Employee Engagement: Engaging the CEO - IEDP
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Employee Engagement: Engaging the CEO

Releasing the full potential of people at work to drive organizational growth


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Employee engagement – what is it? Does it matter? And what are the barriers that stop leaders of organizations fully engaging with engagement? These are some of the questions addressed in a report from the ‘Engage for Success Taskforce’, based on research into CEO attitudes, conducted by Ashridge Business School.

“There is a disengagement crisis in the United States and I think there is some evidence that it is going on around the world. I am talking about workers’ engagement inside organizations. People in organizations across society, across the entire spectrum of age levels and income levels, are becoming quietly disengaged from what they do. What I mean by that is they are less motivated by the work they are doing, they are less satisfied with their jobs,” said Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, interviewed in the Globe and Mail last year.

The problem was certainly perceived to have arrived in the UK by November 2011, when the Engage for Success Taskforce was launched by the Prime Minister. A problem compounded by the perception that CEOs, who set the tone for engagement within their organizations, were failing to truly take responsibility for and champion engagement. This week saw the launch of their research report ‘Engagement through CEO Eyes’ which aims to answer four questions:

  • How do leaders define engagement?
  • What is stopping many CEOs from engaging with this topic?
  • What are the barriers CEO’s face both intrinsic (a leader’s personal capability) and extrinsic (external environment) factors?
  • Why is engagement not happening more in the UK?

One of the CEO’s interviewed by Ashridge researcher Amy Armstrong objected to the ‘them’ and ‘us’ implied in the language suggesting everyone in his organization were colleagues. This argument gained no traction amongst delegates at the launch. It seems that whatever the organizational configuration or leadership style - command and control, flat management structure, organizational democracy – employee engagement and the need for leaders to engage with it is a growing concern.

Clearly greater employee engagement is highly desirable both in terms of personal well being and satisfaction and in its influence on productivity and the bottom line. The causes of disengagement are moreover relatively easy to trace and their antidotes are well documented – providing purpose and vision, building trust through dialogue and communication, maintaining ethical values employees can take pride in, encouraging employee participation in the leadership agenda, and providing opportunities for individuals to develop and progress professionally.

The problem is that engagement as a well defined actionable concept, unlike ‘diversity’ or ‘corporate social responsibility’, has yet to take its place as a topic for serious C-suite focus. Understanding why is the key aim of this research, which involved in-depth discussions with 16 UK based CEOs (5 said to be champions of engagement, 5 skeptics, and 6 ‘don’t knows’). Three areas emerged as barriers to CEO engagement:

  • Leadership capability – a fear of feedback, the double edged nature of leadership, challenges to self-awareness, and a need to find new ways to lead
  • The leaders themselves – personality and values, lack of self-confidence, fear of exposing vulnerability, hubris
  • Culture systems and hierarchies – out-dated leadership models, short-termism and focus on results, economic climate, organizational hierarchies

The debate continues and at the London launch event there was a call for further research. The publication of some case study examples of good practice was also thought to be valuable. Looking to the future the report concludes that:

“It is hoped that the leadership development community will explore new approaches to leadership development with engagement at its heart... Ultimately we believe that, through engagement, there is a better way to work that releases the full capabilities and potential of people at work, whilst at the same time enabling organizational growth and ultimately economic growth for the UK.”

Learn about Engage for Success

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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