High levels of engagement benefit the entire organisation. But what kind of leadership is needed to cultivate it? Ulrika Sedell is a Swedish behavioural scientist, leadership consultant and author of three successful books in leadership.
We interviewed Ulrika who explains what is meant by authentic leadership and how it can be one of the main drivers of employee engagement in the workplace.
Why is employee engagement so important?
Employee engagement is perhaps the most important 'capital' in any business. Engagement is what drives innovation, intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship. In an unpredictable and changing world, businesses are constantly evolving to keep up with changing needs and conditions. Engagement creates drive and development, which affect important areas such as productivity, profitability and customer loyalty.
What makes people engaged at work?
Different people experience engagement from different things. Engagement could be experienced through competing and winning or being able to contribute to something bigger than yourself that feels meaningful or contributing to the well-being of others. But engagement can also be stimulated by fear of failure. However, it’s clear that a culture where employees feel they can be authentic, can be who they are and not based on perceived expectations of the organization, provides conditions for engagement. To feel included and part of something is also extremely important for engagement.
What is the significance of leadership for employee engagement?
Research unanimously shows that leadership is of great importance for engagement in the workplace. Other things also affect it, such as development opportunities and communication, but leadership is of utmost importance. However, engagement is not something that leaders can simply dictate to employees. To increase engagement in the workplace, patience, structure and conscious work is required.
What type of leadership drives employee engagement in the workplace?
Leadership that fosters engagement in the workplace is authentic leadership that employees consider a leading example, that builds relationships, creates trust and forms a norm critical perspective.
For a manager, it’s about finding out what engages the individual, what creates job satisfaction and creates a sense of inclusion. In other words, it requires conscious and insightful leadership. Leadership that shows confidence in employees provides the conditions for employees to communicate both their strengths as well as perhaps what they’re not so good at. It gives the manager opportunities to organize teams that complement each other, where people can use their strengths instead of feeling inferior or inadequate.
All workplaces have a culture in the form of spoken and unspoken norms that affect what is perceived to be 'right' and 'wrong' in the business. The more conscious leadership is about the norms that dominate business operation, the better the leadership can influence and engineer the norms that are judged to be favourable for the behaviour they believe should achieve expected outcomes.
What type of leadership risks reducing engagement?
Leadership which doesn’t create any engagement for employees is what’s called 'let go' leadership. This means inaccessible and unengaged leadership where expected outcomes, mandates and feedback are unclear. Traditional leadership, which is instructive and distanced, also has challenges when it comes to creating engagement. Another common mistake managers make is focusing on an employee's "weak” sides, for example, during the development interviews. The leader makes an action plan and focuses entirely on how the 'weak' sides can be corrected instead of making sure the employee can develop their strengths where they feel competent and can contribute to results. One misconception is the belief that engagement is only stimulated by reward. It can do this to some extent, but only in the short term.
What can be done to increase employee engagement...
... as a direct manager?
To be authentic. It means being direct and honest, sharing your own mistakes and being able to show vulnerability, but also determination and strength. Direct managers should be interested and curious about their employees and find out what they need to feel engaged. Research shows that when employees are aware of their manager’s appreciation, support and loyalty, they dare to take risks, try new initiatives, propose new ideas and show stronger critical thinking. Managers also need to find out how employees have interpreted expectations and mandates like being clear with feedback. Furthermore, it’s essential to provide conditions for employees to find balance between work life and private life.
... as an HR Manager?
As an HR Manager, it’s crucial to do culture analyses to identify the norms that guide the behaviour of the business. Based on the analyses, they can then design strategies for change and strengthen the norms that create the desired behaviour.
HR Managers also need to provide support and contribute so the workplace can continuously develop leadership. To train leaders to become more authentic, the organization needs to contribute to the personal development and self-awareness of leaders in every way. Leaders need to be trained in dealing with resistance, because, today, change is rather a state than a process. And leaders need knowledge in leading norm-critical processes to motivate employees to be authentic and allow everyone's abilities and talents come to their own. Workplaces are still characterized by norms that cause minorities to be disadvantaged and adapt instead of developing the courage to try new things or set boundaries.
... as a CEO?
A CEO is the central culture conveyor and should constantly work on his or her personal development and encourage the management team to do the same. How the CEO acts has a direct impact on the management team and the leadership that dominates the entire business.
The CEO should assume all people have ambition and engagement and motivate leaders to use their own talents and strengths, and those of employees. Teams that complement one another are required to achieve success. The CEO needs to take responsibility for the purpose and objectives of the business being implemented throughout the workplace. Not only what services and products are being created and sold, but also why. When everyone is in a culture that is conscious, and that frees creativity and has the same interpretation of why working together is needed, engagement is channelled in the same direction. Then magic can be created.
Benify surveyed over 5,000 employees from different age groups and industries across Europe to find out what engages them and what they want from today’s employers. To see the results of this ground-breaking study, download The Benefits and Engagement Report.