Having Issues With Employee Engagement? It Could Be Personal

Finding ways to keep employees motivated and engaged in their work is a central feature of the leadership role.

Employee Engagement

Illustration via Weronika Mikulska

Finding ways to keep employees motivated and engaged in their work is a central feature of the leadership role. Oftentimes, when we look for factors that can enhance employee engagement, we consider things like incentives or socialization initiatives. 

While these factors are undoubtedly important, your employees’ work engagement is also affected by how you engage with them interpersonally, including the factors that determine the quality of those exchanges. 

Since much of your time as a leader is spent interacting with your employees, you want to be sure these exchanges are helping, rather than hindering, your employees’ motivation and engagement at work. Below are a few suggestions for getting the most out of these interactions.

Build a close (but not too close) relationship with your employees

At first glance, it would seem that one of the best ways to engage with and motivate your employees is to nurture a strong relationship with them. And there is some truth to this. Establishing high-quality relationships with employees can not only foster a sense of mutual trust and respect, but it can instill in them a sense of reciprocal obligation to go above and beyond for the benefit of the company. 

But before you go and invite your employees to your next BBQ, it’s important to be aware of the potential dark-side of developing strong relationships with your employees. Research shows that getting too close to employees can actually harm their well-being and motivation at work.

But before you go and invite your employees to your next BBQ, it’s important to be aware of the potential dark-side of developing strong relationships with your employees.

One study, for example, found that very high levels of relationship quality between a leader and his/her employees were associated with greater stress levels for these members, possibly because employees felt burdened by the increased obligations toward the leader.

Likewise, in my own research, my colleagues and I discovered that although establishing a good relationship with employees can be a great way to increase their willingness to voice their suggestions for improving the work environment. Leaders who develop too close of a relationship with their employees can actually decrease these members’ willingness to speak up about such issues. 

Use effective interpersonal strategies in your leadership style

In addition to nurturing a good relationship with your employees, you can also enhance their engagement by employing effective interpersonal strategies, such as humor. Leader humor is an important interpersonal resource capable of motivating followers to go above and beyond at work. Using humor in your leadership style can help break the ice and strengthen the bonds between you and your subordinates. 

However, as with most things, it is important to exercise moderation in your use of humor. One study, for example, suggests that employees may interpret their leader’s use of humor as an implicit signal that it’s okay to occasionally break the rules, leading to unproductive or dysfunctional behaviors at work.

So while cracking jokes once and a while may help with employee motivation, just be sure it’s motivating the right kind of behavior. 

Practice self-care

In addition to the specific interpersonal strategies you deploy, enhancing employee engagement also requires an understanding of those factors that may be affecting the quality of these interactions. 

While there are multiple ways to become more interpersonally effective with your employees, one way that is both relatively simple and under your direct control is to take better care of yourself.

With the various responsibilities and obligations that come with the leadership role, it can be easy to neglect your own well-being. And while you might think that neglecting self-care is only harming yourself, it can also be detrimental to your employees’ engagement and productivity.

For example, research suggests that something as ostensibly benign as poor sleep quality can affect leaders’ self-control at work, making them more likely to lose their temper and become abusive with their employees. Such destructive leader behavior has profound effects on employees’ well-being, as well as their engagement and productivity at work. So if you want to ensure that your employees remain motivated and engaged, remember to take care of yourself and maybe think about hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock once in a while.

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