A Manager's Influence: Do your actions support or undermine engagement?

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Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions
Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions

A thought experiment

Imagine you're walking down a path in the woods. Up ahead, you see something in the middle of the trail. Is it a snake? Maybe it's just a stick. Your brain sends you signals to beware. Your attention is focused on the potential threat of a snake and your body prepares to flee if necessary.

Now imagine you're walking down the hallway in your workplace. Up ahead, you see your boss quickly walking toward you with a furrowed brow and a deep frown. Your brain sends you signals to beware. Your attention is focused on a potential threat… not a physical threat, but a psychological or “social” threat. Is my boss angry at me? Did I do something wrong? Am I about to be yelled at? Embarrassed? Humiliated? Your body prepares to flee if necessary.

As I mentioned in my last blog, our brain responds to social threats the same way it does to physical threats. Employees are particularly in-tune with their manager's behaviors, either consciously or subconsciously, to assess the mood and tone of their work environment. They constantly observe and interpret the social meaning of their manager's words, tone of voice, and especially body language. Sometimes employees magnify and amplify their interpretation of these behaviors in ways the manager never intended! Seeing a manager roll his eyes at a comment, or pass in the hallway without greeting or acknowledging the employee, can be interpreted as devaluing behaviors.

Unfortunately, managers are often unaware of the power and impact their behaviors and actions have on employee emotions. The fact is, every action taken when interacting with employees either supports or undermines a feeling of engagement. And therein lies the need for managers to understand the considerable influence they have on engagement through their behaviors and practices.

Remember, engagement is the emotional connection that an employee feels towards their work and their organization. Although there are many factors that influence a person's feeling of engagement, here are five that a manager directly impacts.

Five Emotional Factors that Impact Engagement

  • Significance – This is the degree to which employees feel that they matter and are a valued contributor to organizational priorities. Feeling significant means that employees view themselves as important to the success of the organization and feel appreciated for their contribution.
  • Safety – Employees feel physically and psychologically safe and respected. Their supervisor is supportive and “has their back”. They don't have to worry from one day to the next if their supervisor will be in a good mood or a bad mood. Employees sense that their supervisor authentically cares about them as a person.
  • Control – Employees feel they have some influence and control over their work and have a voice about how things are done.
  • Connection – Employees feel a sense of belonging. They feel a part of an “in-group” or team that is doing important work.
  • Fairness – Employees feel they are treated fairly. Their concerns are heard and resolved fairly. They don't feel burdened with unfair expectations.

Managers Matter

Research has shown that managers have up to 70% influence over the climate of their team through their personal behaviors and leadership style. Managers are essentially the emotional thermostat for their team. A manager's mood and temperament influences the team's mood and temperament, and ultimately their productivity and engagement.

So what can managers do to optimize engagement?

  • Maintain an awareness of, and attentiveness to, your personal impact on employee engagement
  • Recognize the kinds of attitudes, behaviors or practices that trigger an employee's feeling of engagement (and those that detract from engagement!)
  • Intentionally create an engaging environment through your words, tone of voice and body language

By understanding the emotional factors that impact engagement, managers can maximize positive engaged states of mind through their personal behaviors and actions, and shape the optimal conditions under which employees can do their best work.

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” - Maya Angelou

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.

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