employees enjoy their work and willingly exert themselves above and beyond the call of duty.

However, it is possible to be motivated on the job without feeling a sense of involvement in the organization’s mission. A deeper level of engagement includes a sense of ownership over the organization’s future. Some employee engagement surveys ask employees whether their opinion counts, a question that hints at deeper involvement.

Knowing that employees want their opinion to count, however, doesn’t tell managers how to make it happen. Should they just listen better or be more proactive in seeking employee input? If the latter, what’s the best way of doing so?

Managers can involve employees at one, or both, of two levels:

  • Involving them in solving work problems that employees bring to them.
  • Involving them in making decisions about the overall department or function.

The first level focuses on the employee’s job while the second one involves them in the manager's agenda. The key to involving employees at either level is to ask them what they think. This is much more proactive than simply listening to suggestions that employees may or may not choose to offer. A great way to show that a manager values employees is to proactively ask for their opinion or input.

Naturally, employees will respond differently to the two levels of involvement. Some may be interested only in their own jobs, so there is no universal formula. The organization’s culture also plays a huge part. In a boss-knows-best culture, employees may have little expectation of being consulted and could respond fearfully if asked for their input.

Eight Ways to Engage Employees

There are eight excellent ways in which a manager can engage employees more fully:

  1. .Joint Problem Solving: Regularly asking team members "What do you think?" to draw solutions out of them rather than solving problems for them; engaging people's brains, not doing their thinking for them.
  2. .Participative Planning: Involving team members in operational, strategic and change planning; fostering shared ownership rather than doing their own planning and viewing team members as implementers.
  3. Managing People: Showing that they value team member contributions; celebrating success, providing regular feedback, inspiring and empowering team members.
  4. Communication: Communicating openly, fully and regularly to keep team members informed so they have a sense of purpose and show initiative with confidence.
  5. Developing People: Proactively developing, encouraging and coaching team members to make them feel valued and important to the team's success.
  6. Approachability & Fairness: Being approachable, open to challenges, putting team members at ease and treating them fairly to help them feel confident and valued.
  7. Relationship Building: Fostering teamwork and supportive relationships, helping team members get to know each other and connecting them with valuable colleagues; cultivating a sense of belonging and self-worth.
  8. Morale & Resilience: Maintaining morale and resilience under pressure, helping to relieve stress in their teams while maintaining a positive outlook despite setbacks and obstacles so team members feel positive about coming to work and doing their best.

The first two categories, Joint Problem Solving and Participative Planning, create a greater feeling of involvement in deciding what should be done, first in the employee’s own job and second with respect to larger strategic issues facing the manager. The aim of asking employees for input is to foster greater shared ownership rather than simply directing them. 

Four categories, Managing PeopleCommunicationDeveloping People and Relationship Building call for managers to reach out to employees to foster a sense of belongingness and a feeling that there is a future for them in the organization. These actions create a culture where employees feel valued.

Two categories, Approachability & Fairness and Morale & Resilience relate to providing a safe environment where employees feel free to express themselves in the knowledge that managers are not going to jump on them, treat them unfairly or over react emotionally when their views are challenged.

Employees need to trust their manager in order to feel comfortable taking risks by offering suggestions that could run counter to the manager’s own views.

Underpinning this model of employee engagement is the view that managers should be catalysts, facilitators and coaches, while only secondarily acting as authority figures. Their role is not simply to provide direction and make key decisions. To be more engaging, they need to focus on the needs of employees.

As it is, too many managers focus one-sidedly on their own need to be right, to be seen as having the answers and to score goals by devising compelling solutions to problems. This way of managing puts all the ownership on the manager’s shoulders while leaving employees feeling like passengers on the bus.

To feel fully engaged, employees need to feel that they can help drive the bus, recognizing that this need will vary considerably across different employees.

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