Leading your tribe - why are leaders so far removed from their employees?

Written by
Changeboard Team

11 Feb 2011

11 Feb 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Engaging leadership

While 83 percent of board directors felt redundancies within their organisations had been handled well or very well, just 44 percent of managers on grades below them took the same view. What’s more, board directors felt less negatively affected by the economic climate, more positive about their organisation’s leadership and collective sense of purpose, rated their well-being higher and were less stressed. This disparity between senior executives’ and managers’ views means that there is a real danger that lower levels of management could begin to feel alienated and disengaged.

So, what should the executive be doing to engage their employees and to ensure they remain happy? Our in-depth engagement study: ‘The Human Voice of Employee Engagement,’ found that the role of leaders cannot be underestimated. We identified four types of leadership that can deliver improved alignment between executives and their subordinates.

Strategic leadership

Employees have a strong desire for a clearly communicated strategic narrative. They often care passionately about the strategic direction of their organisation and feel concerned when they think leaders are steering the wrong course. We advise the executive to involve employees in the creation of this strategic narrative by listening to their views and experience.

Having established a sensible direction of travel, employees remain engaged when the executive hold their course. Individuals make a strong emotional connection to their organisation’s strategy and understand the meaning of their role in this context. Each time the strategy is changed employees must abandon their emotional attachment to the previous strategy and reassess the value of their work.

As well as setting direction, it's important to employees that executives stay involved during the implementation of strategic goals. Employees feel more willing to go the extra mile for leaders that remain interested in the realities faced by people on the frontline.

Visible leadership

When employees know the executive and have the opportunity to speak with them face-to-face, they can begin to form an attachment to them as figureheads. If this contact is absent, employees can feel that senior management are not interested in them. It is therefore important for executives to show the human face of the organisation and prevent detrimental assumptions being made.

Communicative leadership

Communication is the currency through which the executive can gain buy-in to the organisation’s strategic direction and it can be very disengaging for employees to feel they are the last to find out about high level decisions that will affect them. If the executive and their managers are to stay on the same page, it is imperative that communication channels are actively monitored to ensure messages get through, that there is direct communication between those at the top and bottom of organisations in both directions and that information is given to people in a timely and appropriate way.

Trusted leadership

Building trust is another way that executives can engage their employees. Leaders aid engagement through making promises and setting out plans that they can keep. However, when employees were only given part of the story or ‘spun’ information they quickly became suspicious. To gain the trust of their employees, executives need to constantly reinforce their vision and values, model the desired behaviours and to communicate the information that people want and need. Consistency across these areas helps build trust and engenders loyalty and commitment.

Barriers to engagement

While the perspectives on leadership described above are important for engagement, often the realities of organisational life mean executives cannot deliver in all of these areas. Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, the executive cannot continue with a strategy upon which they have embarked. In these circumstances, leaders should try to minimise the impact on levels of engagement by emphasising the organisation’s raison d’être over the shifting strategies that exist to deliver it.

A further challenge for the executive is feeling torn between the need to devolve authority when implementing strategies and the need to demonstrate their commitment to their implementation. On the one hand they wish to empower managers to interpret the realities of a new strategy on the ground. On the other, they don’t want employees to feel that changes are dictated from on high. To balance these competing needs leaders need to listen carefully to the requirements of stakeholders and strike a balance appropriate for all involved.

Crowded schedules are a constant barrier to leadership visibility and personal factors can also be an issue. Some leaders may fear coming across as ignorant if they do not know a person’s name, what their job entails or the answers to difficult questions. Nonetheless, leaders need to recognise the premium that is put on visibility and without contact trust is undermined and rumours and false assumptions are likely to take place.

How to stay in touch

Given the challenges executives face, we advise using a number of systems to ensure your executive remain in touch and to assess engagement levels among employees. Employee opinion surveys take a snapshot of employees’ views and can be compared externally with industry benchmarks and internally between different levels of management, departments and roles. Executives can then identify areas of convergence and divergence and prioritise areas for improvement.

We also advocate the use of focus groups with a representative sample of employees or conducting one-to-one interviews with selected individuals. This technique provides rich stories of engaging leadership and lessons to be learned about how to improve engagement in your organisation.

Another technique we have seen work well are regular employee forums (both formal and informal). At one end of the spectrum are annual executive road shows, where the executive team visit each part of the business to explain strategy and direction, answer questions and listen to ideas. At the other end of the spectrum are informal drop-in sessions or weekly question and answer sessions using an online discussion boards.

Finally, there’s no substitute for direct experience understand of what is going on at grass roots level. Back to the floor initiatives or simply a spending an allotted amount of time in different parts of the business each month can enrich executives’ understanding of their employees’ day-to-day life.