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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 this and something in their attitudes about work changed.

What Happened After the Hawthorne Studies?

The Hawthorne studies essentially started what became known as the human relations movement in management. It supported the idea that people were not just interchangeable cogs in a wheel or on an assembly line. This movement created an enormous amount of interest and scholarship in work motivation and employee engagement. Over the years, a significant amount of research has given us more insight into how important managerial behavior really is. Many of the authors and scholars who helped provide this insight are not household names – people like Douglas McGregor, Fredrick Herzberg, and Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi. But contemporary readers may recognize names like Daniel Pink and Patrick Lencioni, both contemporary writers who have made a significant contribution to helping organizations improve engagement.

In our work with leaders at Vital Talent, we encourage them to think about how to help people have more meaningful Mondays by focusing on three areas that are easy to remember – the person, the performance, and the purpose. Let’s look at each one.

The Person: Everyone comes to work as a whole person. We don’t leave our “true” selves at home and put on our “work” selves when we get to the office. As we saw in the Hawthorne studies, and learned in the research that followed, the nature of work may change but human nature doesn’t. The drivers of engagement and motivation are chiefly internal. So, great leaders need to learn how to be in tune with their people. This means showing employees that you care about them and their well-being by:

  • remembering to praise them for the good work they do

  • facilitate opportunities for them to associate with others – whether working on projects or company social initiatives

  • helping them develop (this doesn’t need to be elaborate – getting incrementally better at something is fulfilling)

We spend an enormous amount of time at work – and just because it’s work doesn’t diminish any of the core human needs that we have.

Another important thing that managers can do is be a HERO. This is Fred Luthans’s acronym to help us remember four things that help strengthen an individual’s positive psychological state of development: hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism.

Hope: having goals and aspirations and remaining focused on achieving them

Efficacy: the confidence to put in the necessary effort to succeed at a difficult task

Resilience: facing challenges and adversity and getting back up when knocked down

Optimism: having a mindset to succeed now and in the future

These are part of a person’s inner life. We now know much of what we work with when dealing with an individual is internal to them. Unfortunately, many managers have been told they should only deal with behavior. It is true that most managers are not professionals when it comes to their employee’s mental states, but understanding human psychology is an important part of being a good manager just like understanding the law, even though managers are not lawyers. This sentiment was best expressed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Leahy, well respected education scholars: “The truth is, all managers are psychologists whether they want to be or not. Helping people overcome their limitations – including the messy, human contradictions that trouble all of us – lies at the very heart of effective leadership.”

Performance: Great managers help their people improve their performance. This of course has the double benefit of helping the person and the firm. But this isn’t “performance management” in the traditional sense. This is about helping people find fulfillment in their work – and part of that fulfillment is achieving and accomplishing goals. Intrinsic motivation is a behavior that is driven by satisfying internal desires for mastery and self-efficacy. It’s finding satisfaction in the work itself.

This presents two basic, but important, questions for managers. The first is how should I reward the people that make up my staff? Managers who provide only external rewards may find that the motivation they provide is short-lived and conditional. And it creates the mindset of “I do something well; I get a reward.” There’s a place for that, but it’s a small place. The second question is more intriguing. If I’m hoping to help generate intrinsic motivation in my staff, what conditions do I need for that to happen? This is a much more challenging question for a manager.

In solving for this question, managers must once again have insight into what makes each of their people go. Some people enjoy digging into details and solving complex problems, others prefer to get things done and check things off a list. These preferences are often referred to as strengths. The manager’s job is to learn about these behavioral preferences and strengths and organize work that allows people to do what they do best.

Another important area for managers to consider is helping people get into a state of flow. Most closely associated with positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state of heightened focus and concentration that happens when the degree of the task’s challenge and the skill level of the performer are properly aligned. Too high a skill level matched with a low-level challenge (we see this in the workplace often) results in boredom and apathy. Too low a skill level matched with a highly difficult task produces anxiety. A good manager carefully observes how staff responds to work challenges and makes adjustments to optimize the internal state of their employees, which creates more satisfaction and engagement and ultimately improves performance.

Purpose: The third area managers should understand is the role that purpose plays in employee engagement. A recent HBR cover story focused on how to turn purpose into performance. Among the recommendations to turn mid-level managers into purpose-driven leaders. The authors emphasized the importance of the manager in connecting the dots from corporate mission statements to individual, purpose-driven behavior. Here the manager is the conduit for the mission of the organization. It is their job to make it concrete, relevant, and actionable for each employee. Again, there is research that can help us understand just how important this idea is and how to translate it into actionable steps managers can carry out.

An experiment conducted at the University of Pennsylvania took a group of university fundraising call center representatives and divided them into three groups. In the first group, each night before they made calls, they read brief stories from previous employees about the personal benefits of working at the job – earning money, developing their communication skills, etc. The second group also read stories before making calls, but theirs were from people who had received scholarships from the funds raised and who described how the money had improved their lives.

The third group was the control group, and they had no stories. All groups were told not to discuss what they read with the recipients of their calls. The people in group one who were reminded of the personal benefits were no more successful than the control group, but those in group two raised more than twice as much – through twice as many pledges – as the other groups.

When we think about purpose, we often think about jobs and initiatives that are very noble, like an emergency room surgeon or a firefighter. Those are great jobs, but they’re not the only jobs that are in service to others. In organizations, we all serve someone, either internally or externally. We all have customers. If you’re doing business analytics on a sales operations team, you’re serving the sales professional in the field. If you are making meals for an airline, you are serving the flight attendants that serve the customer.

It’s the manager’s job to help make the connection for their employees. To help make the organization’s mission a reality for every employee – to put purpose into action. And the best tool you have for that is your ability to communicate.

So, what is it worth to you to have more meaningful Mondays? Or more importantly, if you’ve given your life’s work to being a people manager, what is it worth to help your people have more meaningful Mondays?

For more insights into how to bring out the best in your employees, check out our custom learning solutions at

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