Engaged employees apply their total self (physical, emotional, mental) to their roles. They are creative, innovative, and go the extra mile in executing their assigned tasks. Engaged employees recover quickly when their companies go through challenging times; they provide competitive advantage to organisations. Engaged employees are valuable in a pandemic where uncertainty is a norm because they help organisations to keep afloat in the short-term and to work towards long-term recovery. However, the challenge is that before the pandemic, employee engagement was low across the world. Depending on the source of information, the level is put between 35% and 50%. Unless something is done differently, this is likely to decline. What are the drivers of employee engagement in a pandemic? The answer is the essence of this article.
Studies have shown that employee engagement elicits positive emotions from employees and thrives in a work climate that favours communication; growth and development; recognition and appreciation; and trust. A work climate is the outcome of leadership behaviour; hence, the foundational driver of employee engagement is leadership behaviour. With declining revenue owing to the global crisis, a leader cannot leverage the hard aspects of these drivers – growth and development – and the hard aspects of recognition and reward based on monetary incentives. Consequently, the article will discuss how the leader can use soft drivers such as leadership behaviour, communication, trust, and eliciting positive emotions to drive employee engagement.
Leadership behaviour is the surface aspect of leadership that is apparent in an organisation. For example, one can identify autocratic and authentic leaders by their different patterns of behaviour. It is generally believed that under certain conditions, an authentic leader creates a positive work climate that will engage employees more than an autocratic leader. However, rather than focus on the surface aspect, it is better to examine the underlying causes of leadership behaviour which unfortunately cannot be noticed on the surface. This is the understanding of leadership or what some people call motive for leadership. There are two motives for leadership; it can be a source of status or a process of service. When leadership is motivated by status, followers are made to serve the leader. The environment created will be toxic and will never engage the employees. However, when leadership is understood as a process of service, the leader creates an environment that values employees and helps them to be the best they can be. Such a leader will exhibit the positive leadership behaviour that creates a positive work climate. Fortunately, leadership motive is not hereditary but can be changed through a deep desire to question the purpose of leadership and its effects on relationships.
In this period of uncertainty and fear, a manager’s leadership motive is reflected in how they communicate, create an environment of trust, and empathise with employees. A leader whose motive is to acquire status will leave employees to care for themselves and will take decisions to enhance organisational survival without regard for employees’ survival. A service motive will work to understand and relate with what employees are passing through and would do what is possible to help them work through the challenges. Empathy is a major tool of such leader.
In a survey of 1,090 people during a recent panel discussion, 28% reported that their salaries were reduced in the period of lockdown, 64% said that there was no communication between them and their organisation before the reduction, while 40% stated that the reduction affected their perception of their organisation. The problem is not the reduction because employees know that the organisation is facing hard times that require some level of adjustment. The first problem is that most of the respondents had no communication between them and their organisations before the salary cut. This action demonstrates that many organisations are yet to recognise that communication is critical in getting employees to understand organisational challenges in this new reality. Engaged employees want to be heard in matters concerning the organisation and their wellbeing. The second report from the discussion was that the lack of communication and subsequent reduction in salary affected the employees’ perception of their organisation. Engaged employees want to advance the reputation of their organisations but cannot do this when they have a negative perception of the organisation.
Communication builds a partnership between employees and their leaders. Partnership makes the organisational actors see individual challenges as a common challenge that requires joint action. Partnership is enhanced when the communication is 2-way, authentic, optimistic, and filled with empathy. When communication is 2-way, it allows for each party to voice their concerns and empathy ensures they are heard, understood, and appreciated. For example, imagine that before the salary reduction, the leaders discussed the challenges that necessitated the reduction with employees, and both listened with empathy. If the communication is authentic and optimistic, the result would be a joint understanding of the situation and acceptance of an action plan needed to sustain the organisation in the short-term and position it for survival in the long-term. Engaged employees study and understand the time in which they live. They recognise volatile environments and know that drastic actions are required to survive now and position organisations for future survival. They want to be part of the journey of the organisation now and in the future. The level of communication between them and their leaders gives an indication of how they are valued, and in turn, affects their level of engagement.
Trust is built and earned. It can neither be demanded nor legislated. It does not arise from the authority the leader has. Trust is an individual’s desire to be vulnerable to the leader. It is a decision an individual makes consciously; it depends on the perception of the quality of the past, present, and future relationship between the employee and his/her leader. In a crisis, trust is enhanced by the level of interest organisational participants show in the emotional challenge and other challenges of another organisational participant. For example, the organisation is uncertain and fearful about its present and future survival while employees are afraid of the health implications of COVID-19 and are uncertain about their current and future cash flow arising from the payment of their salary. Trust is built when both parties communicate honestly about each other’s challenges, and there is genuine care and desire to work together to create an acceptable path to survival. Trust does not depend on finding the best solution for each party but agreeing on a solution that is mutually satisfactory and allows for sacrifice from each party. Because trust also depends on the quality of past relationships, leaders whose relationship with employees in the past is poor will find building trust much more challenging, but not impossible. Engagement is enhanced when already engaged employees can offer their total self to the organisation, and trust that their leaders would not take advantage of them by refusing to do what is good for them.
Eliciting Positive Emotions from Employees
The emotional climate in organisations is the result of the leader’s emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand their emotions and how they affect employees. They manage their emotions in ways that ensure that they do not affect the employees negatively. They are aware of the happenings in their social environment and use such awareness to design a mode of interaction that allows for a productive relationship between them and their employees. For example, emotionally intelligent leaders understand how emotionally depressing the COVID-19 situation can be for them and employees. They know that over-emphasizing on how they are affected emotionally while disregarding that of employees will not create a positive work environment. Such leaders can manage their emotions and recognise that of employees in such a way as to elicit positive emotion from employees. Emotionally intelligent leaders communicate authentically by telling the truth about the situation of the organisation and recognising what the employees are going through. The leader is not conservative with the truth. This would give a false impression of the severity of the situation and the need for action. While being authentic, such a leader does not lose hope that the future though uncertain, can be made remarkably interesting. The leader gives an optimistic view of the future, even when the uncertainty is recognised. In this way, the leader creates a positive emotional climate which elicits positive emotions of ‘can do it now and in the future’ from employees. Apart from organising seminars to help enhance emotional intelligence, pattern analysis can help in identifying emotions and reflecting on how to manage them for a productive relationship.
Organisations may not have the resources to enhance employee engagement with the hard factors of the drivers because of the reduction in revenue and poor cash flow. They can, however, leverage the soft factors which are based on the climate created by leadership behaviour. This is the time when leaders should question their motive for leadership, especially for those that have had a continuous past poor relationship with their employees. While organisations are using the COVID-19 situation to examine their strategy, business models and processes, it is also worthwhile for leaders to question their understanding of leadership. This is the only way to enhance leadership behaviour and create a positive work climate that will improve and sustain employee engagement.