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Blog : Increase employee engagement in one simple step


Increase employee engagement in one simple step

Jo Harley on how developing your managers can lead to an increase in engagement.

It’s a year since we launched our free engagement survey (click here to set yours up) and therefore a year since we first completed it ourselves; time to practice what we preach and run it again to see how things have changed. You’d think that specialising in the areas of employee engagement, best places to work, retention and development we’d be scoring a whopping 10 out of 10. However there are always improvements that can be made and we were pleased with our rather respectable score of 8.5 (especially as this was 1.5 points up on last year –phew!) Compared to all the organisations that have taken part since we launched (over a thousand people) we compare very favourably as the average score is five out of a possible ten.

A recent poll by Gallup states that 24% of people are not engaged in their job at present, which reflects similar studies by Blessing White and the Corporate Leadership Council. Although they found that that the number of actively disengaged had doubled from 20% of the workforce in 2008 to 40% in 2009 which is very worrying and presents an opportunity to make improvements.

So what to do? Over the past few years the emphasis on keeping people engaged has been, as our research when we started learnpurple suggests, around communication, leadership, career path, development and values and aspirations met. If you take each of these in turn there are many things that can be done by HR and senior management around these areas to keep employees engaged; clear lines of communication throughout the organisation; developing leaders to their full potential; ensuring there is a robust succession planning in place; provide development options at the disposal of all employees and ensure that people are treated as individuals. However, here at learnpurple we believe it’s a little simpler than that.

There is one role in every organisation that can improve each of these measures, and has an impact on engagement that goes far beyond the charismatic CEO or the diligent HRD. The training Foundation has carried out some research ’the Rules of Engagement’ in light of the Gallup statistic and has found that less than 20% of direct line managers are trained in any way to engage their people. This just doesn’t make sense to me, surely the person that has the most influence regarding communication; leadership; career path; development and meeting aspirations is the person that you see on a regular basis about your performance, that sets goals with you, and that you (hopefully) meet with regularly to discuss your progression and work? Especially when the Training Foundation goes on to say that 80% of an employees decision to engage is down to the relationship with their immediate manager.

I read a lot about developing leaders but not too much about developing managers, these are the people that look after your people – and that are seen as ‘leaders’ by some of the workforce. The Training Foundation goes on to say that the managers of engaged employees show three traits:

  1. There is trust between the two
  2. Emotions play a role in engagement and managers should handle these
  3. Engagement is 20% culture and 80% climate (the atmosphere in the workplace)

I have heard of so many organisations that employ people without the line manager being involved. And rarely do we take into account the personality of the manager and the prospective employee and if they would work well together at interview stage, it tends to be more about skill. Our assertion to hire for attitude and train for competence has never been so relevant. A really good manager who has been given the skills to do so can very quickly engage an employee in the organisation, learn to listen and work out the best way to manage that individual. Management style has to be adaptable to the person and can be a very hard skill to master.

Having thought long and hard about this, I believe that of the five top things that keep employees engaged (according to our own research), it is ‘communication’ that is the most challenging. For the last four years we have produced a report comparing the results of all of the companies that use our on line talent management system - talent toolbox. Year on year, ‘Communication’ has come out top of areas employees would like to be improved. When we go back in to advise clients after a talent toolbox review, it is communication that we help most people with. Yet communication is also the first thing organisations must master to keep people engaged.

The first rule of communication (as our associates will tell you in our ‘manage and motivate’ courses) is to understand who you are communicating with, and how they would like to be communicated with. Do they like reading information or listening to it? Do they need to know the detail or the overview first? How do they like having new tasks given to them? Steve Robbins, a coach, lecturer, business guru and writer has identified seven mistakes that managers make when it comes to communication - and although we don’t like ‘negatives’ I thought this was quite useful:

1. Making big announcements without background research

Robbins suggests these are made one on one rather than in a big group, learn who will raise questions and why this might be, address these by acknowledging that any big change will likely cause anxiety and address concerns.

2. Lying

Maybe it’s with good intentions, however if people find this out you will lose trust, consistency is also important. Learn to say ‘I can’t comment on that right now’ and stick to it.

3. Ignoring the realities of power

The more power you have, the less you will hear about problems, people want to soften the blow so for managers, Robbins suggests you seek out the bad news and use plain and simple language. Let people know what your reaction is and what is going to be done about it. This stops rumours too.

4. Underestimating the audience

It can be very tempting to think that “people won’t understand” and gloss over the issues. As a manager it’s your job to make people understand so they appreciate the rationale behind what you are saying. Use people to find solutions and remember you probably have adults working for you that have managed to sort out a mortgage, pay their bills and live on their own, unless you are a teacher you are probably not managing children!

5. Confusing process and outcome

People don’t see how hard you work on their behalf and how hard you fight for them. It’s much easier to judge outcome whilst as a direct manager you see process (i.e. how hard someone has worked to achieve the outcome). It’s important that the whole organisation is judged on the same criteria.

6. Using inappropriate forms of communication

As mentioned above, and as Robbins agrees it’s about finding the right way to communicate with the individual. However it is definitely best practice to deal with emotional issues face to face, remember how easily e mail can be misinterpreted.

7. Ignoring acts of omission

I am going to quote straight from Robbins here as I think this is so relevant for the managers of today:

“What you don’t say may be sending as loud a message as what you do say. If you don’t give praise people get the message they are unappreciated. If you don’t explain the rationale behind decisions the message is you don’t trust them. And if you don’t tell people where the company wants to go, they don’t know how to help it get there”

So, communication is the first lesson I believe people should learn in the art of management, and if you are a manager, and you are not sure what you are doing, you’re not alone – you are one of the 80% of people that hasn’t had any help in this area. My suggestion would be to firstly manage upwards and speak to your own line manager about how you are going to make this a successful part of your job, then drive your own development in this area. Shadow a really good manager in your company and ask loads of questions, attend a ‘how to be a great first time manager’ or 'manage and motivate' PLP or learning bite, perhaps get a mentor?

Most importantly, your people are your most important assets, so make time for them and ensure you are continually reviewing and meeting with them to ensure they are one of the 20% of engaged people in your organisation.

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