We know it is possible – in our careers as managers we have seen something of it – for one or more employees suddenly to perform far beyond what we thought was possible. They transform right before our eyes. Suddenly they are alive, full of energy and positive. They take an active interest in their work, they seem to be happy, they want to be at work and they apply themselves fully to what they are doing. We, astounded, wonder what has changed.
It happens that we sometimes stumble onto doing the right thing. Unwittingly we create the right conditions for employees to be engaged and we see them flourishing. We start to reflect on what has changed and we wonder how we can recreate the situation, so that it becomes the norm and not the exception. If this has happened to you, welcome to the world of Leadership for Engagement where we consciously apply leadership practices that bring out the best in our employees.
For some of us, being in a leadership position is something of a burden – a heavy responsibility where the weight of getting people to perform rests squarely on our shoulders. We do the best we are capable of, but often with meagre results. We watch our employees going about their daily tasks and we wish we can do something to wake them up, to get them more involved in what they are doing, and to free them from the cycle of the daily grind.
Over the past ten years I have delved deeply into people’s work experiences and situations that brought out the best in them. I have asked employees to tell me their stories, and I have seen that in the right conditions ordinary people have transformed themselves to become extraordinary, where they, and even more so their managers, were surprised by their level of performance. What I found remarkable was not only the increase in the level of performance of the individuals but the personal transformations that occurred. I see engagement not only in terms of extraordinary performance, but also in terms of an inner transformation of the individual.
What prompted this transformation? One of the key factors that contributed to employees’ work engagement was their relationship with their immediate manager. I saw that the way in which they experienced their relationship with their direct (immediate) manager intensely affected their psychological state while at work. The kind of relationship, whether good or bad, that they had with their direct manager affected the way they felt about themselves and the work that they did. It also influenced the way that they saw the organisation as a whole. In short, their relationship with their direct manager shaped their whole outlook while at work.
Another interesting fact that stood out for me while listening to the stories of employees was that they never once referred to distant senior managers that affected their levels of engagement, but always to their immediate managers and the influential role that they played.
I immediately realised that, although they were telling me about the role that management played in bringing out the best in them, they were in fact informing me about what made managers effective in the work place. To my amazement, the kinds of management practices that brought out the best in people were not esoteric, highly theoretical models of leadership, but ordinary, basic, day-to-day leadership practices.
In labelling these basic leadership practices I have kept to well-known descriptors of these practices. I also did not go out of my way to develop a new theory of transformational leadership. I just identified which leadership practices worked in real life to bring out the best in people. These leadership practices focused more on the ‘how’ of leadership as opposed to the ‘what’ of leadership. For instance, in the leadership practice of goal setting – which all managers are supposed to do – it was not the activity of setting goals that made the difference in the performance of people and in the way that they experienced their work environment, but rather it was the process, the ‘how’ they went about setting the goals that made the difference and brought out the best in people.
Subsequently I have developed a 360-degree multi-rater measurement instrument – the Leadership for Engagement Scale that captures these leadership practices.
Responding to multi-rater feedback is considered to be one of the most effective ways to develop leadership. This feedback tool provides leaders with data in an accessible format that helps them to become more conscious and aware of the impact that their behaviours have in bringing out the best in the people reporting directly to them. Creating this kind of self-awareness is essential for a leader’s self-understanding of his or her own strengths and development areas.
I have tested this multi-rated feedback instrument in various settings with large sample sizes. To do so, I used an international criterion measure (benchmark measure) that assessed leadership effectiveness. To my astonishment the leadership practices explained effective leadership by more than eighty per cent – a truly significant result.
In summary, we as leaders seek answers to some questions. Is there a way in which we can relieve ourselves from the burden of leadership? And, can we create the kind of environment in which not only our employees, but also we ourselves, may start to flourish? The answer is a definite yes. We can become more effective leaders through a development process in which we become more self-aware of the impact that we have on the employees reporting to us. Not only will this process help us as leaders, but it will also have a beneficial spin-off in transforming our employees – the mark of true leadership.
Dr Willie Visser
Dr Willie Visser established the Centre for Positive People @ Work, a centre of excellence, which provides thought leadership, research and practical implementation to companies in the core areas of employee engagement, linking employee engagement to the developing of innovative cultures, and executive resilience. He recently entered into a strategic alliance with USB-ED to enhance the offering of USB-ED to clients.