Why leadership development is crucial for employee engagement

Employee engagement is about people. So is leadership development. Growing leaders is a long-term journey that companies have to take to ensure their sustainability.

This journey, however, will only be successful if it teaches managers how to interact with employees, keep them engaged and make sure that they have everything they need in order to get the job done.

Managers – the missing link in employee engagement

In a study conducted by Aon Hewitt, on a database of approximately 25 000 middle managers, one in four managers stated that they believe nothing will change and no action will be taken after an employee engagement survey. This answer came as a shock to many HR consultants who had been confident of the rise of employee engagement.

Companies seemed to grasp the concept of having employees engaged in their work and embrace the responsibility of creating a 21st century workplace. But it seems that managers may have a different opinion on the matter.

They’ve been referred to as “the missing link in employee engagement”. Not because they don’t want to be a part of this equation, but because they don’t fully understand their role in it. And here’s why:

  • Managers are the ones who interact the most with employees, not the HR manager, not that pricy consultancy firm;
  • In order to engage employees, managers need to understand what and engagement strategy is and how it translates into everyday actions;
  • Moreover, they need to see the direct relation between employee engagement efforts and business results;
  • Managers themselves have to be engaged, before engaging their teams;
  • They need to be prepared to be “the link” in employee engagement.

As an experienced manager, these all seem like common sense action points, but when you were an aspiring manager or even a new one, they weren’t implied. It didn’t come easy to understand the relationship between engaging employees and driving business objectives.

Putting ‘employee engagement’ in ‘leadership development ‘

Respondents to the Global Human Capital Trends 2014 Survey have cited leadership as their most urgent issue, across all geographies. The second most urgent issue cited was engagement and retention. The two issues are strongly connected. Leaders across all levels are directly responsible for the employee engagement levels in their organization.

But leadership development programs often focus on classroom trainings, theoretical information and hypothetical scenarios that fail to provide a valuable understanding of the external environment.

In order for managers to learn what employee engagement is and how it works, they need to interact with employees. Even before they are made managers, their leadership development preparation should begin by observing and working in teams.

Experiential leadership development or transitional leadership development gives managers the opportunity to learn and practice skills while actually interacting with their teams. There is no such thing as leadership in a vacuum. Although theoretical knowledge and theory-based programs are a great starting point in shaping leaders, real development moves people beyond their comfort zones.

Through experiential leadership development, managers can better understand what employee engagement is, how it works and, most importantly, what their role is.

“Managers can help ensure that people are happily engaged at work. Doing so isn’t expensive. Workers’ well-being depends, in large part, on managers’ ability and willingness to facilitate workers’ accomplishments — by removing obstacles, providing help and acknowledging strong effort.”

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, Do Happier People Work Harder?

The role of HR

The HR function is here to connect leadership development with employee engagement. When designing a leadership development program, HR managers have to be aware of the necessity of taking managers through a journey of understanding.

Ideally, an employee engagement strategy should be designed by the HR manager in collaboration with team managers, at all levels. It’s important that when it comes to engaging and retaining employees, everyone is on the same page. Being inherently cross-functional, the HR function has a high degree of authority in terms of setting the management style of a company.

If it is to succeed, your employee engagement strategy has to be internalized by managers, because they will be the ones who will be implementing most of it and also they are the ones responsible with measuring its success.


By entrenching leadership development in real work, you can help managers develop interpersonal skills that will enable them to understand and increase employee engagement.

With the strategic help of your HR function, support managers in building a measurable employee engagement that will assist their management style and focus on increasing business performance and retaining talent at the same time.

Image credit: PopTech under C.C.2.0