Guest Column - November/December 2015

What's More Important—Engagement or Performance?

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP


Many CEOs don't realize there's a philosophical battle occurring in their leadership ranks.

On one side are the performance-oriented leaders who help their team perform at high levels by focusing their management activities on the team's objectives, goals and desired outcomes. On the other side are the engagement-focused leaders who support their teams by focusing their efforts on creating an engaging environment that energizes and motivates employees.

So, in this philosophical war, which side is right?

The Gallup Organization explored the question and discovered leaders don't have to choose between creating strong, positive teams or focusing on high performance and accountability—high-performance leaders do both. They're strengths-based, engagement-focused and performance-oriented. They develop deep interpersonal relationships with their employees and focus on performance.

As a matter of fact, leaders who emphasize just one approach while ignoring the other risk alienating their team members, lowering engagement and damaging performance.

Driving Engagement by Focusing on Performance

Performance-oriented leaders help their employees identify and focus on their most important goals and desired outcomes. They create an engaging work environment promoting peak performance in three primary ways:

1. They're involved in their employees' work. They don't subscribe to a laissez-faire approach to management, and they don't ignore their employees. When employees strongly agree their leader knows what projects or tasks they're working on, they're almost seven times more likely to be engaged.

However, when employees strongly disagree with that statement (indicating they're largely ignored by their bosses) they're 15 times more likely to be actively disengaged. Ignoring your employees is one of the worst things you can do as a leader.

2. They help employees set goals and prioritize their projects. Employees who work for a leader who helps them set performance goals are 17 times more likely to be engaged than disengaged. In contrast, employees who strongly disagree that their leaders help them set performance goals are almost seven times more likely to be disengaged.

Engagement-focused leaders increase productivity and success by creating an environment that energizes and motivates employees and teams, helping them reach the highest levels of performance.

These data demonstrate an important point that's overlooked too often—most employees want to succeed in their jobs. They want to strive for big goals and accomplish great things, but they need great leaders to support and guide them.

Leaders often keep their distance from employees because they fear being intrusive or micromanaging. But there's a distinct difference between micromanaging and being involved in your employees' work. Micromanagers take control of the process and the outcome, but great leaders support employees by helping them define the right outcomes, and then let them use their unique talents to choose the process that works best for them to get the job done.

3. They hold their employees accountable for performance. It's not enough to be involved and provide direction—great leaders also ask their employees to take ownership of their successes or failures. High-performance leaders don't allow a culture of excuses or poor performance, because no one thrives in that culture. When leaders don't hold employees accountable for performance, about seven in 10 employees are actively disengaged and only 3 percent are engaged.

One of the easiest ways for leaders to start promoting engagement through performance is to establish regular meetings with their employees. On hearing this advice, many leaders push back, and perhaps rightly so, because meetings aren't what most companies do best.

However, Gallup's analysis found something surprising.

Regularly scheduled meetings with a leader are critical to an employee's engagement level. Only 15 percent of employees who work for a leader who doesn't meet with them regularly are engaged; leaders who regularly meet with their employees almost tripled engagement levels.

Regular meetings and involvement also pay dividends in performance and engagement. Employees who meet regularly with their leader generate higher performance for their immediate team and company, and are more likely to report they regularly receive recognition and praise, and that they know someone cares about their development.

For leaders, the first step to creating a culture of performance and engagement is the easiest—set up regular meetings with your team members.