Employee Engagement: The Role of Leadership
In my last SHRM blog as a Subject Matter Expert, “HR Processes for Employee Engagement” I ended with a caveat that the quality and tonality of Employee Engagement cascades directly from the leadership of the company. HR interventions can enhance the positive effects or reduce the negative effects of leadership and often does both. So, it is important for the HR Professional to be acutely tuned to the leadership culture and flow with it, at the same time, working to improve the leadership itself.
What leadership does?
As an example, I would like to cite my experience of a multinational organization that had seen a recent merger some years ago during a phase when I was consulting with them regularly. Post merger, a new expatriate CEO arrived in the Indian organization. Being a third country national of Australian origin, he was informal, achievement oriented, friendly and an outgoing person. During his tenure of five years, the organization flourished and went from strength to strength. Employees were motivated by a culture of openness, transparency, egalitarianism and friendliness. New traditions were introduced and there were plenty of occasions to meet, greet, and work together in collaboration. When his term expired, this CEO left and went back to his country of origin. The new expat CEO came from a European country, and liked to govern from his chair. He had an air of elitist class about him, was a connoisseur of the arts, music and fine wine. All the employees held him in awe and aspired to be like him. He deployed a more formal approach with an air of aristocracy. The same organization under a different CEO metamorphosed into a more hierarchical, power centric, class-conscious working culture driven by positions and roles. Here too, the organization did well with building and consolidating many new initiatives and managing in an orderly, efficient and disciplined way.
Both the leaders were so different in their personalities and had a completely different impact on employee engagement.
What leadership was and is?
In the past era of strong leadership creating strong followership, employee engagement initiatives were not required as organizational cultures were vibrant and consistent, membership and tenure of employees was long, and attrition was a negligible figure in the MIS reporting. Today, there is much fragmentation and discontinuity even at leadership levels, and organizations need well-embedded HR processes to drive continuity and to prevent chaos and breakdown of order.
Leadership in the times of chaos in free market societies, democratic and egalitarian values where each has his own vision of the workplace he wants to be in, is a completely different ball game from the past times when position, hierarchy, experience, were synonymous with leaders. Fundamental templates have changed with bottom-up influencing tactics receiving more importance than top-down communication.
Ultimately the vehicle for all employee engagement initiatives is, communication, dialogue, inclusive values, commonly held vision. Regardless of the diversity within, the differences in culture, the gulf in technology, the geographic divides, and other such oceans of differences, bridges need to be built through care, attention, inclusion and a listening healing ear and the kind of communication that listens and responds. And that flows from leadership.
Not the kind of leadership that awes and inspires, but the kind that connects and builds. The kind of leadership that equalizes and legitimizes differences not creates hierarchical spans of control and command. It’s a natural chemistry of leaders who carry empathy, respond with responsibility to be an anchor in the world of an employee, find all that is common and universal in worlds of different people from different contexts.
It all begins with leadership and cascades down from there.