Most of us think about engagement from our perspective—perhaps it is the strength of the concept that everyone can to relate to it personally. But it is worth asking "who is responsible?"
Conventional Wisdom: Widespread Belief in a Statistical Artifact
Authors like Marcus Buckingham put the burden engagement on first-line supervisors. There is some validity to this—supervisors build hour-to-hour work experiences. I suspect that the affect of supervision is especially high in low-autonomy work environments; job characteristics moderate this relationship.
There is also a research artifact that encourages this “supervisors as keepers of engagement” thinking.
Statistically, it is fairly easy to link supervision and engagement. If all the units in a company have the same measure of results you can correlate engagement with business results. VIOLA proof that leadership/supervision affects engagement. Since corporate strategy and context is the same for all business units it cannot be the driver of differences in engagement. Supervision must be causing differences in engagement. Engagement surveys are typically corporate wide, so there are many datasets that use this method to “prove” that supervision/management affect engagement.
Doing research between businesses is difficult because organizations tend to define engagement, and even success, differently. As a practical matter organizational strategy and leadership affect engagement as much as supervision. Corporate strategy, HR/Compensation systems, employee brand and of course core technology and processes all strongly affect engagement.
But here is the funny part; when I speak with management at any level, I hear complaints that others leaders have more power over engagement. Supervisors think executives have more levers to systemically shape organizational climate. Executives worry about encouraging supervisors to build engagement. Of course it takes a focused and aligned leadership team to build an engaged workforce. Recently, I have contributed a few short articles from the executive perspective, you can read them here, and I will be publishing a few more in the coming months.
Let’s Be Honest
My opening question is a trick/rhetorical, question. Rank-and-file employees build their own and others' engagement. Some are more likely to engage due to personality, upbringing, personal circumstances (e.g., family situation) and other simply choose to engage for personal/spiritual beliefs. Employees’ engagement is also contagious; work-teams affect each other. The mix of employees can make it difficult or easy for a leader at any level.
Do you have a bias in your point of view? We all do because of our position and history/experience. I consult with executives and tend to view things from their perspective. Balance is in order to make sure that we look at multiple levels of the organization and responsibility for engagement.