Exploring The Impact Of Leadership On Employee Engagement And How Surveys Help

Philip Cleave
August 18, 2023
Member of leadership team delivering inspirational speech to engage and motivate staff

While many organizations recognize the benefits of employee engagement for their staff and their business, much fewer are clear about the important role that their leaders must play in this process.

Yet it’s crucial. This is because even if you run an employee survey with the intention of improving engagement, without leadership buy-in you may not be able to implement many of the actions staff ask for in their feedback. Subsequently, you could risk doing more harm than good, with your employees now suspicious about your lack of action and unwilling to participate with you in any future engagement activities you try to implement.

At this point you need to be asking yourself:

How can we get our leaders more involved?

What type of leadership is best suited to optimizing our staff engagement?

How can surveys help us in this engagement process?

It’s only when you have answers to these types of questions, that you’ll be able to put the right processes and environment in place to improve employee engagement and your business success. So, there’s never been a better time to get started with this.

Let’s begin.

The importance of staff engagement and the role leaders play

How necessary is staff engagement?

Well, when you consider that organizations with a highly engaged workforce are on average 21% more profitable than their less engaged counterparts, the value of employee engagement activities becomes much easier to appreciate.

So, how do you build such a motivated and enthusiastic workforce in the first place?

The greatest determinant of this lies with your drivers of employee engagement.

From the time they onboard with your company, right through to when they exit, there are many drivers that can impact staff at a personal, team and company level, and that influence the level of engagement they feel towards their role and the business they work for.

Drivers of employee engagement

From their job satisfaction, goals, compensation and benefits, and career development opportunities to their relationship with their team members and direct manager, and their view of senior leaders and the wider organizational culture and more. There are many facets to each staff member’s job and experiences with a business that can drive their levels of engagement with it.

If we take the time to explore each of these drivers in turn, we can soon connect the dots between them and measure how they can impact an employee’s cognitive and emotional connection with an organization. But should all this activity fall squarely on the shoulders of the HR department alone?

Well, no. An organization’s leadership has a unique role to play in contributing to employee engagement. Not only is a direct manager and senior leader a driver on their own, but they have a huge impact on sentiment with regards to other drivers of engagement and play a unique role in contributing to improvements.

The role of leadership in employee engagement

At the highest level, leadership is entrusted with articulating a company’s vision and ensuring buy-in. This is a significant engagement factor, as staff are more likely to be motivated towards their work when they believe in a higher purpose and are aligned with their company’s mission.

Senior leadership and management can also have a more direct influence on employee engagement. This is because they can influence how employees are treated, how performance is evaluated and rewarded, how an employee’s career growth is structured, and what image their company portrays to help attract and hire the type of talent they need.

So, in the wider context of employee engagement, HR cannot do it alone. In fact, it’s often argued that engagement isn’t the responsibility of HR at all, beyond thought leadership and facilitation. This means that direct managers and senior leaders have an intrinsic role to play.

Leaders are already predisposed towards employee engagement

Leaders are accountable for their staff

While we’ve talked about the importance of getting leaders more involved, it seems that more of them care about employee engagement than we might initially think. In fact, according to their study into ‘The impact of Employee Engagement on Performance’ Harvard Business Review states that 71% of all company executives say employee engagement is very important to them, particularly in helping them achieve greater organizational success.

So, when leaders who have bought in to the employee engagement concept can effectively communicate their vision to their staff, those same employees will display a greater understanding and commitment to their company’s cause as a result.

Interestingly, in the same Harvard study, employee engagement was found to be of a higher priority among senior leaders compared to middle managers who were more focused on cutting costs. Yet, when you think about it this makes sense, as the higher up the organization you are, the more accountable you should be for all people, processes and assets that make up your organization. So, in a way, leaders don’t have a choice but to think more about their employees.

Employees look to their leaders for reassurance

This leader-employee dynamic is not one-directional, however. While leaders think about staff engagement, their employees will be thinking about their leader’s capabilities.

Whether it’s feeling more confident about the company’s future or gaining a clearer steer about how their role contributes to the wider business strategy and more, employees typically look to their leaders for reassurance. So, if those leaders can communicate effectively and take the right actions, employee confidence and trust in them will increase along with levels of staff engagement.

Hopefully you will see from this the reasons why leaders at the very top need to be fully invested in employee engagement, as it’s not just about their own perceptions, but their employees’ perception as well.

How do leaders drive employee engagement

Styles of leadership

Having got to grips with the key role that leaders play in employee engagement, you’ll want to know what leadership style can best drive engagement.

There are three main styles, employee orientation, change orientation and production orientation.

  • Employee orientated leaders are sensitive to their employees’ needs and look to develop relationships with them based on mutual trust and respect.
  • Change oriented leaders are focused on innovation and are willing to change and adapt to find new ways to accomplish tasks.
  • Production orientated leaders are concerned with meeting goals and ensuring that work activities are always geared towards accomplishing those goals.

According to studies including one from ResearchGate, the employee orientation style is the best when it comes to driving employee engagement. However, this shouldn’t be too surprising, given how much more valued an employee would feel if they were put first above everything else.

However, this employee orientated method is not full proof by any means.

For instance, this approach can be at risk of the free-rider effect, where some members of a team might take advantage of the trust placed in them by slacking off on the efforts of others. In addition, some personalities and staff, particularly those at the beginning of their careers may not be suited to the employee orientation method, preferring instead a more structured system based on goals and performance feedback. Without this, they may feel lost.

In the same ResearchGate study, production orientated leaders were also able to nurture high levels of engagement from staff when they followed a joining communication style. This joining communication style delegates complete authority to employees, allowing them to set their own targets and make their own decisions.

So, while employees are given the freedom to plan and act, the end goal is all about the achievements of tasks. Employees are first and foremost judged on meeting goals, but they receive continuous direction and coaching to do this.

Leadership characteristics

Besides leadership styles, further ResearchGate studies, have explored how the characteristics of a leader can impact employee engagement, arguing that these essentially boil down to five key areas:

  • Good management and mentoring
  • Vision articulation
  • Self-management and inner balance
  • Collaboration with others
  • Bureaucratic inclinations

From the characteristics outlined, good management and mentoring, plus vision articulation have been cited to be the biggest drivers of employee engagement.

It’s not hard to see why good management and mentoring are so influential on engagement when you consider that it involves effectively communicating expectations, recognizing and rewarding performance, and monitoring activities over time. And if they can articulate their company vision effectively too, this offers another effective way for leaders to improve staff engagement.

Having looked at how different leadership styles and characteristics can influence employee engagement, there are two things we can confidently say that will have a positive impact on engagement levels.

  • Having a solid structure in place that clarifies expectations and goals from the outset
  • A bi-directional collaborative approach that ensures tasks are accomplished under this structure

Where do surveys fit in?

The 3 states of leadership and their impact on employee engagement

Having provided some background context earlier on in this blog, we should now realize that intended or not, leadership has an impact on employee engagement. But depending on the degree of action taken by those leaders the effect on employee engagement will vary.

State 1: No action

If leadership is silent about improving engagement, the perception of apathy is likely to spread throughout an organization.

No proper measures will be put in place to motivate employees and encourage participation. Consequently, witnessing such apathy emanating from the top will further discourage staff and have a net negative effect on their engagement levels.

State 2: Some action

If leadership takes the initiative to build some engagement, some if not all of their staff will appreciate that they have at least made some effort to improve things.

However, higher engagement is not guaranteed just yet, because that will depend on having the right leadership styles and characteristics. So, at this point there is unlikely to be a negative or positive effect on employee engagement.

State 3: The right action

If leadership takes the right initiative to build engagement, employees don’t just feel cared for but are likely to respond with more involvement too.

When they clearly articulate the vision of the company and adopt a mentorship approach to management, leaders not only take action to drive engagement but also build trust – resulting in a net positive effect on employee engagement.

For the leadership states 2 and 3, the implementation of surveys is essential.

Survey implementation

For any organization with a least 10 employees or more, there’s usually some sort of mechanism in place that allows them to collect feedback.

Whether it’s the traditional suggestion box where staff can drop off any thoughts they may have to digital channels like email, messaging apps, an ideas section on the company intranet to online surveys and more. There’s an ever-growing range of ways that employers can reach out to their staff for their feedback. However, given their versatility online surveys are the best for this, with the employee engagement survey the most suitable, as it’s been specifically designed to manage and improve engagement.

At the start of state 2

As we stated a bit earlier, at this stage leaders are just starting to build in some engagement. However, if they’re to take their engagement activity up to the next level, not only do they need to be using the right surveys, they also need to ensure it’s a regular and consistent activity.

However, with the right survey tools this becomes easier. This is because not only can you create great surveys, you’ll have multiple distribution channels to send your surveys and the tools to automate this process, so that your surveys are always triggered at key stages of every employee’s lifecycle journey. This helps ensure your always on top of their feedback and able to maintain their levels of engagement.

At the start of state 3

If they’re to take the right actions to drive engagement, leaders also need to be asking their staff the right survey questions and we’re not just talking about the right mix of closed and open-ended questions here.

From how engaged they feel in the workplace and how able they are to communicate with their manager and colleagues, to how valued they feel by their employer and connected to that company’s missions and values, and much more. When you ask the right questions, not only does it allow you to measure and benchmark where you currently are with staff engagement, it provides you with the feedback you need to improve your engagement levels.

For more ideas on suitable questions you might like to ask, why not take a look at our employee engagement survey templates.

Moving forward

We hope you found this blog useful. Whatever your feelings on employee engagement and leadership involvement in it, we hope you will see that even some level of action from your leaders is better than no action at all.

However, if you’re to experience the greatest improvements in your engagement levels you need to have everyone onboard including your leaders, and a comprehensive and ongoing survey feedback program.

If you can do this, not only will you be able to more accurately gage the tone of how your staff are feeling, but you’ll also be able to make the improvements and generate the momentum you need to develop a happier workforce and a more successful business.

The right employee experiences can drive more engagement too

While the right survey activity is vital to get feedback and make the changes you need, developing the right employee experiences can also help you to drive up engagement levels. However, if you’re to do this effectively, you need to be using the right survey tools.

Find out more

Get started and create your first survey

If you would like more information then please get in touch.