Employee Engagement and the Half-Time Team Talk

Employee Engagement. Hackneyed phrase or holy grail? Having recently read the MacLeod/Clarke report to the British Government (Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement) on the subject, I am convinced that a) there is currently no better way of describing it and b) it is fundamentally important. To quote from the opening section, “If it is how the workforce performs that determines to a large extent whether companies or organisations succeed, then whether or not the workforce is positively encouraged to perform at its best should be a prime consideration for every leader and manager, and be placed at the heart of business strategy.”

I will leave you to delve into the rich findings, recommendations and case studies in the report, and I do recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in the subject of employee engagement. Here, I will simply draw out some of the barriers organisations feel inhibit effective engagement, together with the key principles highlighted that are imperative for successful implementation.

Barriers

  • Lack of Awareness.  Some leaders are not aware of employee engagement and what it can do for them. Others are reluctant to get involved, concerned that it may be seen as too ‘soft or fluffy’.
  • Uncertainty about Starting.  Some who are interested are unsure how to get involved and started, sometimes fearful that it has to involve ‘buying a product’ and therefore entail expense.
  • Culture.  The prevailing culture and working practices get in the way of delivering engagement, even when leaders place great emphasis on it. Managers may not share the belief, and attempts to implement can be resisted.
  • Underestimating engagement. Some see employee engagement as another job on a tick-list that is achieved when the annual staff survey is completed.

Enablers

  • Leadership.  The importance of a Leadership vision (or ‘strategic narrative’ as it is described in the report) cannot be overstated. A widespread understanding of purpose, and each person having a clear view of how their role contributes to that purpose is paramount.
  • Engaging Managers.  While it is key that Leaders set the purpose, vision and direction, it is the engaged manager who is at the “heart of success” in any workforce.  As one contributor to the report said, “the line manager is the lens through which I see the company and the company sees me.”
  • Voice.  Providing employees with a voice – so that they are listened to, are not fearful of raising issues, know that their views will be heard and could be used to help define and change the direction of the organisation.  This is, of course, a cultural challenge for many organisations where ‘token gesture’ attempts to implement ‘speak up’ policies have failed to penetrate the DNA.
  • Integrity.   Consistency across the organisation between stated values and behaviours. “If an employee sees the stated values of an organisation being lived by the leadership and colleagues, a sense of trust in the organisation is more likely to be developed, and this constitutes a powerful enabler of engagement.”

Regular readers of my posts will know that I enjoy looking to sport for leadership lessons and parallels. So, this week, my attention turns to Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, to draw out some of these lessons. Those of you who follow British football will be aware of the reputation for “no-nonsense” management that Ferguson possesses. He is often talked about as an ‘old-fashioned’ manager. A Scot, from the Govan area of Glasgow, a tough, gritty,uncompromising district, with a proud ship-building reputation (and an area I know well as a fellow Glaswegian). His style could never be described as ‘soft and fluffy’, but there is much more to his approach than the oft-cited ‘hair-dryer treatment’.

Damian Hughes (author of Liquid Leadership) spent time close to Sir Alex researching and interviewing for his book. He described one half-time situation when Manchester United came off the pitch losing 2-0, having put in a fairly inept first-half performance. Believers of the Ferguson ‘myth’ would assume that cups would fly, and his face would turn a deep shade of purple. Instead, what Hughes described, was a very calm dressing room, where, first of all, Ferguson set the Leadership tone. He reminded the players how good they were, and what they were capable of.  He then acknowledged that the team  was in a difficult position in the match, but that he had every belief in their ability to get themselves out of it and turn the game around. He then asked them to calmly speak up and tell him and share with each other what they felt they needed to do differently in the second half.  He then sat back and listened without interruption.  Before the team went back on to the field, he said that he wouldn’t disagree, and that it sounded like a good plan. He reiterated the faith he had in their ability, and simply asked them to go out and do what they said they would do.  They won 3-2.

Ferguson demonstrated the principles of engagement. He provided leadership vision and direction, he trusted his players to know what they needed to do, he listened to them and gave them a voice, and he demonstrated integrity by allowing them to implement their own plan. People are more engaged when they feel ownership and responsibility. Imagine how damaging it could have been had he made a charade of listening, only to then rubbish what they had to say and impose a plan of his own? Integrity of values and behaviour would have been shattered, and future trust and respect would have been damaged.

I have no doubt, on occasions, Sir Alex resorts to the ‘hair-dryer’ strategy, but perhaps not as often as he once did, and not as often as the tabloids would like us to believe.

To learn more about how you and/or your teams can get clearer on the benefits of employee engagement, and how it can enhance effectiveness and productivity, please do get in touch. Simply submit your contact details  on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to contact you for an initial chat. 

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10 thoughts on “Employee Engagement and the Half-Time Team Talk

  1. Back from holiday now so it’s a pleasure to catch up on the blog! Loved the article, being a big sports fan myself, and also the mention of the McLeod/Clark report, which I will follow up! So thanks for that!

  2. As much as I am not a fan of Man United or Sir Alex I do appreciate the way he approached leading in the story you described. One of may favorite coach / leaders in the USA is Pat Summit who coached the Tennessee Women’s basketball team to numerous national championships. She used a similar method with a dry erase board and encouraged players to define their own strategy for improving in the second half. Given the track record of these leaders there must be something real in inviting the people who do the work to participate, “Engage”, in the work and the direction of the team. Thanks for sharing this great resource and the story to support it. Completely agree that even though the word may be overused the underlying principle is very powerful.

    • Thanks for the comments Scott. I have to admit to not being a Man U fan either – although I do have a sneaking admiration for what the club has achieved over the years. I have a few Fulham fans who are friends, and I am always impressed by their devotion to what seems to be a real ‘family’ club. So, I do have a soft spot for the Cottagers.

  3. Hi Louis
    As usual a well written and thought provoking blog. It is the Barriers to employee engagement that surprise me. By that I mean – there are lots of managers (leaders) out there who must still think in this way. Apart from being a bit sad about this state of affairs, I find myself wondering about how best to offer managers a different outlook on employee engagement without getting on my soap-box.
    Thank you.

  4. Hi Louis,
    I really enjoyed the example in your article, however in business today there are more insecurities and lack of trust that need to be overcome before this type of interaction can work effectively. They are all part of the roadblocks you discussed early on. In my experience, management fears changing culture, for a number of reasons, but in many public companies stockholders don’t really care if there is employee engagement, only profits. There are so many negative influences affecting the process of employee engagement today that it overshadows the simplicity of the concept.

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