Why Top-level Leaders Should Engage with the Rank and File

Organizations succeed or fail on the strength of their people. And the best way to meet or even exceed their targets is by somehow maximizing the performance and abilities of each individual.

In the ideal scenario, employees don’t just show up at work to do their jobs. They identify with their role and the organization as a whole. They feel aligned with its values and purpose, deriving meaning from what they do. Ultimately, they become fully invested in their work, are more likely to be retained, and serve as advocates for the entire operation.

Modern management and human resource experts call this employee engagement. And it’s related to satisfaction, but with a crucial difference. The satisfied employee has a passive relationship with their job; they do what’s necessary, but won’t go the extra mile. The engaged employee will put in that discretionary effort. It makes them immensely valuable to any company.

The role of leadership

Leaders play a critical role in driving employee engagement. To be specific, there are many factors involved, and even top-level management can control not all of them. The nature of the work itself, for instance, might not be in line with what a particular individual feels is meaningful to their lives.

But leaders can directly inspire people by setting an example, mentoring for further development, and giving recognition to deserving employees. And they are in a position to exert considerable influence on other factors that increase engagement.

In a leadership position, for instance, you can encourage your team to speak up and be more assertive. They can feel empowered to share their ideas. With the right guidance, you can create an environment where people communicate openly and with respect.

Where exceptionalism falls short

However, many leaders can stumble when it comes to the execution of these goals. And the problem often stems from a bad leadership foundation.

The typical leadership strategy is premised on being perceived as someone exceptional. If you would lead, the logic goes, you need to hold yourself to a higher standard.

Act like a leader even when you aren’t one yet. Show that you’re cut from a different cloth. Demonstrate initiative and adopt behaviors that people typically associate with leaders. Do these things, and people will look up to you. They are more likely to follow you once you’ve reached a position of leadership.

While doing those things might get you noticed by your boss, the evidence doesn’t show that it translates to effective leadership. On the contrary, would-be leaders who follow the path of exceptionalism might be shooting themselves in the foot by losing their ability to motivate followers.

Be a follower

Business team

A study done by Harvard Business Review among Royal Marine recruits shows that perceptions of effective leadership are highly dependent on the evaluator’s perspective. Those outside a group judge potential leaders based on generic, idealized leadership attributes. But those within a group are able to recognize who among their fellows actually has the best ability to influence people.

If you take someone who supposedly has the attributes needed but cannot build relationships with the people they must lead, they will fail to drive engagement. On the other hand, evaluators from within choose to promote a leader they can identify with. They are perfectly suited to hit the ground running.

The takeaway, as the saying goes, is that good leaders really must learn to follow. You have to be seen as ‘one of us’ by your employees. That will assure them that if they go the extra mile, it will truly serve the interests of the group.

Feeding back to the organization

Thus, influential leaders can leverage followership to engage their people. It doesn’t mean that you should actually live as one of the team and carry out the same tasks, though.

In practice, this resembles what SMRT CEO Neo Kian Hong, a former military man himself, does in charge of the country’s world-class metro transit system. Making a point to visit staff in the tunnels 2-3 times a week, even those working at night, isn’t just for visibility. It gives him a feel for what those on the ground are dealing with, and offers a top-level executive insight into problems on the ground.

Driving engagement is a worthy goal in and of itself. But by becoming the sort of leader that inspires followership and effectively engages with people, you’re also able to see things from their point of view. And moving forward, that insight will lead to improvements in overall organizational health.

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