Employee Engagement Starts & Ends with the Manager; Not HR

Vinaya Bansal, Co-Founder, The Predictive Strategy GroupHeadquartered in Gurgaon, The Predictive Strategy Group is a HR Analytics & training solutions company enabling organisations to successfully solve their HR related hindrances through its suite of solutions that include PI Behavioural & Cognitive Assessment, Job Analysis, Sales Skill Training & Assessment, and many others.

Think of one instance when the employees of a company have left because the HR head or HR team has changed. I bet you won't recall even a single such instance. Now, just close your eyes and think about a time when you had a boss who according to you was not a great boss or in short was a sucker. How did you feel working in the company at that point of time? Did any of the HR policies,fun Fridays,corporate games or gym membership provided by the company, helped you feel better about work? Did you yourself ever moved from a company or came close to doing so because of your boss? I am sure the answer is a vehement yes.

So the big question is, who is impacting the employees more - is it the immediate managers or HR? Where does the feeling of engagement or disengagement comes from - HR or immediate manager?

Research after research has shown that employees don’t leave companies but they leave managers. Managers are the people who unilaterally decide on the fate of employees through work allocation, promotions and set of responsibilities they provide to the team members. They are the people with whom employees interact even more than probably their own spouse! Day in day out managers communicate with their team members formally or informally. Words from managers become barometer of how good or bad one has been doing their work. This indirectly becomes a yardstick of one's own worth at the workplace and impacts the happiness index. This is the feeling - good or bad - that one ends up taking back at home too.

In one such instance, an employee has been a highly reputed and seasoned engineer working with the company for
about 19 years. He was heading the function and was regarded as an ultimate authority in his subject. He was both liked and respected by peers, HR and MD of the company. But then the fate took a turn and there was change of boss. The new boss was extremely independent - my way or the high way guy, an alpha male. After a few months, the engineering head who had amazing track record at work suddenly started floundering at work, high stress levels got developed. It started impacting the health of the individual. He became disenchanted with the very work he loved doing all these years. Point of the story is, nothing in the organization apart from the immediate manager had changed in this case. See what has been the impact of this small change on his engagement level.

Managers are the people who unilaterally decide on the fate of employees through work allocation, promotions and set of responsibilities they provide to the team members

Most of the time, in an organization, the baton of the creating employee engagement is given to the department of the HR. HR is then suppose to use their magic wand from the ivory tower they are stationed in and hurray - one fine day, the top management realizes that an engaged workforce has been created. Is this a possibility? Can any one make us more engaged in our work via quotes on the walls, out bounds, training sessions, parties or fun activities? There is an interesting story about King Ashoka. Once, his younger brother sat on his throne just for fun of it. King Ashoka saw this and became angry. He treated it as treason and took it as an indication that his younger brother had ambitions to displace him as a king. Hence, he ordered that his brother should be beheaded. But he loved his brother a lot. So, he relaxed the punishment and made his brother a king for a few days, giving liberty to him to enjoy all that he can as a king.

At the end of the fun period, Ashoka asked his brother, ‘how much did he enjoy as a king’. His brother said he didn’t even realize what enjoyment is, what luxury is, and what it is like to be a king. What he could think off was just the death that awaits him at the end of these few days. In contemporary terminology, he was totally ‘disengaged’ even though all the activities and things to engage him were present. The communication between him and his superior – Ashoka, was all that weighed on his mind. Ashoka never wanted to kill him anyways. The younger brother become a Buddhist Monk after this episode.

So, to cut the long story short, if as an organization you want to a more engaged workforce, do not start at HR level, do not even start at employee level that you are targeting but start with the immediate mangers of your target audience. You need to make the managers aware about their own styles of working and how to emphasize with the working styles of their team members. They need to understand the impact of daily communication, be it small informal chat, the expression on their face while listening to their team members or the deep-seated thoughts they are having about an individual team member. All this is actually impacting the engagement and satisfaction level of the employees – both at conscious and subconscious level.

HR has crucial role to play as an enabler, but they cannot be the protagonist in the play of employee engagement. The immediate manager has to be the one who stays in the lead role for their own teams.