Leadership’s Role in Employee Engagement

I had a fantastic work study job when I was in Graduate school. I did data collection for a project that my university was conducting to evaluate the rise of gang violence in Los Angeles. It had absolutely nothing to do with my major or my career goals, but there was something about it that I just loved.

Along with six other students, I shuttled off to sheriff headquarters in downtown Los Angeles and before I knew it I was in an imposing official’s office raising my right hand in oath that I wouldn’t sell all of the confidential law enforcement information to which I now had access to Star magazine. Ok, maybe that’s not exactly what they said, but that’s what my twenty two year old mind took away from the meeting. Bottom line, I felt like I had moved from lowly student to trusted confidant of the LASD.

Once we were deemed trustworthy citizens, the real fun began. Our days were spent sitting at a massive wooden table in the detectives’ room, rummaging through filing cabinets with old, but notorious, Hollywood case files such as those for Sirhan Sirhan and Sal Mineo teasing us to just sneak a peek. I never did-remember the oath-but I just found it cool to think that if I wanted to look I could and someone important had trusted me with that possibility.

The work itself was actually kind of tedious, if truth be told. We were given a long list of case numbers every day, we then had to pull each file from a sea of filing cabinets, and finally we had to fill out a pre-printed form with crime details such people involved, time of incident, and the events surrounding the crime. Not the stuff that on its own should have created the excitement I felt for this job.

Yet, I loved it and tore through those files like there was a pot of gold at the end of the daily assignments. In fact, I was so diligent that one day when I was alone with our immediate boss, Lee, she commented that I was doing a good job. I wish she had left it there.

Instead, she started a conversation about what slackers the other students were and that she didn’t understand “what it was that made some people do a good job and others just do the minimum required.” I remember being uncomfortable as she compared me to my co-workers and I also remember that I had no idea either why some people seemed to care and others didn’t.

We were all doing the same work under the same conditions. We were pretty similar in terms of skills and talent. I couldn’t imagine why there was such a big difference. Once she mentioned it, though, I started to notice how other people were acting. They did go through the files painfully slowly, they took tons of breaks, and every night on the car ride back to school they complained non stop about what a bore the job was.

I also started to notice other things. Like the fact that Lee plopped a giant bottle of Pepto Bismol in the middle of our work table every morning and took giant swigs of it throughout the day, commenting about how she needed it because this job was miserable. I also noticed that the only real interaction that she had with us throughout the day was directional, instructional or complaining.

Now I know why no one else was engaged in their jobs. The work was boring and Lee’s attitude and actions worked against the possibility that anyone would connect their work to a greater goal.

So why was I so engaged despite Lee’s influence when others were not?  I had found the value of the work even before the first day on the job because I had interviewed with the person who was actually spearheading the study. She was so passionate as she talked with me about the project, telling me how the study would be used to try to quell growing gang violence, that her enthusiasm for the mission carried me through the days of tedious data collection and Lee’s poor influence. I knew that what I was doing was critical to the final outcome of an important project.

The others had interviewed only with Lee.

Immediate managers have a tremendous amount of influence over employee engagement but they aren’t the entire equation. When leaders of organization’s are able to connect their people to a greater value and provide broader meaning to every day tasks, they have tremendous reach in creating organizational engagement even if the job at hand is disturbed by an ineffective or even disruptive manager.

Yes, left untended, the manager’s voice would most likely become the more salient message and drown out the leadership mission. Beyond a discussion of discharging ineffective manager’s, this ability drives home the need for employees to hear a consistent and frequent leadership message on the broader organizational goals and the part each employee plays in achieving that success.

As a leader, when was the last time your organization passionately heard your message?

Sandi Coryell  is a Leadership Strategist, Consultant, and Speaker who works with executives to help Transform Bosses into Leaders.