How CEOS can bring about employee engagement

A study of chief execs reveals they hoist the concept aboard and even have a vision of its effect on their workplace culture. Getting from Point A to Point B? Well, there are impediments.

Have you ever wondered what your CEO really thinks about employee engagement?

Many of us have, and new research from Ashridge Business School in the U.K. provides some answers.

The study found CEOs had a pretty good idea of what employee engagement is and what it could do for their organizations. They view engagement as a strategic narrative (and ongoing dialogue) within their organizations that creates emotional connections and purpose for employees. They envision a culture in which people give the very best of themselves at work.

CEOs have the definition and outcome of engagement nailed, but when asked what stops them from getting more involved with engagement, three distinct and personal barriers emerged:

1. Leadership capability

The first barrier relates to shortcomings in leadership skills and behaviors that run counter to building engagement. CEOs believe engagement takes a particular set of competencies, such as the ability to forge deep trusting relationships at work, leading with emotion and authenticity, and operating with genuine openness and honesty.

Yet some leaders were wary of behaving this way, believing it would lead to dissenting opinions and personal criticism. They agreed they must be deeply self-aware, but admitted to difficulties reaching true self-awareness if conversations and feedback in their organizations don’t stem from a place of honesty and deep mutual trust.

2. Leadership attributes

CEOs recognized themselves as a potential barrier to engagement. They’re aware that some attributes of a leader’s personality can lead to traits or behaviors that disengage employees. These include being too proud, acting in self-interest, or an inability to show vulnerability.

CEOs admitted that insecure leaders tend to use a command-and-control approach, whereas self-confident leaders have learned to let go, broadly sharing responsibility and decision-making.

3. Culture and systems

CEOs acknowledged organizational cultures, systems, and hierarchies can impede engagement.

Hierarchy creates physical and psychological barriers between staff and management, precluding honest conversations, and CEOs are especially susceptible to this barrier. Finding the proper balance of driving short-term business results and longer-term engagement initiatives are other challenges in a capitalist system that rewards CEOs for delivering short-term financial objectives.

Properly understanding and acknowledging a problem accelerates our ability to discover the solution. Will CEOs’ awareness of their own barriers to embrace and support employee engagement initiatives hasten their ability to turn their roadblocks into steppingstones?

What CEOs must do

It’s great to hear directly from CEOs, but giving voice to their concerns is only the first step. CEOs now must step up, overcome these barriers, and invest in what’s important to their employees and to the long-term benefit of their organizations.

They alone have the power to make these changes, and they have to trust that in doing so, their employees will be more willing—and better equipped—to deliver the short- and long-term results that will create an engaged staff and successful organization.

This article was originally published on O.C. Tanner’s blog, ‘a’ Magazine.

A world-renowned speaker, writer and consultant, Michelle M. Smith is a trusted advisor to Fortune 500 companies and governments. She is O.C. Tanner’s Vice President of Business Development, and has been named one of the “Ten Best and Brightest Women in the Incentive Industry.” Michelle is president emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association and past president of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University.

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