Leaders Hold The Power to Engage

Engaged LeaderLeaders Hold The Power to Engage: I recently came across an article in my local newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, entitled 70% of Workers Thinking of Quitting.  In it, a local recruitment company quotes a study they carried out with 10,000 employees in Australia and New Zealand in which 70% of employees say that they are considering moving jobs.  About 60% of respondents also say they feel they deserve a salary increase. The article seems to hint that employee salary expectations and thoughts about changing jobs are linked.  Accompanying the article, the NZ Herald put an online poll, for which the question was “How do you feel about your salary?”  I couldn’t help thinking there was something missing.

For many years, I have read articles and studies that consistently show that salary is not the #1 factor in job satisfaction, nor employee retention.  People want to spend eight hours of their day deriving some kind of meaning and genuine satisfaction from their work.  They want to enjoy their relationships with others and be part of a workplace culture that values connection.  They also want opportunities to learn and grow; not just technical expertise that enables them to be better at their jobs, but also learning experiences that enhance their lives.

The focus on salary in that recruitment survey seemed a little one-dimensional and the link between the two questions seems specious to me.  It is like the person who, when asked why they keep wearing those old hole-y socks replies that it keeps the elephants away and when told there are no elephants around, says, “See? They work.”

The Executive General Manager of the recruitment company who carried out the study suggests that businesses “fine-tune their recruitment strategies to find and retain high-performers who can make the biggest difference to the bottom line.”  All good advice, and to my mind, recruiting and retaining excellent staff is not just about the $$ figure attached to a position.  He goes on to say, “There’s also an opportunity for smart employers to think beyond just the salary and offer attractive, tailored remuneration packages to individual employees.”  Again, to my mind, still something missing.  I don’t want to say that the survey was wrong in its findings, I simply want to suggest that there is lots of information missing before we can come to a categorical conclusion about the reasons for people wanting to jump ship.  To my mind, thinking about keeping staff on board is not purely about money, nor about “creative remuneration packages”.  They certainly help, but they are only part of the big picture and I believe that, even if people have an acceptable salary and are given free car parks and gym memberships as sweeteners, poor management will be a far more influential factor in staff turnover and low engagement.

As I read that NZ Herald article, another study, by Dr. Rhema Vaitianathan of Auckland University’s Business School, sprang to mind.  Dr. Vaitianathan produced a comprehensive study in 2011 in which she found that NZ managers were amongst the worst in the world for retaining and promoting good staff.  Her results focused on the leadership failings of NZ managers.  While her study showed NZ managers as being particularly lacking in effectiveness and leadership skills, I note from this article in Human Capital Online that talent management company DDI carried out an international study showing that bosses right round the world are seen as poor leaders.

The director of DDI UK and one of the authors of the report says, “Workers report that managers fail to ask for their ideas and input, are poor at work related conversations and do not provide sufficient feedback on their performance, so it’s no wonder employee engagement levels are low. Leaders remain stubbornly poor at these fundamental basics of good leadership that have little to do with the current challenging business climate.”  Just as I thought, it’s the world over, not just in New Zealand.

The time has come for us to look at our world through a systems thinking lens.  I think if you ask people, “Is your salary enough?” most would probably say no.  It is too narrow a focus, however, to say that employee engagement is therefore linked to salary expectations.  To take a systems thinking perspective means we stop looking at phenomena through a narrow zoom lens, but we use the wide-angle lens and take account of the many factors that influence engagement at work.  Systems thinkers don’t just focus on one dot and try to make meaning of it; they look at the many dots and connect them.  Systems thinkers know that events and phenomena are rarely one-off or disconnected and look for patterns within the whole system, not just one part of it.  So with the issue of retention, a systems thinker will look for other reasons why 70% of staff are thinking of changing jobs, not solely remuneration.

When study after study around the world indicates that, on average, about 20% of a workforce is actively engaged and 20% is actively disengaged (actively bad-mouthing their workplaces), there is enormous potential to tap into the remaining 60% who are not engaged but could be.  As I said, salary is one component, but it is only part of a wider system.  For many managers and organisations, this can come as a bit of a relief in these times of economic austerity.  Even though salary and bonuses are probably the most expensive ways to increase retention, they are sadly the first and only things that many managers default to.  There are ways to generate greater engagement and it is not simply by raising salaries: it is by investing in developing leaders.

In a 2009 study on employee engagement for the UK government, Will Hutton, Executive Vice Chair of the Work Foundation is quoted, “We think of organisations as a network of transactions. They are of course also a social network. Ignoring the people dimension, treating people as simply cogs in the machine, results in the full contribution they can make being lost.”  To me, it follows that employment is not simply a transaction.  To think of a recruitment or retention strategy solely in terms of financial reward is too mechanistic, too transactional.  Employment is a relationship, not a transaction.

In that 2009 study, the authors, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, state very clearly, the “joint and consequential failure of leadership and management is the main cause of poor employee engagement”.  So in order to ensure that recruitment and retention strategies have any chance of success, they must sit alongside action on leader development.  It’s not a cliché for nothing that people join good organisations and leave bad managers.  MacLeod and Clarke point to four key factors that can contribute to increased engagement: leadership, engaging managers, voice and integrity.  Leadership emerges when leaders at all levels of organisations provide a compelling story and vision that is worth signing up to.  Engaging mangers are those who have developed themselves sufficiently to be able to empathise with staff, provide useful ongoing feedback and are available to provide guidance to people.  Voice is important because in the modern workplace, people want to be heard.  Managers who listen well and regularly act on what they hear have a major impact on morale, and people who feel listened to will also feel valued and trusted.  Finally, integrity comes about when people see managers and leaders act consistently and line with a clear set of values.  They will come to trust managers who do this and trust engenders commitment.

Being mindful of my call to think systemically about things, I am sure that there are other factors that I’m missing and which are also influential in ensuring the further recruitment and retention of good people.  Accordingly, I look forward to hearing from others who wish to add in and expand this conversation.

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  1. Very good article John. I fully agree with you. As a leader you make the workplace our you break it. And when you treat people as people taking into account their real needs as you refer to, you will make it. It is indeed no rocket science but it works because it is horse sense. En plus, it is also supported by research (Self Determination Theory).It is easy to understand but more complex to use if you have not made a partner of your worst ennemy i.e. yourself.

    Thank you for sharing your insight.

    Kind regards,


  2. Denise Campbell says:

    I highly agree with Bennet, managers create an environment of engagement. So why isn't everyone doing this?

  3. Leaders do have the power to engage, but that is not the problem. What should be said is that leaders do have to power to convince employees to become fully engaged. The leaders does not engage employees but creates the environment in which employees develop the feeling of engagement and that is a choice by employees.

    So what convinces employees to become fully engaged? Meet to a very high level each of their five basic needs: to be heard, to be respected, and to have competence, autonomy, and purpose. How? Take a look at this video for the essentials. http://bit.ly/L2Qm6m

    When I did this, over 80% became fully engaged and the productivity gain was huge, literally hundreds of percent due to using 100% of their brainpower rather than wasting much of it on conforming/following.

    Best regards, Bennet Simonton.
    Author "Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed".

  4. Thanks for the great article John. I love the systems thinking approach you described. Management and leadership is a complex set of variables that are not easily aligned. Your article helps simplify a complex process.


    • Thanks Todd. I believe the time has well passed when we need to view the world as a system and not as a machine with bits and parts. A lot of the stuckness we see in our world is related to a mechanistic mindset, I feel.
      …and thanks for putting together the blogathon, kudos to you!

  5. Thanks Louise, and I’d be honoured if you use this article for your meeting. Anything that helps convince leaders of the need to focus on the “people stuff”. I’m totally with you that work IS a social network. We now live in an age where communication and relationship are the currencies of productivity. I’m sometimes stunned that some folks still feel investing in developing people and relationship capabilities is discretionary.

  6. John,
    An excellent discussion about an important topic.

    Sometimes I think the term engagement is an unconscious euphemism for the loss of meaning and consequently motivation in the workplace. Clearly, it’s widespread and deeply problematic.

    Your point that these surveys are too narrowly focused is key. Of course, they reflect the mindset of the developers.

    Your point that leaders remain poor at fundamentals such as eliciting ideas and input from those who work for them is an important one. As is the point that Will Hutton makes, Employment is a relationship, not a transaction.” I’d add to his point that work is also about social networks – work IS a social network. From a systems perspective, an intertwined web of thinking, feeling and behaviors that produce outcomes.

    Well done as always with this great post. I like it so much that I’d like to use it for an upcoming meeting with a group of senior leaders in a pharma company who are still questioning whether taking time to focus on relationships will benefit the bottom line! May I?

  7. Thanks for commenting Debbe. It’s great to have a real solid sense when we go to work that we can grow and change and not merely turn up and collect a paycheque. Glad those early resonances stay with you today.

  8. John, Thanks for your outstanding article. As Kimunya said, you did take a complex topic and help us step into it. It seems we could learn from some of the exemplary leaders and companies that have endured. As a new up and coming leader, I worked for IBM. I still remember “new employee orientation” (which is remarkable in itself) where we were immersed IBM’s remarkable story, taught about the “Basic Beliefs,” studied Business Conduct expectations, and got inspired by the possibilities ahead of us for growing, changing and reaching for high performance. I’ve now been in business myself many years, yet those beginnings have endured. Thanks for reminding me in your article.

    Debbe Kennedy

  9. I believe you are right David. Engagement levels remain unchanged year after year and the proportions are roughly equal around the industrialised world. I think a lot of what leaders could do is get out of the way of people, stop doing so much that was demotivating and treat them like people. Does sound simplistic, but the great leaders I’ve worked with make it look so simple and what they do is actually not rocket science.
    Thanks for adding in!

  10. Great post John. Gallup survey engagement every year and I believe the figures have barely changed over the last decade.

    20%’ish describe themselves as fully engaged and 20%’ish as totally disengaged. That leaves 60% to play for in terms of increasing their engagement and contribution, but it seems shifting that figure is hard. But if we could get 10% of that 60% to increase their engagement by 10%, what impact would that have on performance, morale, customer service, etc, etc? Do the math!

    I know it’s a bit simplistic but I think it’s a great goal for leaders.

  11. Thanks for your comments Kimunya. It seems deceptively simple eh? Treat people as people. We are on the way there I believe, step by step, more managers are coming to realise that it’s the only way to lead.

  12. John, thank you for compressing a complex scenario into one article. Indeed leadership emerges only when one treats people as people. Empathy in the workplace is replacing the notion that people are assets, just like the latest and meanest laser printer down the corridor. The majority of people want to feel valued for what they bring to the workplace, and fairly compensated for their efforts. They want to be included, to contribute ideas that propel their organization forward.

    And let’s face it, workers spend the better part of their waking up hours at the workplace. The only reasonable thing would be to treat them well. Unfortunately, this is not as common a sense as many of us would like it to be.


  1. […] I had read an article in my local paper that seemed to link employee salary expectations with retention and engagement.  The article made little sense to me, so I had to re-read it.  It seemed simple enough, but there was something missing for me.  It had me considering how we need to take a bigger picture of recruitment and engagement at work, and to stop focusing purely on monetary reward.  The article I wrote was published as part of Todd’s Leadership Blogathon and is called “Leaders Hold the Power to Engage”. […]