What on earth can team leaders actually do about employee engagement that HR can’t?

It seems a no-brainer, doesn’t it?  Team leaders – at any level – will have a tremendous influence on the sense of engagement experienced by their team members.  And yet the vast majority of employee engagement factors tend to be driven top down and HR led.  They are all designed and deployed at a macro – organisation wide – level, aimed at enhancing engagement and performance; benefits and rewards, career development, internal communications, flexible working, community programmes etc.  Conventional practice, if not belief, has tended to lean towards HR holding the key to employee engagement.

The Foundation of Employee Engagement: The Team

But it’s self-evident that team leaders play a crucial role in driving employee engagement and creating a thriving work environment. They can have significant impact on employee engagement and can employ practical strategies to create a motivated and engaged team.  I’ve always held the view that the most fundamental unit of employee engagement is the team itself. Studies seem to support this.  The personal relationships between team members and their line managers serve as the engine driving engagement within an organisation. Gallup and various other studies have highlighted this pivotal role of team leaders in fostering engagement.  

Understanding the Dynamics of Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is not a static state but rather a variable experience that can fluctuate over time. Team leaders have a direct impact on employees’ engagement fluctuations through their behaviour, communication, and management of team relationships. For this reason, it is essential for organisations to move away from the annual survey and embrace more regular pulse checks or immediate continuous measurement to capture these fluctuations accurately.

Building trust, establishing emotional connections, cultivating a positive workplace climate, and fostering a sense of ownership are critical pillars of employee engagement and team leaders can actively influence these. 

How Team Leaders can Practically Amplify Engagement

In the first place team leaders set the ‘feel’ of the work environment.  They establish the tone and climate within their teams. They connect team members to the organization’s vision and facilitate information flows. By providing a clear line of sight between individual contributions and the overall strategy, team leaders can inspire a sense of purpose and alignment.

Team leaders also set expectations about open and transparent communication. It’s well understood that effective communication is vital for creating psychological safety within a team, so team leaders can encourage open discussions, welcome differences of opinion, and demonstrate their willingness to address difficult topics. By promoting open communication and actively listening to team members, leaders foster trust and create a climate of transparency.  As we know, if there is a need to develop team psychological safety, then the team leader goes first.

Team leaders can also demonstrate authentic care. In a majority of studies investigating the effect of emotions at work it was noted that fully engaged employees express feelings of enthusiasm, empowerment, confidence and appreciation based in part on their interactions with their line manager as well at their teammates.  Engaging team leaders enable team members to feel valued.  By caring about employees’ lives outside of work and acknowledging how personal factors may affect their performance, leaders can build stronger connections and increase engagement levels.  Team leaders can take a genuine interest in their team members as individuals, showing empathy and understanding.

Team leaders play a big role in fostering participation and ownership.  Encouraging team members to actively participate in decision-making processes and seeking their input on team goals and objectives enhances their sense of ownership. Team leaders can create opportunities for team members to contribute their ideas, recognize their suggestions, and involve them in improvements within the team and the organisation.

Most significantly, team leaders lead by example.  Engaging team leaders demonstrate personal engagement and ownership.  They show enthusiasm, optimism, and genuine interest in the team.

Being visible and available, taking the time to connect with individuals at a personal level, communicating positive emotions and resolve conflicts effectively all contribute to amplifying team engagement.

A potential error

I suppose one way of looking at all of this is that its fine for frontline team leaders, but perhaps it’s not pertinent to team leaders further up the organisation.  The inference here is that personal engagement is higher or stronger the higher you go up an organisational structure.  The natural conclusion being that there will be higher levels of engagement at the most senior leadership levels in an organisation.

It’s been my experience that this is not always accurate.  The pressure that comes with more responsibility and accountability can have a negative impact on levels of engagement.  Stress, burnout and lack of (let’s call it) mojo are all real in todays workplaces.  So every leader, if they are leading a team, at whatever level in an organisation can have a direct and pivotal impact on their teams engagement, commitment and performance.  We can’t just assume that thinking about employee engagement is an issue for leaders of frontline employees.

Team leaders hold a tremendous amount of influence when it comes to employee engagement. Their actions, behaviours, and communication directly impact trust, emotional connection, workplace climate, and engagement in the team. By understanding their pivotal role and implementing practical strategies, team leaders can create a work environment that fosters engagement, productivity, and innovation. Remember, as a team leader, your own engagement sets the tone for your team. So, be engaged, be authentic, and make a conscious effort to amplify employee engagement within your team, however senior you are. It’s possible to create a workplace where everyone thrives.

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