The Key To Employee Engagement Has Less To Do With Management Than You'd Think
Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

The Key To Employee Engagement Has Less To Do With Management Than You'd Think

The struggle to keep even star employees engaged never ends. Here's how to invest in people for better connections within your company.

Engaging workers in their jobs is vital to success, leading to better work and lower turnover. But it’s also a real challenge. In an age when 74% of workers want to walk away from their job, companies clearly aren’t creating that sense of commitment.

Engagement is about creating an emotional connection between employees and their work so that they want to put in the extra effort.

But while a lot of talk centers on how management teams can create engagement, real engagement comes from taking the opposite approach, by engaging from the frontline back.

Customer focus: creating frontline engagement

A recent survey by Bain & Company found that engagement was lowest in the lower tiers of the company where people have less control but more customer contact.

This is therefore where engagement activity can make the most difference, and it is also the place where real change can take root.

Employees at the frontline collectively have the best knowledge of what customers want and what bothers them. This is what they care about. If they can satisfy those customers then they will be satisfied in their jobs, feeling like they’re achieving something.

To create real engagement start by talking with those workers about what their customers want and the obstacles to their satisfaction. Empower your customer-facing employees to solve these problems whenever possible, and as they feel more successful and deal with happier customers, they’ll also feel more engaged.

Meaningful progress: spreading the passion

This initial engagement is only the tip of the iceberg. If you want your employees to be emotionally committed to your organization then you need them to feel involved with its purpose and direction. This means giving them some ownership over strategy.

Don’t get a bunch of consultants to define your strategy, and don’t let it be dictated by management: consult with your employees.

They know your company, its customers, and its workings better than anybody else. Set up working groups, intranet forums, and whatever else it takes to gather their opinions on where the company should be headed, how, and why. They’ll help you come up with a better strategy, and because they’ve been involved in creating it they’ll be more committed to seeing it through.

When you bring about changes in the organization as you must to improve engagement, involve employees in implementing these changes.

Don’t just go through shallow consultations: Involve them in the work and the decision making, no matter what their day job. Tap into their knowledge of their area, respect their expertise and interest in their customers, and they’ll return that respect to the company, deepening their engagement.

Supporters not statues: the role of management

So how does management fit into all of this?

Senior management are not the best people to lead engagement. They tend to resort to throwing perks at the problem instead of real change. And when they step in, this takes control from employees, weakening their engagement.

The answer is to let line managers take responsibility for shaping engagement in their area. Of course they may need support in how to do this, but that means providing training and guidance, not telling them what to do. They’ll feel more engaged and be better able to engage their teams.

To achieve engagement, senior managers need to stop acting like great kings of old, raising statues in their own honor to boost morale. Instead they should be like a sports team’s supporters, cheering everyone else on.

Mark Lukens is a Founding Partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20 plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.

[Image: Flickr user Luke Ma]

Add New Comment


  • How right you are in the text, Mark. But you are not right about engagement being less about management. In fact, how management manages, from the top down, dictates the level of engagement of employees in my experience.

    As you indicate, top management screws it up by its actions to tell people what to do through goals, targets, rules, policies, visions, and rewards. Full engagement can only be achieved if every manager from the top down sees their job as helping the lower levels excel at what they do by giving them what they need.

    The only way to do that is to listen and respond to their satisfaction or better. Lower managers cannot do that because they don't have the power necessary to improve the support the workforce needs and must follow the lead of their bosses. It is all about leadership and that starts at the top. As Admiral Chester W. Nimitz of WWII fame wrote - "Leadership consists of picking good men and helping them be their best". It worked for me.

  • Employee engagement is very important. We believe that this can be driven by employee feedback. Have you tried 15Five? We swear by it at Onboardly for boosting employee morale!

  • Thanks for the blog post. It was compelling. My idea for creating greater employee engagement is to let the staff advocate for and make decisions that are key to their jobs. Delegating is not the answer. Creating an environment where people have the ability to advocate to make the decisions that affect their jobs creates greater commitment and can be done without chaos. We have smart people in our organizations. if we would let them advocate to make decisions we would be much better off

  • Nice post, Mark. I agree with your perspective that the degree of ownership and involvement should increase the closer you get to the front line interactions with the customer. Senior Leadership does need to be involved to set direction, promote empowerment and course correct, if needed. However, the best strategies provide the tools and resources that encourage front-line managers to personally invest in their people.

  • Providing opportunities for meaningful connection between employees, customers, partners and colleagues is a recipe for engagement. This is a good article, but the headline lets leaders AND line managers off the hook. "Management" is a noun and a verb. I agree with Mark's decentralised management ideas. But those 'great kings of old' have a role in sponsoring and creating a culture that allows this degree of connection, of ensuring that line managers and supervisors are supported in creating front-line environments that foster involvement.