Need to Engage Employees? Start with Yourself


The responsibility of full engagement does not fall solely on employees. An employee may be engaged in one organization or department and disengaged in another environment. Or, the employee may start off engaged and then slowly move into the disengaged, or transactional, category. Managers often hold the keys to whether employees are engaged or transactional because employees’ level of engagement often depends on the manager’s.

The transactional manager reduces the employer-employee relationship to a simple exchange: “I do my job. You pay me.”

The problem is revealed through the self-centered emphasis in the statement “I do my job.” Without understanding how his performance affects others, the transactional manager goes through the motions, doing what is minimally required to collect the paycheck. The transactional manager is territorial, reminding everyone what his job is and, more important, what it isn’t. He resists accountability by throwing blame to others. He will point out others’ mistakes to make himself look better. When a transactional manager says, “I’m sorry,” he undermines the apology by adding the word “but …”

By contrast, an engaged manager is “you-focused.” He will speak and act in ways that suggest employees’ success or failure is his success or failure. It’s the way a lawyer represents her client as if the lawyer’s freedom is on the line or the way a financial advisor gives advice as if his money is at risk.

Engaged managers ask, “What are your goals, needs and priorities? What problems can I help solve? How can I best use my skills to help you? Where can I add value?”

If you need to move your employees from transactional to engaged, start with yourself. Five keys separate an engaged manager from a transactional one.

Steps to Engagement

Why, not how. Transactional managers tell employees what to do and how to do it. Engaged managers focus on why and trust employees with what needs to be done and how to do it. Engaged managers create a big-picture context for work responsibilities. They convey why the employee’s work is important to the company. When that message is received, the employee believes and performs as if the work is worth more than a paycheck. It becomes a mission rather than a job.

Open information flow. Many managers take a transactional approach to providing information, taking the attitude “I’ll tell them what they need to know when they need to know it.” Translation for employees? “Our manager tells us the minimum amount of information necessary because he doesn’t trust us.”

Transactional managers usually don’t seek information from employees, either. In both directions, information flows in a trickle.

Engaged managers know that an open information flow helps employees do their jobs effectively and adds to their sense of belonging. And, engaged managers use information from employees to inform how they do their jobs.

When appropriate, engaged managers use a consultative decision-making approach. The manager asks the employee what he or she would do. If the recommendation is adopted, the manager gives credit. If not, the manager explains why and thanks the employee for the suggestion. “Although you suggested ‘A,’ I’m going with ‘B’ because …. However, your idea was helpful in my thinking.”

Direct recognition. Transactional managers are I-centered. Common sentiments include “My bosses never praised me, so why should I praise my employees? I knew I was doing my job well because I still had one. Your recognition is your paycheck.”

Engaged managers have wisely learned that giving direct recognition of a behavior worth repeating tends to increase the likelihood of such behavior.

Direct recognition is when the supervisor communicates directly to the employee, pointing out a behavior, acknowledging its value and thanking the employee.

Forward-focused. Engaged managers look forward. Instead of looking at who’s to blame, they ask what can be learned from mistakes and how to improve.

Engaged managers give “forward feedback.” They use the past as a springboard. These coaches dispense advice to maximize opportunities for employees.

Discipline and discharge. Transactional managers deal with transactional employees in a vacuum, not comprehending how their behavior affects overall productivity. The truth is, your workforce will never meet its engaged potential unless you’re willing to get rid of your transactional employees.

It comes down to the right fit. If you follow the first four keys and the employee is still mired in transactional behavior, he is miserable. Termination is not so much a “firing” as mutual recognition that the employer and employee will be better off once the latter transitions to employment that better suits him.


Practicing the keys of engagement will turn you into an engaged manager of an engaged workforce. Engaged employees will become more highly engaged under your transformation. Transactional employees willing to transform will move into the engaged category. The rest will either transition to employment better suited for them or drag down someone else’s workforce.

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