May 05, 2021

Employee Engagement Isn’t Your Problem—Your Leadership Is

Written by Tom Lokar

After more than 25 years in leadership and organization effectiveness, there’s still nothing more exciting to me than driving critical change in today’s leading organizations. As an executive focused on implementing strategy and providing the proper human capital leverage, I’ve got a front-row seat to everything a company can become—if and when they pivot.

The key to knowing how well a company manages change depends on how well it constantly prepares and develops its leaders—not the leaders themselves.

Here’s why: Leaders, like the teams they shepherd and grow, are a product of their environment. 

Without ways and dedicated time to continually and proactively assess, practice, and gather insight, leaders can lose touch with (and sometimes, faith in) what truly drives results, buy-in, and that bottom line: their employees and contributors. 

That’s why a huge focus of this dynamic—and this article—is on company culture and the holy grail of high-performance: high employee engagement. 

Active, developed leaders tend to Your Company “Soul”

You’ll hear me say this a lot. The Soul of a company is its people—the beating hearts who come to work every day to give a small piece of themselves to your cause. (And, yes, it’s a proper noun—because it’s that important.) As leaders, we owe it to our employees to tend to that Soul to offer it an opportunity to grow, contribute, and align its gifts and talent to our strategy and mission.

I’m not suggesting the effect is some spiritual awakening of the company through its people. What I’m saying is that culture isn’t what we say it is. Culture is what we allow it to become. Your company values and beliefs aren’t what you chisel onto the walls of your reception area. They are what you actively offer the world in your collective behaviors, decisions, and actions—for better or worse. 

In this sense, the Soul of a company is more math than some ethereal conscience. It is the cumulative, compounded investment of the individual behaviors, decisions, and actions contributing to your effort. 

Think of how many employees you have. 

Now think of what could happen if you invest in their development, improving their performance, aligning their behaviors, and engaging their skills, even just a tiny percentage. 

In my experience, though the investment in people can sometimes be unpredictable, once invested, they will most likely provide a positive return, which delivers 10s, 100s, or 1000s of exponential impacts on total company performance. 

This is why culture eats strategy for breakfast!  (Thank you, Mr. Drucker.)

And this is also why you need to constantly equip your leaders to lead the charge.

The Role of a Leader in Employee Engagement

The workforce in America is changing, largely due to the changes in the expectations of its workers. In some cases, this is an attitudinal shift—there is a different tolerance for things they “don’t want or feel they have to do” in their accepted and defined role. 

This perspective toward work—and the company providing it—puts unprecedented pressure on those who must maintain the balance between the company goals (delivering to customers and shareholders—a see-saw in and of itself) and the goals of its workforce, which, if left to their own devices, are constantly changing. It’s difficult to engage, retain, and develop people who continually teeter between committing and leaving.

It’s not that employees might quit at a moment’s notice—it’s that they carry this bipolar existence front-and-center in their daily work. Not only can this change the way they give to their jobs, but it can also infiltrate the psyche, attitude, and performance of their peers. Complacency, bitterness, and good old-fashioned insubordination, especially amongst a generation more likely to comply with group norms, will spread like wildfire. It will burn up the accrued cultural equity your company thought it had, leaving in its place the whims of a workforce wanting to redefine what “working for a living” means. 

Here’s a thought: Instead of waiting for your employees to create that definition, write it for them.

Our role as their leaders is to show them what it means to invest their skills, talents, and passions toward a Something Bigger. Not a bigger paycheck (which will never be enough), something Important, something that carries significance and meaning. Not to you and your company’s goals—to theirs.

This takes a little training and development on our own behalf, especially if we ourselves are from a different stock entirely—those of us who find joy in the work itself, if not the product. But there is something to be learned here, for all of us. While all of us “work for ourselves” to some degree in funding our own lives, we all contribute to a greater living, and even, if we’re lucky, a greater good. Helping your employees engage with and attach themselves to that purpose and mission is the goal of every leader. 

And this means we all need to learn a few different ways to market it and make it work. It also means we may need to brush up on necessary skills that take bandwidth, energy, and time—self-awareness, active listening, curiosity, among them.

The Easy Way is Usually a Hard Line 

Most leaders understand the importance of a company’s soul and culture. What they lack are the skills—and the grit—to relentlessly and ruthlessly protect and preserve it. 

For leadership to positively impact a company, it cannot tolerate people and activities that become detracting influences. This means—more than occasionally—weeding out the disgruntled, disillusioned, and disruptive. It also means—more than occasionally—reminding everyone, in every rank, why your company’s mission is so important—and how critical they all are in accomplishing it. They aren’t automatically entitled to the vision, the culture, and the world you are building—but those who help create it will absolutely deserve it.

Above all, our role as agile leaders is to keep a steady hand at the helm. The minute you, as a leader, become complacent in protecting your culture is the second your employees do, too. 

Uphold your company values, even (and especially) when they come at a cost. 

Articulate your beliefs even (and especially) when others might disagree. 

Stay the course, even as you learn new ways to navigate it. 

The utopian workplace this generation seeks won’t come from feelings or affinity groups; it will come from consistency. Leadership development is the employee engagement linchpin; it ties together the right people with the right fit and the right direction. By investing in each leader’s skills and abilities, the impact will trickle down to everyone they reach; a constantly developed leader constantly develops other leaders, each ever-ready to tackle what’s ahead.

Partner & Co-Director of Talent Advisory | + posts

Founder and Principal of OnCoaching LLC, Thomas Lokar, has over 25 years in the field of Leadership and Organization Effectiveness. After graduating with his Ph.D. in I/O Psychology from Kansas State University, he started his career in management consulting with the HayGroup, ascending to Regional Practice Leader. He has had a distinguished career in Human Resources functions, with increasingly larger roles as an expert leading Talent, Learning and Staffing functions, and then on to large-scale HR Business Partner roles in global organizations, like Hewlett-Packard. Most recently he served as the EVP, CHRO at Mitel. Tom resides outside of Dallas, TX with his wife of 20+ years, Kathryn, and their 5 kids (and a few labs). He is an accomplished and avid endurance athlete, having had a very successful amateur Triathlon, Running, and Cycling career for over 30 years.

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