How authentic leadership can improve employee engagement

Good management is hard to teach, but making sure bosses are their true selves at work is key to building trust among teams, says Minter Dial

If employee engagement was an issue before the global pandemic struck, there is every indication that the nature of engagement is undergoing a significant change and will become an even bigger challenge post pandemic. 

On the one hand, there will be a tremendous shake-up and fallout because of the burgeoning economic crisis that many countries – and companies – will face. This will bring about a surge in unemployment and accompanying hardships that, in turn, will wipe away a lot of ‘nice to have’ options. On the other hand, once the pandemic subsides, there will inevitably be a shift in the way we work. This means we’ll see more remote work and, consequently, less office-bound facetime. We’re likely to see a shift in hiring practices, where candidates – who don’t need to live locally – can apply from anywhere in the world. 

Significantly, with so much down time, many people have experienced a somewhat existential crisis through this pandemic. Many are reconsidering what matters and, in turn, pondering why, where and how they are working. Continuing a trend that started (at least in the US) before the pandemic arrived, where, according to Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace survey, voluntary departures had reached 27 per cent in a year, I anticipate further churn as employees seek greater fulfilment in their professional lives. 

There will be no single or miracle solution to improve employee engagement. Every company will face their own context and circumstances, but study after study shows how poor management or a bad relationship with the boss are top reasons for employees to leave. A US-based study conducted at the end of 2019 by CareerAddict, showed that 79 per cent of respondents would leave a job because of a bad boss. Poor leadership leads to many issues when it comes to employee motivation and retention, including lower productivity, engagement and morale. Voluntary departures, especially of top talent, is costly on many levels, not least the risk that others will follow suit. 

Throwing money at the situation won’t help. In fact, a 2017 study commissioned by Ultimate Software found that 56 per cent of respondents would turn down a 10 per cent increase in pay to stay with a great boss. 

The big question then becomes how to ensure that your leadership creates an optimal culture, where employees are keen to tap into their discretionary energy to ensure the company’s long-term performance? Naturally, there are many things that are involved in improving employee engagement in addition to the great boss, but having better leadership can go a long way. 

The problem with good management, fundamentally, is that it’s hard to teach. There are skills that can be improved and protocols that can be followed. But interpersonal management is necessarily messy, just like human relationships outside work. To believe that a manager’s relationship skills are detached from real-life skills is as deluded as imagining that you can genuinely trust someone at work if you know they are unethical in their life outside work. 

This notion of trust will become ever more important, especially with the rise in remote work, which relies on trust to be successful over the long term. Just as humans are less trusting of a perfect score (ie a 5-star rating on Amazon versus a 4.5-star rating), one of the keys to building trust is closing the gap between what you say and what you do. The same goes for what you show and how you feel. No one is really fooled when your audio and video, as leadership expert Robin Sharma calls it, don’t align. 

There are three important factors to be your true authentic self at work:

  • First, you must spend the time to know better who you are, in full recognition of the fact that you will always be partially inaccurate. It sounds easy but very few even get close to understanding themselves deeply. Do you have a strong and precise vision of who you will be in 20 years’ time? 
  • Be more personal at work. This can involve at a minimum sharing stories about yourself outside work. Importantly, carve out the time to listen to your colleagues to get to know them better. 
  • Openly admit your weaknesses and/or vulnerabilities. 

Of these steps, the hardest one for me is the last. I recall the first time I cried while making a public speech at a press launch. The tears turned into sobs and I felt like shrivelling up and disappearing. The audience indulged me and clapped, which allowed me to compose myself. I apologised multiple times and wanted to run off at the end of speech. But to the contrary, many came up to me at the end and warmly shook my hand or hugged me, saying ‘thank you for sharing’ and ‘I was really touched’. I realised that, far from thinking less of me, some people appreciated my story and connected with me in a very different manner than had I just kept on with the prepared material. Not that I ever plan to show such emotions in public, but the reality is that, by being true to myself at that moment, I let go of control and, as a result, the audience let me in to their confidence.

Minter Dial is a strategist, brand expert and author of You Lead