Who should lead the charge on employee engagement?

Study finds lack of supervisory accountability leading to disappointing outcomes

By Claudine Kapel

While many organizations say they are committed to achieving high levels of employee engagement, new research indicates such efforts are proving to be more sizzle than steak.

Bain & Company suggests the stumbling block lies with how organizations approach employee engagement, including the tendency to make the human resources team responsible for it.

“Most senior executive teams preach a gospel of engagement, but they abdicate responsibility to corporate staff, often HR,” says Bain, in a report entitled Who’s Responsible for Employee Engagement?

“That delegation is misplaced, as HR is not in a position to take or direct actions required to affect attitudes at the employee or team level.”

Bain says there’s real value in fostering high levels of employee engagement. Engaged employees are more likely to “put in the extra discretionary effort that can raise productivity and create superior experiences for customers.”

To that end, Bain notes “making employees loyal advocates of their employer is not an end goal in itself, but rather a means to achieving customer and financial goals.”

Bain is critical of what it sees as the prevalent approach to employee engagement. “Typically, HR groups rely on long, corporate-wide annual surveys and one-size-fits-all processes that focus on adherence, rather than encouraging changes tailored to the team level. This centralized approach has innate problems that can actually lead to stagnant or declining engagement.”

Such surveys, says Bain, are too broad or infrequent to “pick up important topical or team-specific issues.”

Bain worked with the international survey consultancy Netsurvey to analyze engagement responses from 200,000 employees across 40 companies in 60 countries and found some “troubling trends”:

  • Engagement scores decline as employee tenure increases – which means employees with the deepest knowledge of the company, and the most experience, typically are the least engaged.
  • Scores decline at the lowest levels of the organization – suggesting that senior executive teams “likely underestimate the discontent on the front lines.”
  • Engagement levels are lowest in sales and service functions – which is where most interactions with customers occur.

Bain says a more effective approach to employee engagement would have “line supervisors, not HR, lead the charge.”

“With HR leading the survey design, administration and interpretation, line supervisors feel no ownership of the process,” says Bain. “People stay focused primarily on managing some sort of engagement score, rather than having a thorough conversation about the issues raised in order to understand and address the root causes of engagement or discontent.”

Giving supervisors a lead role in the process is key, says Bain. “With the supervisor acting as a catalyst to flush out workplace issues, teams can openly discuss what policies or informal rules impede their full engagement and craft solutions together.”

Bain notes some concerns, such as overtime rates or benefit plans, will go beyond a local team’s control. But it says even those issues can be addressed by ensuring there is a feedback loop that enables issues to be escalated to senior leaders with the authority to act and respond back to the teams.

“Encouraging frequent supervisor-team dialogues may sound obvious, yet in reality it’s all too rare,” says Bain.

The concerns raised by Bain with respect to employee engagement mirror those that continue to be raised about performance management in general. The critical – and frequently missing –link is the line manager.

The communication between people managers and their direct reports represents the very heartbeat of an organization. The quality and frequency of that communication can serve as a key indicator of organizational health.

So opening up the lines of communication is a powerful way to unleash productive energy and creative potential. It’s the catalyst that delivers the steak instead of the sizzle.

Claudine Kapel

Claudine Kapel is principal of Kapel and Associates Inc., a human resources consulting firm specializing in compensation design, performance management, and employee communications. Claudine is also the co-author of The HR Manager’s Guide to Total Rewards and Straight Talk on Managing Human Resources.
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