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More Meaningful Mondays: The Manager's Role in Creating Employee Engagement

The biggest culture changes start at the top. Here's the research that shows how managers can help their employees buy in.

What would the world be like if no one got the Sunday night blues? You know, that depressed feeling you get about 6 p.m. on a Sunday night when you start thinking about going to work the next day. Turns out a lot of employees get the doldrums when the weekend is over, so much so that it’s been the focus of numerous studies. Here are some of the findings. The Sleep Judge, an organization that helps people get a good night’s sleep, found that 81% of workers answered yes to the following question: “Do you experience elevated anxiety on Sunday in anticipation of Monday?”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a solution to put an end to those Sunday night blues? Guess what – we have! The solution is called the manager. Why the manager? Because the manager has the most direct influence on three important elements that make up engagement: person, performance, and purpose. While there is no universally agreed upon definition of employee engagement, most experts and practitioners would say it incorporates these three elements: involvement at work, commitment to work, and satisfaction with work.

Involvement at Work: This is about having your voice heard, being able to participate in decisions, and being able to voice your opinion. It also means being empowered to do your work without being micromanaged, so you can maintain some control of personal direction.

Commitment to Work: This is about feeling connected to the company you work for through positive relationships with others and believing in the company’s mission and vision. It also means feeling that you are valued at work.

Satisfaction with Work: This is about the work that you do and the happiness and motivation that the work itself provides. Also, satisfaction is related to feeling a sense of purpose and meaning in your work.

Engagement is about the heads, hands, and hearts of your employees. And it’s not just the employees who benefit. Organizations with engaged employees outperform their competitors. A longitudinal study by Towers Watson analyzed data from surveys of over 664,000 employees in more than 50 companies. This global study measured engagement alongside more traditional business performance metrics over 12 months. Companies with highly engaged workforces improved operating income by 19.2% over the 12 month period where those with low engagement scores saw operating income decline by 32.7% over the same period. In 2015, the Hay Group reported that organizations in the top quartile of engagement scores demonstrated revenue growth 4.5 times greater than those in the bottom quartile.

What Can the Manager Do?

A lot. And we’ve known this for a long time. Organizational leaders have always been interested in increasing productivity and in the early 20th century, it started to become a “science.” Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s famous time studies were an effort to choreograph movements down to the second to improve output in steel mills. But it wasn’t until the famous Hawthorne studies of the early 1920s that researchers captured some of the psychological underpinning of human performance. These studies were conducted by Western Electric at their Hawthorne, Illinois plant between 1924 and 1933.

The original intent of the study was to determine the effects of illumination on the productivity of the workers. In other words, management wanted to understand whether increasing the amount of light would yield higher productivity. This kind of study was not uncommon during that time – after all, management has always been looking to increase efficiency. So, they designed the first study with an experimental and control group. In the experimental group they increased illumination and productivity went up, just as they expected. But so did the productivity of the control group where there was no increase in light. Next a group of workers were kept at a constant level of illumination and a test group’s lighting was reduced by regular intervals. Even at moonlight levels the workers reported they were less tired than under bright lights.

At this point management concluded that the lighting was only a minor factor in the study of productivity. But if it wasn’t the light, what was it? Enter Elton Mayo and his colleagues from the Harvard Business School. They were called in to help management make sense of the curious findings of their recent experiments. So, the next phase of the research focused on five young women who assembled magnetic relays. For the next eighteen months, Mayo and his colleagues made a variety of improvements in their working conditions – experimenting with things like schedule and social activities and guess what…work output increased as you might expect.

But then they took everything away from the workers and returned them to the same work conditions they had at the beginning of the experiment. Now you would think this would have reduced their output, but guess what? Output increased to a new all-time high. Mayo was fascinated by this and wanted to explore it further, so he convinced management to continue with the study and in 1928 and 1929, they found something else. Mayo conducted over 21,000 interviews. These interviews were designed to help them find out what employees thought about their working conditions, the jobs they did, their bosses, and what they liked and didn’t like about the company.

Originally the interviews were designed to be very structured question-and-answer sessions, but shortly after they started, they found that the workers wanted to talk openly about the topics and so they did. What Mayo and his colleagues discovered was that simply allowing the workers to express themselves was therapeutic and helpful. The workers enjoyed this and something in their attitudes about work changed.

As the management started to make some of the recommended changes, the workers began to feel as though they were important – they were participating, not just carrying out basic tasks. They also discovered that the relationship between individuals was very important. They found that some of the most important factors affecting productivity were the interpersonal relationships (manager to employee and employee to employee) not just the working conditions and compensation. As the employee’s internal feelings of connectedness and purpose changed, they performed better, and their performance reflected their own feeling of importance, competence express themselves was therapeutic and helpful. The workers enjoyed