The Gatehouse Blog

Engagement through CEO eyes

A new report conducted by Ashridge Business School on behalf of Engage for Success explores the reasons that prevent leaders from ‘engaging with employee engagement’.

Although there is a widespread belief that senior leaders play a crucial part in driving employee engagement, there is little research on how they actually define engagement and what prevents them from driving engagement more actively.

Based on 16 interviews with CEOs from public, private and not-for-profit organisations, the report published by Ashridge Business School and Engage for Success reveals that CEOs see engagement as encompassing dialogue and strategic narrative within their organisations which, they believe, creates emotional connection and purpose among employees.

Three barriers to engagement emerge from the report, which are often interrelated.

Leadership capability viewed

CEOs admit that being an engaging leader requires a set of skills, such as the ability to forge deep trusting relationships at work, leading with emotion and authenticity and operating with a genuine openness. Some of the leaders interviewed said they thought that engaging with employees could open up Pandora’s Box, leading to dissenting voices within the organisation where they themselves could be criticised. A CEO said: “I wish I knew how everybody views me, but I don’t really want to know in case it’s not good.”

Others talked about the difficulty to project confidence while at the same time being able to admit they do not have all the answers. On a similar note, some respondents recognised that it felt ‘two-faced’ when trust and openness were counterbalanced by potential bad news, such as restructuring, pay-freezes or redundancies. One respondent noted: “I do think that by not engaging with staff, it makes it easier for you to be less humane as a leader.”

Many also admitted that engagement requires a certain level of self-awareness which is difficult to reach as they’re never given true feedback about themselves. As one CEO said: “Turning the mirror on yourself is very difficult. As a human being, I think we are masters at getting ourselves off the hook.”

The leaders themselves

CEOs also recognised themselves as a potential barrier to engagement. More than their capability, their personality and values emerged as the central theme of this type of barrier. Here, some CEOs talked about being inherently shy, lacking self-confidence or being more comfortable with managing the numbers than forging personal relationships… and recognised that it takes a deeply confident leader to empower and engage. “I was worried about being ambushed… that honest attempts at engagement would take me to places that I hadn’t thought about. I think letting go of control is something leaders sometimes have difficulty with.” In this regard, some CEOs argued that unconfident leaders command and control while self-confident leaders learn and let go.

Some of the leaders interviewed talked about their difficulty to show vulnerability. Admitting they don’t know, or that they don’t have all the answers would require a shift in mindset, particularly in terms of how they view themselves and their role. “Instead of seeing yourself as the all-powerful, all-knowing leader who is then going to tell everyone in the organisation what to do, you have to admit that you can provide the environment for success but will never know as well as somebody four levels down what precise issues are facing our customers.”

Culture, system and organisational hierarchies

Many of the respondents talked about the culture within which companies operate in the UK, saying that current leadership models value attributes such as order, control, toughness and technical expertise – generating a ‘command and control’ style of management.

In some way, this prevailing idea of good leadership is so entrenched that experimental ways of leading are discouraged. Others described the British corporate culture as short-term and numeric-focus, where they are under pressure to drive the results of the business in a very systematic, ordered way. “It’s much easier for a CEO to be seen as a good CEO if it’s measurable, like how much did they increase the turnover?

In this culture, the focus on results renders invisible the processes of engagement. As one of the respondents puts it: “How do you count creativity, and the spirit of the organisation which gives rise to technical outcomes? It comes down to how you measure the cause. So we applaud the effect, but don’t necessarily understand the interventions that drive the cause.”

The current economic crisis is also being used as an excuse for poor leadership behaviours, whether because of the exclusive focus on viability and survival or due to the fact that the situation is at the employer’s advantage, which leads to disengaging leadership behaviours. Hierarchy was also frequently identified as a barrier as it creates a division which prevents honest conversations from talking place and leads employees to ‘roll out the red carpet’.

Again, some leaders recognised that they may perpetuate hierarchy by using it for protection. As a leader said, “You don’t want to lose the authority that goes with your role.”

Engage for Success is a movement on engagement sponsored by the KU government and committed to the idea that there is a better way to work, a better way to enable personal growth, organisational growth and ultimately growth for Britain by releasing more of the capability and potential of people at work.