Leadership Development vs. Employee Engagement

Organizational development budgets are limited these days — companies are running lean on all fronts and training resources are as pared back as they have ever been. So it’s important that every initiative and leadership development module counts. Training leaders who are trying to do more with less often ask us which approaches will produce the best results:

  • Training the more senior ranks in the organization to become better leaders
  • Focusing on the engagement of the broader employee base

Certainly Employee Engagement has been a growing area of focus for most organizations as leadership teams and OD professionals become increasingly aware of the great contribution of engaged employees (and the negative impact of low engagement). This shift in focus is nicely captured by the following trend analysis of search terms on Google:


Graph: A comparison of search-term popularity based on a peak in Jan 2004 for “Manager Training” (Source: Google Trends)

Why the rise of interest in Employee Engagement? From our observation it is threefold:

  • Engagement is more visible and familiar: There is a keener understanding of the impact of employee engagement on business results. Two decades of academic leadership and employee engagement research and pioneering work by some influential leaders has put the topic top-of-mind for many executive teams. On a personal level, in the stress of a 24/7, “always on” world, leaders have had to manage their personal engagement carefully. They intuitively know that it also matters to their people and to the business as it does to their own well-being.
  • The leverage of engagement is greater: The connection between individual engagement and organizational achievement has always existed, naturally. But the growing dependence on the initiative of individual employees means that a small increase in engagement levels can have a greater impact today than it would have had in – say – a large bureaucracy in the 1980s. Companies are leaner and flatter, and they need engaged employees to maintain the operational speed required to succeed. With fewer people doing more with much less, the level of engagement of any one person can have a big impact on a team’s performance and morale. Another point of leverage: Innovation needs to happen faster. Many of our clients are telling us they need people who readily embrace change so they can create the future with more speed and confidence.
  • The concepts have matured: Finally, as a result of the two items above, more companies are actually measuring, monitoring and acting upon engagement. Employee engagement is becoming more part of the corporate vernacular as the concept is socialized internally: included in the balanced scorecard executives use to run the organization, tracked by members of the board of directors, woven into town hall presentations. All employees are exposed to the process (survey, feedback etc.) and a new generation of managers/leaders are growing up with an approach that strongly resonates with the culture and the workplace they want to be part of.

“Lack of high-potential leaders in the organization” is top of mind for senior human resource executives. “Low engagement and lagging productivity” is third on the list after “Shortage of talent at all levels.” (See: HR Executive Magazine June 2013)

Who needs leaders?

So should we cut back on employee leadership development efforts to refocus our energy on Employee Engagement? Well no, not exactly.

Ask yourself, why do you have leaders in the first place? The purpose of leadership is to excite others to exceptional performance. Leaders set the vision and clearly communicate the direction for others to follow. They inspire the workforce to focus their individual talents on the goals of the organization and to contribute at the highest level. Effective leaders are also guardians of the culture and exemplars in living the organizations’ values. The prize of good leadership is engaged employees.

Obvious? Yes, perhaps — yet many who aspire to be effective leaders are focused on business competence and business results without appreciating that these stem from creating a high-performance environment: a balance of driving business results while inspiring others.

Leadership and engagement are two sides of the same coin. To be successful in meeting goals, no doubt organizations need effective leaders. Running isolated engagement efforts in the absence of leadership development will provide nothing but short-lived results. Conversely, an organization which focuses solely on employee leadership training may find they do not develop a more engaged workforce as a result.

Organizations that are effective at building a culture of engagement — one that is sustained and delivers results on many fronts — take a multifaceted approach and ensure that each level of the organization is clear on accountabilities related to engaging self and engaging others. It is threaded throughout everything they do.

Put another way, if engagement is to become a daily priority, it has to be a shared responsibility. Leaders and managers cannot and should not shoulder the entire burden of engaging your workforce. Every member needs to play a role (or several roles), as individuals (I), managers (M), or executives (E).

A role at every level: the I, the M, and the E


At the individual level, drivers of satisfaction and contribution will vary, as will longer-term aspirations and career goals. Engagement is an individualized equation but can have a multiplying effect on the organization. The organization cannot make an employee engaged, but it can create the right environment, establish ways of working that make it easy for any one person to jump in and take ownership of a role they are passionate about. Individuals need to ACT on engagement, namely:imo

  • Assess their skills, strengths, career goals and current priorities.
  • Communicate with their manager to ensure alignment and put together a plan on how to address their personal engagement drivers to reach higher levels of contribution and satisfaction.
  • Take action — with their manager’s support start to change those items they can and track their progress throughout the year.

Clearly these items can be addressed in engagement initiatives, but your leadership training must equip managers and senior leaders to commit to making this work. There is no point encouraging individuals to ACT if they are not being actively encouraged by those higher up in the company.


Managers tend to be on the sharp end of the wedge when it comes to engagement. They are under pressure from senior management to produce results, burdened with expectations that they can engage their teams, and often divided between managing others and completing their own tasks. Welcome to Management. When the annual engagement survey rolls around it’s on their shoulders that the action plans land, and typically they have been given little context and no option about participating or not. But managers need to address their own personal engagement first: a dead battery can’t jumpstart another. After they do this, Managers need to CARE about the engagement of others, namely:

  • Coach individuals toward maximum contribution and satisfaction.
  • Align and constantly realign individuals to the organization’s strategy, mission, and values.
  • Recognize attitude, effort, and results.
  • Engage in dialogue about what’s important to both parties, while at the same time engaging themselves.

Engagement is a case of give and take — of gaining satisfaction and giving contribution. Once engagement has been achieved there are many factors that may cause it to get out of balance, one being the constant shifting and redirecting of organizational strategy and direction. As each department or team changes tack, it is up to the manager to ensure that employees make course corrections to stay aligned with the most immediate priorities.

It takes more than management to make this equation work — it takes true leadership. Your leadership development efforts need to equip managers to CARE about their teams and to take the lead in communicating priorities and keeping the team aligned.


trust_in_executives_june_2013[1]Executives are not in the position to coach and align the personal interests of each and every employee. Their role is about making the destination clear, developing and communicating the strategies people will execute, and creating a culture that values performance while simultaneously creating an inspired, engaged workforce. Especially during times of change, they must set the direction that the workforce aligns to, communicate that direction to ensure a clear line-of-sight throughout your organization with milestones, and create a culture that fuels engagement and business results. At the same time, they must fulfill the role of manager and individual as previously described. We understand that this is a tall order.

We need to look at the priorities of executives in leading a workforce to higher engagement from the perspective of the leaders’ followers. Our focus therefore is not on the intrinsic qualities that make an effective leader but instead is about asking, “What are the needs of followers that a leader must fulfill?” We find it useful to talk about how you build your CASE (Community, Authenticity, Significance, and Excitement). These are core needs of the 21st century workforce (the followers) and are essential in delivering results as well as engagement:

  • Community for a sense of belonging and purpose
  • Authenticity as a basis for trust and inspiration
  • Significance to recognize individuals’ contribution
  • Excitement to constantly encourage — and raise the bar on — high performance

There are many skills that leadership development efforts can address, but if they are not helping leaders have a more positive influence over their followers, what impact can the training have? Development efforts must be focused on making progress with real work and be designed with a continuous learning approach, always connecting to the next experience, to the needs of the business, and to developing perspective and skill on an ongoing basis to positively impact engagement levels. If you help leaders make their CASE they in turn will be more effective at soliciting the right type of contribution from those they lead, as well as creating a culture in which each employee is able to thrive.


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