learningDo direct managers drive employee engagement? Countless leadership studies and articles summarize types of behaviors managers and, more specifically, direct supervisors, should hone to increase employees’ engagement, thus raising productivity and increasing loyalty.  These studies, though, are short-sighted because they place increased employee engagement solely on the shoulders of management without acknowledging the dynamic, multi-layered network of components contributing to a nimble and cohesive workforce.

Increased employee engagement develops from employees’ total work experience, not just behavior modification schemes passed from upper management to direct supervisors. 

To qualitatively analyze the myriad of factors surrounding employee engagement researchers Brad Shuck, University of Louisville, Tonette Rocco, Florida International University, and Carlos Albornoz, Universidad de Desarrollo, examined employees’ unique and personal experience of being engaged at work.  Their findings appeared in Journal of European Industrial Training.  To research employees’ unique experience of being engaged, the authors chose a large multinational corporation (250,000 employees world-wide) ranked by Forbes (2009) as one of the “world’s most admired companies” due to its reputation in innovation, global competitiveness and workforce management.

Within the course of the study, three factors predominated as influencing engagement:  relationship, development and attachment to co-workers, workplace climate and opportunities for learning, individual personality and the ubiquitous importance of direct management in shaping their experience.

First, employees stated that the workplace feels like home because they were able to develop relationships characterized by cooperation, support, trust and partnerships – the same elements that sustain family relationships and close friendships.  Freedom to develop the deep relationships was based in workers feeling safe and able to be themselves.  This type of  environment alleviates stress, thus letting workers free up energy  to creatively think and build their emotional and psychological resources (further insight on the debilitating effects of stress on creativity are in the posts “Affirming Language Increases Creative Productivity” and “When Fear Freezes Over).

A company-wide atmosphere of cooperation, support and trustworthy also made the workers feel safe in their job.  According to Maslow, the architect of Maslow’s hierarchy which traces stages of individuals’ development from survival needs through self-actualization, safety needs such as feeling protected, being free from fear, having a feeling of order and knowing one’s limits are potent human needs.

The feeling of secure relationships and security at work created the basis for the next component of employee engagement – continual learning.  The employees in the study did not define learning as a series of workshops, seminars and classes provided by their employer.  Instead, the learning that most affected employee engagement was “incidental learning,” small bits of information picked up from colleagues during the course of the day.  The daily possibility for informal learning experiences kept the employees excited about what was happening at work and engaged in the avenues of self-development that their jobs offered.  Consequently, informal learning helped employees make meaning of their work experiences in context of the mission of the company and it helped them feel that their work is valued.

Thus, employee engagement is not just a culture that supervisors can model through personal positive contact with employees.  Employee engagement depends on the transformation of all connections at work to ones of cooperation, trust, support and partnerships.  Additionally, the importance of incidental learning shows that employees need to have the chance to interact with a multitude of colleagues with different titles and job descriptions.  The interactions add to an employee’s feeling of increased value due to company knowledge.