Employee Engagement is Viral

Employee Engagement is viral, and new research shows that the manager may be “ground zero.”

Managers are the sergeants of the organization. You, as a manager, have a powerful effect on how engaged your organization will ultimately be. You are on the front lines of a company’s culture. For most employees, you are the company (or at least represent the organization, as they see it). That’s why you might want to take a look in the mirror if you get the sense your team may be disengaged.

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Engagement is ultimately a viral phenomenon. True, the word is terribly overused in a time when everyone’s talking about viral marketing, viral memes on social networks, and so on. But it makes sense when you’re talking about an organization—a living organism in which every employee is a cell. Inside the organization, ideas, emotions, and attitudes spread in the same way that a virus spreads from cell to cell in the body.

The Influence of a Manager

As a manager, you have a great deal of influence over this process. By virtue of your own level of engagement—what you say and do, rather than the orders you give or the memos you write—you can help create an employee experience in which people will choose to be engaged or choose to be cynical and indifferent. You’re the boots on the ground, and your performance as a leader can have a far greater impact on organization-wide engagement than decrees from the C-suite. After all, if you go all-in your team is likely to do the same.

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Our DecisionWise employee engagement research showed us something interesting: for the most part, a manager’s own engagement isn’t directly responsible for their employees’ engagement. Our statistical analyses (linear regression) found that a manager’s engagement (high or low) accounted for about 5% of their employees’ engagement. In other words, just because a manager is engaged, it doesn’t mean that his or her employees will also be engaged. However, when we ran additional analyses (Chi-square), we found that Fully Engaged managers had a 50% higher-than-expected level of Fully Engaged employees, and half the expected percentage of Fully Disengaged Employees. The opposite trend was demonstrated for those managers who were disengaged themselves (i.e., half the expected Engaged and double the expected Disengaged). So, while an engaged manager doesn’t necessarily mean engaged employees, engaged managers are far more likely to act in ways that create an environment in which their employees can choose to engage. Simply being engaged is not the key to a manager’s success; it’s what that manager does as a result of his or her engagement that affects the employee experience.

How Do You Spread Engagement?

Clearly a manager’s engagement is critical (and even viral), but it’s not as simple as hoping your engagement transfers to someone else like a common cold. Your people want to engage, and they will respond to a leader who has found what we refer to as “Engagement MAGIC” (Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection) in her work and wears those qualities on her sleeve for all to see. Engagement is the innate default setting of the great majority of human beings. We naturally crave engagement. Do you want proof? I would be willing to bet you didn’t show up to work today saying, “I sure hope today is a bad day!” It’s human nature to want to engage.

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What is a manager’s role in engagement? In writing our soon-to-be released (January, 2019) book, Engagement MAGIC: Five Keys For Engaging Individuals, Leaders, and Organizations, our research revealed six common things that good managers do to create engaged teams:

  1. They are personally engaged. Not only do these managers preach engagement, they live it. They are engaged as both individuals and leaders. They bring their hearts, spirits, minds, and hands to their work. It’s contagious.
  2. They are involved. “Management by exception” is common, which means the only time a subordinate interacts with her leader is when she does something well or really steps in it. Engaged leaders are there day-to-day, taking the temperature of everyone, learning what people need to be inspired to give discretionary effort.
  3. They hire wisely. You may not have total discretion over hiring for your team or department. But you probably have influence. The engaged manager does whatever he or she can to ensure that new hires are people likely to get on board with the organization’s employee engagement experience.
  4. They bring the M-A-G-I-C. They understand that Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection are the components of engagement, and don’t try to substitute imitation satisfaction factors for what’s truly important. They understand and accurately assess the employee experience, and take action to ensure that the environment enables their employees to choose to be engaged.
  5. They don’t mess it up. When your team is fully engaged, sometimes your job is just to get out of the way and adjust the sails. Knowing when to push people and when to back off is the mark of a great, fully engaged manager.
  6. They lead by example. More than anything, the engaged manager’s role is to lead by example. In the words of Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to create.”

Employee Engagement Survey

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