Who drives employee engagement: managers or HR?
Chances are, how much you love going to work depends on who your direct manager is.

Keeping employees engaged and motivated is fundamental to a business’s performance.

So where does the responsibility ultimately lie for employee engagement, and how can engagement be fostered?

Who owns engagement: HR or line managers?

Employee engagement won’t be achieved without effective leadership, says Sam Sheppard, Chief Human Resources Officer at Deloitte. 

A good leader can result in huge increases in productivity and performance, and reduced staff turnover, she says.

“Many studies have been able to prove the direct correlation between the quality of an immediate manager and the level of engagement within an individual or team. It’s what sits behind the well-used phrase of ‘people leave leaders, not companies’.”

Dorothy Hisgrove, PwC Australia Partner and Human Capital Leader, says human resource departments develop the strategies and processes that support employee engagement, but they don't own it.

“Employees, the management team and the executive all have a responsibility for employee engagement. Line managers have the most significant impact on employee engagement given they are the immediate point of contact with their teams.”

Ian Hutchinson is an employee engagement expert and chief engagement officer at Life By Design, with 15 years’ experience in employee engagement strategies.

Hutchinson says the “new renaissance” in engagement research is the bottom-up approach: helping individuals work out what motivates them so they can take responsibility for their own engagement.

“The individual is empowered to work out what engages them, and to make sure their role and engagement drivers are working hand in hand with each other.”

He says many middle managers have been promoted into leadership positions but don’t have “the skills, tools or resources to know how to properly engage and motivate their people”.

This has resulted in “a lack of engagement epidemic”.

Hutchinson trains leaders and line managers to understand what motivates and engages people, that each individual has different motivators, and how to implement team engagement plans.

What do employees want?

The trouble is, “most employees know what they don’t want, fewer know what they really do want,” Hutchinson says.

Managers often assume that money will motivate employees, and are surprised to hear that work-life balance and career development may come before money.

“Once employees feel fairly paid, money isn’t a great motivator to greater performance. It’s a very expensive financial solution to try to motivate people by paying them more, when in fact that’s not their main motivator.”

Open and candid conversation is key

Hisgrove says it’s vital to create an environment that supports open conversation.

"If the culture does not support reciprocal feedback where employees feel free to contribute, raise issues and put forward ideas for improvement, then there will be poor engagement which leads to under-performance and potentially loss of talent.”

Trusting those you work with and feeling safe to voice opinions, issues and concerns in an appropriate way are key indicators of a positive and engaging workplace, says Deloitte’s Sheppard.

“For many, trust is built over time by observing the behaviours of others and in particular the ‘say-do’ ratios of senior leaders,” she says.

Act quickly on the research

While HR departments conduct engagement research, they often have limited resources to implement changes, and broad-brush initiatives might help some employees but not everyone, Hutchinson says.

Engagement research can backfire and causes further disengagement if changes aren’t implemented quickly enough, if the results aren’t released to staff, or if changes are seen to be giving engagement lip service rather than making serious cultural initiatives.

Hutchinson suggests “having the gun loaded” and have some initiatives in place ready to roll out within weeks after the engagement research so employees feel like they have been listened to.

Check in with employees regularly

How often an organisation should complete “pulse checks” depends on the strength of its leadership and current culture, says Hisgrove.

“As a general rule, firm-wide full engagement culture surveys should be done every two years, with pulse checks around every six months to track progress and give management the opportunity to remediate areas of concern and celebrate progress."

Deloitte has started conducting regular pulse checks throughout the year, helping to embed a culture of open communication, says Sheppard.

“The format is easy, can be completed on mobile devices and monitors progress on a short set of standard questions.”

Hire and promote great leaders

The best leaders are those who understand each individual team member, their strengths and weaknesses, and what motivates them, rather than those with the best technical skills, Hutchinson says.

PwC’s Hisgrove says: "Employees look up to their leaders and take their cue from the direction set at the top.

“It is important, therefore, that leaders lead by example and demonstrate values and behaviours consistent with the organisation’s expressed culture."

More than just the numbers

How engagement is measured depends on how it best makes sense for the organisation, says Deloitte’s Sheppard.

“Focussing on a change in engagement score rather than an absolute number is important. Understanding whether people are feeling more or less engaged and the reasons why is far more useful than assuming a high number is good.

“Ultimately engagement will always be measured by the ease of which you can attract the quality of talent you are seeking, and the extent to which you don’t lose those that you want to keep.”