"The strengths-based approach forces a candidate to focus on their core abilities. " Robinson

The Institute for Employment Studies is carrying out new research into the behaviours of ‘engaging managers’ – by which we mean managers whose leadership skills motivate and energise their teams into performing well. The research is being funded by IES’s membership HR Network and there are seven participating organisations: Centrica, Sainsbury’s, Rolls-Royce, Corus, ACCA, HM Revenue and Customs, and the London Borough of Merton. When we first scoped our research, there were a few worrying signs that the economy was starting to wobble. As we have progressed, things have become much worse and some of our participating companies have had to face hard decisions.

What we are trying to uncover are the behaviours of engaging managers. Can these behaviours be learnt? Is engaging behaviour context dependent, or can an engaging manager motivate others successfully regardless of setting or job? Are engaging managers all alike, or do they come in all sorts of guises? Do they share anything in common by way of background or career progression? To get to the bottom of these questions, we asked our participating organisations to nominate a small number of managers whose teams scored highly for organisational engagement in the latest employee survey. We interviewed these ‘engaging managers’ (25 altogether across the seven organisations) and also interviewed their managers. Finally, we facilitated a focus group with their teams. Our research is now completed and we are in the middle of analysing a very large amount of qualitative data – including some very entertaining pictorial representations of managers, drawn by team members (according to these, engaging managers can be angels, devils, suns, stars – even bottles of wine or boxes of chocolates)!

Our interim findings suggest that there is no ‘one model’ of an engaging manager, although they do share some common characteristics and behaviours:
– empathetic and understand their team – who needs help and when, who can be left to get on with things
– supportive
– genuinely approachable, even when under pressure themselves
– generous with time, recognition and praise
– developmental – they want people to get on, and are good coaches
– willing to tackle problems such as poor performance and breaking bad news
– very visible
– lead by example
– pitch in to help if necessary.

The jobs they do, and their career paths and experiences of training and development (both formal and informal) vary hugely. Interestingly, very few have role models. Instead, they have mostly learnt about engaging behaviours by observing themselves and others – the good and the bad. Most engaging managers (and their managers) feel that engaging behaviours can be learnt, although some will find it easier than others. Some managers in our sample find that being engaging does not come naturally to them, and have had to learn by trial and error. Opinions vary about context: some think their skills are completely portable, others for similar jobs only, a few for their existing role only.

So, are engaging managers all alike? Not at all. Some are bouncy and outgoing, enthusing their teams with their energy and enthusiasm: ‘He’s like a whirlwind!’ Some are thoughtful, modest and steady, endearing themselves to their teams by their generosity and willingness to learn from mistakes: ‘He stays calm, it’s reassuring.’ Then there are the shy, retiring types who are nevertheless brave, loyal and honest. Typically, they are hard on themselves: ‘I make mistakes constantly – I expect a lot of myself.’ Others are motherly types who nurture and look after their teams very effectively: ‘She supports us and stands up for us. She’s persuasive – although she can be scary and shouts if necessary!’ Finally, there are engaging managers who are child-like in their approach to the world, in that they are open, fascinated by new ideas, and have the ability to see the world clearly, without preconceptions or distractions: ‘He gets to the heart of things and thinks out of the box.’

Employee Engagement Summit

Click image for details of seminar

Equally interesting, to us, were the perceptions of disengaging behaviours. The people we spoke to had no difficulty in constructing long lists of these! One type of disengaging manager is pessimistic, seeing everything as a problem, and prone to blaming others for misfortune: ‘Energy levels drop in the room when they come in.’ Another is the micro-manager, who is fussy, officious and unable to delegate: ‘He can’t step back – his objectives are like a task list.’ Finally, there is the manager with a superiority complex, who is hierarchical and self-important, with little confidence in the abilities of the team: ‘He talks in flowery language, even Latin sometimes, it’s not accessible.’

Is a focus on engaging managerial behaviour a luxury in these challenging times? Might a return to ‘command and control’ management be more appropriate? Our research suggests not. Engaging managers are skilled in breaking bad news and tackling problems, and do this is in a way that inspires loyalty in their teams. They are able to motivate their employees, even when things look bleak, to give their best. Engaging managers may well be what we need to help us out of economic recession.

Over the course of the year, we will be publishing our research and plan to follow up the research report with a series of short ‘Engaging Manager’ publications that will be directly relevant to managers and HR professionals.

By Dilys Robinson, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies