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A 5 minute test of employee engagement - and 6 ways to fix it

Posted by Simon Thiessen on 21-Aug-2014 17:06:02

employee_engagement_-_not_watching-1No-one does it as well as you do - right?

Have you ever had that feeling that, if you want a job done properly you will have to do it yourself? Have you ever asked the question, why aren't my people as committed as me? Both of these are indicators that employee engagement may not be as high as you would like it to be - but are your expectations too high or is engagement actually low?

There is a really simple test that managers can use to understand the engagement levels in their team.

What happens when you aren't looking?

Many managers are highly engaged themselves. They set high standards and work hard to make sure their team maintains them. However, no manager can be watching all the time. Inevitably, a manager will be out of the office - often for ordinary daily meetings that take them away from their team for an hour or two and, occasionally, for longer periods, either for business or on leave. 

So, when you are aren't watching your team, what happens? 

Do your people work to the same standards in the same way? Do they maintain standards but use their own approach? Or do standards go out the window? Each of these responses means something different for a manager

By the way, if you feel like you can't take leave because the team won't function without you, you may already have a large part of your answer!

What does it mean when standards get lower when you aren't watching? 

It means that your team only maintain standards because they have to and not because they want to or because they believe in those standards. If this is the case, you will probably also notice that they often meet but rarely exceed standards even when you are watching.

This is all about discretionary effort. When your people maintain standards with you watching, that is because they feel that they have to. There are consequences for not maintaining those standards - it is perceived as non discretionary

When your people maintain standards even without you watching, they are making an effort they don't have to make - they could probably get away with take it a little easier, letting things slip a bit. This discretionary effort is a strong indicator of employee engagement

Another factor is how long it takes standards to slip. If discretionary effort gets lower the longer you are gone for (ie in training for a day or on long service leave for three months), that often indicates that, when you are watching, people do what they have to and not what they are committed to - engagement is low.

employee_engagement_-_when_you_arent_watchingHow do you know what happens when you aren't watching?

When people make less discretionary effort when their manager isn't looking, it is largely because they feel they can 'get away with it'. That is largely because managers are often too busy to pay attention to some of the indicators

  • Look at any 'slippage' in habits when you return. It is often hard for your team to immediately raise their standards again when you come back, especially if you have been gone for a longer period
  • Pay attention to the metrics - do they indicate that intensity, quality, etc have dropped off
  • Listen to the feedback from other team members, from other departments and from external clients
  • Take time out from clearing the backlog on your desk and make your own observations. Have deadlines been met? Has expected progress been made" Have quotas been achieved?

Did standards drop or did processes change?

This is a critical question and the answer provides a strong message for managers wanting to maintain or improve employee engagement.

What we are really asking is 'did they do it badly - or was it just differently but equally good?' If they have maintained high standards but used their own approaches, the message may be that your people are engaged and proud but are screaming out for some flexibility and discretion in the way they do the work. If they can have that flexibility without compromising the result, is there a good reason not to give it to them? What is almost guaranteed is that engagement will eventually decline if you don't either give the flexibility or explain the reasons a more rigid process is needed. 

Six things to check or change if standards have dropped

This may not be the message you wanted to hear - but it is a fact. Employee engagement and discretionary effort are a response to the climate your people are working in. The thing that has the single biggest influence over the climate your team works in is your leadership style. We absolutely accept that there are other influences - including the leadership style of the people around and above you, however your leadership style has the most direct impact on climate for your team (we have had countless experiences of one manager creating a 'positive oasis' for their own team even among a broader, less positive organisational climate.)


Here are six things we recommend managers do when they find their team is performing at a lower level when the manager isn't watching:

  1. Go back to the question we asked right at the beginning: are your standards reasonable or are they too high? Are you a perfectionist who is expecting perfectionism from everyone else even though it is an unnecessary benchmark?
  2. Does your team have clarity around the standards and why they are important? Have you engaged them in developing and committing to those standards - or were they simply imposed on them?
  3. Have you eliminated unnecessary rules and protocols? For example, have you worked with the team to define standards but given them as much discretion as possible about how to achieve them?
  4. Does meeting standards make any difference to your team members? Is feedback, recognition and opportunity linked to consistently achieving agreed standards?
  5. Are standards consistent? When they are not met, is respectful but firm feedback given and corrective action taken - or are things sometimes 'allowed to slide'?
  6. Does the team understand (and get to celebrate) the positive consequences of meeting standards? Have you worked to embed a real sense of team pride in what they achieve?

These six actions are all about getting standards embedded rather than enforced - which is much easier for a manager to manage as well.

Next steps

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