Guest Column - September/October 2010

Managers and Engagement: The Fault Line or the First Line?

By Mike Ryan


There is an adage in business that "People don't quit companies—they quit managers." In today's economy, companies focused on capturing every ounce of discretionary effort should be examining that saying from a different point of view: "People don't work for companies—they work for their managers."

Notice the emphasis on "work" vs. "quit." The downstream ramifications of an engaged worker (who is committed to his/her role in the firm and to the firm), as compared to one who is not, are well documented. Numerous studies by firms like Gallup ("Q12 Meta-Analysis: The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes," August 2009) and The Jackson Organization ("Recognition Pays," 2006) consistently report that highly engaged workforces outperform disengaged ones in all economic categories, including:

  • Employee productivity
  • Impact on customer value
  • Overall revenue growth
  • Return on working capital

The bottom line is just that: Engaged employees work harder and demonstrate far more ownership in outcomes.

For companies that rely on people as their primary source of competitive advantage, having innovative and customer-focused employees is the most crucial factor in winning and keeping business.

Don't Overlook the Front-Line Manager

Simply implementing programs designed to get employees more intellectually and emotionally committed to their jobs is not enough. Why? Many firms overlook the crucial role the front-line manager plays in driving employee engagement—and several surveys indicate they do so at their own risk.

Blessing White's State of Employee Engagement survey from April/May 2008, in particular, draws a sharp correlation between a manager's frequent interaction and an employee's attitude toward the job. Employees are two and a half times more likely to be engaged when they feel their manager understands what they do well, encourages them to use those skills as much as possible, and recognizes and rewards their achievements when they do.

Managers Take Their Lead From the C-suite

When it comes to driving and sustaining higher engagement levels, the most admired companies hold managers accountable.

A 2008 survey by McKinsey concluded that line managers are not sufficiently committed to the development of their employees' capabilities or careers, and in that regard, they may be taking their cues from the top. That same study ("Making Talent a Strategic Priority," Guthridge, Komm and Lawson, The McKinsey Quarterly, January 2008) said that CEOs and senior leaders are not sufficiently involved in shaping talent management strategies and outcomes.

Additionally, a lack of supporting infrastructure can send a signal to managers that recognition is an afterthought and not strategically important to the firm.

Companies that streamline the mechanics of recognition (eligibility, issuance, approvals, tracking, etc.) not only make the process easy for managers; they tacitly communicate that the activity of recognition is important. This combination of executive support and day-to-day simplicity helps ignite the desired outcome.