Empowering Managers to Own Employee Engagement #SHRM18



HR leaders can empower manager to own their employees’ engagement and retention. I spoke with Anne Tomkinson, who is Senior Manager of HR and Operations at DC Public Charter School Board. Not only does her expertise stretch over all aspects of employment relations, employment law, strategic planning and program management, she knows how to empower managers and give them the tools they need to develop and engage their team members. It’s less complicated than you might think. Tomkinson is an official SHRM 2018 blogger, and you can read more of her insight at HRunderground.wordpress.com.

Defining employee engagement

Tomkinson puts it pretty simply, taking a point Paul Hebert made in a Fistful of Talent article one step further. “If you’re clear with expectations so employees know what they are supposed to do, you know what the employee wants to do, and you are removing their impediments, then what is there to keep them from being engaged? That is the key to engagement.”

We do ourselves a disservice, says Tomkinson, by defining an engaged employee as someone who goes above and beyond and gets involved in everything, much like the student who is class president and leads the chess club, or the employee who always bakes cookies for their coworkers. All that doesn’t actually matter, she argues. An engaged employee is someone who brings their heart and their entire selves to work, in order to further the mission of the organization.

Still a problem despite plenty of talk about employee engagement 

Tomkinson noticed that managers at her organization assumed it was HR’s job to engage their employees. She explained that HR can give them the tools to engage their team members, but it is ultimately manager’s responsibility to enact and ensure employee engagement. What HR can provide is systemic support and remove systemic impediments. “It’s not HR’s job to know every single individual, what makes them tick and what helps them do their best work. It’s their manager’s job,” she says.

Many managers tend to think that their job is to get results and HR’s job is to make people happy. The problem with that, says Tomkinson, is that your team won’t get results if people aren’t feeling valued. “There is a reason we say that people join companies but leave managers.” Tomkinson says she doesn’t advocate spoiling employees by giving them everything they want that will make them happy, but she does think that “most employees really want to do their best work, and it’s a misunderstanding to believe that [HR’s] processes and policies allow for that.” She wants to see more managers leverage and implement those processes and policies to create the experiences that will guide employees in achieving their best work.



Tomkinson imagines a world in which every manager focuses entirely on moving their team forward, instead of being given their own tasks to complete. In that world, organizations could succeed indefinitely.

Focusing only on short term results misses the benefits of engagement 

Seniors leaders typically hold managers accountable for the results of their teams, but Tomkinson sometimes sees those results being achieved at the expense of team dynamics, for example, “at the expense of really high turnover in their department.” Not enough senior leaders acknowledge that, she says. She’d like to see managers measured and held accountable for their management style. “You can look at turnover, or the performance of your team overall. What kind of annual reviews are they getting? How satisfied are your employees beyond what they produce?” If those measurements were tied to rewards, organizations would see longer term performance benefits.

                    "If managers’ bonuses were tied to results and staff retention, people would just figure it out. “Business won’t grind to a halt.”

Tomkinson supports the argument that we should be looking at business as an infinite game–not a game that is won or lost in a finite amount of time. She says companies that succeed in the long term do so by changing the way they manage their people. If managers’ bonuses were tied to results and staff retention, people would just figure it out. “Business won’t grind to a halt.”



Training managers to feel responsible for employee engagement

When she delivers training, Tomkinson has managers think through their own experiences when they worked for engaging and disengaging managers. She walks them through what an engaging check-in would look like with their team members. “When you have those check-ins,” she says, “are you just talking about the tasks, or are you really checking in about how they are doing? ‘What is your workload like? How satisfied are you? Are there projects you’re not happy to be doing, and are there projects you wish you were doing?’ Ask the kinds of things you’d ask in a stay interview.” Managers should figure out what their employees enjoy working on and how they can best contribute.

The biggest thing that HR can do is remove systemic impediments, and the biggest thing managers can do is remove individual impediments for their employees. “That’s the stuff that trips people up,” says Tomkinson. She hears employees say, “I want to do a good job but there’s this policy, or this expectation of my work, or this particular project, or this person who won’t respond to my email.”

                    "The biggest thing that HR can do is remove systemic impediments, and the biggest thing managers can do is remove individual impediments for their employees."

Managers must get used to seeing those request to remove impediments not as a weakness but as a necessary part of employee engagement.



Performance issues get in the way of engagement

When it comes to employee engagement, Tomkinson believes that managers struggle the most when performance issues get in the way. Managers should always remember their responsibility to remove impediments and guide their team members, even when those employees need separate conversations about changing their behavior or improving their performance. It’s easy to forget that the employee still wants to do their best work. She often sees managers drop the engagement piece until the performance issue is “fixed,” but if they wait for that, “they’ve lost a lot of ground.” She tells managers not to drop the performance management piece, but to balance that conversation with one about engagement.

When managers worry that they simply don’t have time to add employee engagement to their plate, one of Tomkinson’s suggestions is to build standard engagement questions into their regular check-ins. That helps managers in that they don’t have to think deeply about how to engage each individual every time.

Tomkinson’s challenge now is to empower HR leaders in following this engagement model. They have the skills to engage individuals, but Tomkinson encourages her peers not to “horde” those skills.

Anne TomkinsonAbout Anne Tomkinson: Anne is a successful Human Resources executive with dynamic leadership, interpersonal and communication skills. She has experience overseeing all aspects of employment relations and employment law as well as strategic planning, policy development, program/project management, budgeting and contract negotiations. She is successful in creating positive teamwork and fostering morale. She is a successful coach, trainer, mentor and public speaker.


Originally published on College Recruiter blog.



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