A Close Look at What CEOs Really Think About Employee Engagement

Have you ever wondered what your CEO really thinks about employee engagement?

Many of us have, and new research from the UK’s Ashridge Business School provides some answers.

The study found CEOs had a pretty good idea of what employee engagement is and what it could do for their organizations. They view engagement as a strategic narrative (and ongoing dialogue) within their organizations that creates emotional connections and purpose for employees. Their view of the end result is a culture where people choose to give the very best of themselves at work.

CEOs have the definition and outcome of engagement nailed, but when asked what stops them from getting more involved with engagement, three distinct and very personal barriers emerged.

1. Leadership capability

The first barrier relates to shortcomings in leadership skills and behaviors that are counter to building engagement. CEOs believe engagement takes a particular set of competencies, like the ability to forge deep trusting relationships at work, leading with emotion and authenticity, and operating with a genuine openness and honesty.

Yet some of the leaders were wary of behaving this way, believing it would lead to dissenting opinions and personal criticism. They agreed they need to be deeply self-aware, but admitted to difficulties reaching true self-awareness if conversations and feedback in their organizations don’t stem from a place of honesty and deep mutual trust.

2. Leadership attributes

Secondly, CEOs recognized themselves as a potential barrier to engagement. They’re cognizant of the fact that some attributes of a leader’s personality can lead to traits or behaviors that could disengage employees. These include being too proud, acting in self-interest, or an inability to show personal vulnerability.

CEOs admitted that insecure leaders tend to utilize a command and control approach, while self-confident leaders have learned to let go and share responsibility and decision-making more broadly.

3. Culture and systems

Finally, CEOs acknowledged organizational cultures, systems, and hierarchies can be an engagement road block.

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Hierarchy creates physical and psychological barriers between staff and management which prevent honest conversations from taking place, and CEOs are especially susceptible to this barrier. Trying to find the proper balance of driving short-term business results and longer-term engagement initiatives are also challenges in a capitalist system which rewards CEOs for delivering short-term financial objectives.

Properly understanding and acknowledging a problem accelerates our ability to discover the solution. Will CEOs’ awareness of their own barriers to more effectively embrace and support employee engagement initiatives hasten their ability to turn their road blocks into stepping stones?

What CEOs need to do

It remains to be seen, but in most cases, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle once you’ve acknowledged its existence.

It’s great to hear directly from CEOs, but giving voice to their concerns is only the first step. CEOs now need to step up, work at overcoming these barriers, and invest in what’s important to their employees and the long-term benefit of their organizations.

They alone have the power to make these changes, and they need to trust that in doing so, their employees will be more willing — and better equipped — to deliver the short and long-term results that will create an engaged and successful organization.

This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry and to the Employee Engagement Power 100 list, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished international speaker, author, and strategist on performance improvement. A respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Michelle speaks and writes about what she knows first-hand – as a former executive of a Fortune 100 global conglomerate, and as a researcher and strategist. She passionately shares new insights and tools for leaders to confidently, effectively and strategically lead their organizations to success.

Michelle is the Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University and President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association. Michelle was the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine, and has been featured on Fox Television, the BBC, in Fortune, Business Week, Inc. and other global publications, and contributed to the books Bull Market by Seth Godin, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, and Social Media Isn’t Social.   

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelle-m-smith-cpim-crp



14 Comments on “A Close Look at What CEOs Really Think About Employee Engagement

  1. Thank you for this wonderfully crafted article, Michelle! I am an organizational effectiveness consultant for Fortune 500 companies and run into these core issues every day. Your article sparked some new ideas for me around how to approach leaders in the C Suite slightly differently when it comes to this subject. And it couldn’t have come at a better time because I’m meetin with a Chief Human Resources Officer today!

    With gratitude,
    Mary Francis
    San Francisco

    1. You’re very welcome, Mary. Leadership best practices are changing
      rapidly! You might also be interested in
      a related post of mine from July 31st entitled ‘What We Really Need
      From Employees – and Leaders – in the Future.’ It may provide additional material for your meeting today.

  2. CEOs feel responsible for keeping an entire company afloat; it makes sense that that level of responsibility could cause a leader to freeze up and be overly responsible for making decisions for the company. Command and control has gotten them this far, how to convince them that the addition of another approach will get them where they want to go?

    I wonder how much CEOs believe in the link between Employee Engagement and bottom-line results.

    1. I agree Cherie, that we still have a long way to go to get all CEOs to fully and enthusiastically embrace employee engagement and a more collaborative organizational structure. However, CEOs are seeing the light – in the research “CEOs admitted that insecure leaders tend to utilize a command and control approach, while self-confident leaders have learned to let go and share responsibility and decision-making more broadly.” I believe they’re beginning to see that command and control is becoming less effective in many situations and there is another way that’s getting better results. CEOs do have enormous responsibilities, and we have to help them be more communicative and to try new things with data, examples and encouragement.

  3. Hello Michelle,

    If CEOs value employee engagement, then why is it so hard to achieve?

    “The first barrier relates to shortcomings in leadership skills and behaviors that are counter to building engagement.”

    I agree, supervisors are promoted to managers who are promoted to executive positions from which CEOs are selected.

    When do future CEOs get screened for the behaviors needed by successful CEOs?

    1. Hallelujah Robert! We DO need to start holding CEOs accountable for being well-rounded leaders that can – and do – appreciate ALL the factors that create a successful organization, and that means the employees in that company!! I believe that if we keep raising the question, sharing the data, and challenging Boards of Directors to address this issue too, ultimately we’ll be victorious in winning the CEOs over, but it will take a concentrated and continuous effort on our parts. Will you join me in the effort to help create better leaders?

      1. Hello Michelle, thanks. CEOs never see themselves as the reason for their own failures. The best we can do is show them how to hire successful employees to minimize the failures of their direct reports and others.

        1. Robert, I’m hopeful that the admissions the CEOs made in this study are early signs that their awareness is increasing and they are (finally!) beginning to see employee engagement as a real opportunity for their organizations and that their own personal barriers must be overcome. It’s baby steps admittedly, but forwad progress none the less, and we need to keep the pressure on so they continue to progress.

  4. In our 12,000 ours of research, over 2 years locked up with 40 high performing companies, the CEO is important, but not the most critical leader in the company. Albeit, they set the tone, but not as pivotal to the success as we all might think. It’s the 2nd and 3rd tier level leadership teams. They drive business outcomes and in most cases drive culture and employee engagement. Being a CEO is like sitting on top of a 200 foot Sequoia tree. When you look down, all you see are green branches. The problem is that at the ground level there may be people with chain saws ready to cut you down. As a CEO, you just can’t see that. You depend on those 2nd and 3rd tier level leadership teams who can see what’s on the ground to help you understand what’s really happening. I am sure we have all asked this question “if I know this, why does my CEO not know it?” The reason: because his/her leadership team is filtering the information that gets to him/her. That’s why they have a team – to get stuff done. As a CEO you can’t do everything. You have to bring in the right teams and give them the freedom to execute. Or else, you have now have a dictator. Who sets the tone for culture? The CEO. However, it’s not his/her job to physically make that pervasive. And if you have ever worked for a multi-geographically disbursed company with leaders in multiple cities, you will see that the culture from one office to the next differs – sometimes dramatically. You might term this sub-cultures of the main culture. And unfortunately, because the CEO is looking at green branches below him/her, they can’t see the bad subcultures, etc.

    1. Michael,
      You make an excellent point and I agree those 2nd and 3rd tier leaders play a critical role too. It’s still the CEO’s ultimate responsibility to lead by example and make sure other leaders understand that they are NOT to filter information or shield the CEO from valuable information.

      More over, to use your example, CEOs need to regularly climb down from the tree top to see for themselves what’s happening throughout the tree and to fix the problems they discover. ALL leaders should be focused on this at all times, but the CEO’s priority is to insure that the tree is as strong as possible financially, operationally and culturally, and they can’t ever abdicate that responsibility.

  5. Excellent study, similar here in the U.S….and even when CEOs are open to changing, most consulting models focus on problem-solving/what’s wrong….not sustainable…and just doing training does not shift the culture..that requires consultation/implementation.

    Over 30 yrs ago I pioneered appreciative change/leadership, have built a fleet of Engine and 4 Wheels Systems to establish/sustain the positive leadership culture essential for engagement and survival in the global marketplace…when leaders have strongly consistent well-designed systematric appreciative leadership approaches which are self-reinforcing, they shift quickly, enjoying the results in engagement and bottom-lines both…this takes very deep design and consulting/training/facilitation/strategy skill as well as consultants with a truly joyful appreciative heart…this is not just another training program.

    One of my early projects got a 35-40% improvement in bottom lines plus transformation, excitement and engagement of employees, who started out scared and silent…they made a fun video and gave a party to celebrate!! More systems built since then of course, updated and streamlined for much faster easier results.

    Key indicator: I have never owned anything but five-on-the-floor cars…speed!

  6. Thank you @disqus_5jg25poO61:disqus for an interesting post. The order of the three barriers is particularly telling because it holds the key to the problem.

    The CEO’s see their willingness to open up and build trusting relationships as the primary barrier. This is closely followed by their recognising that the attributes that got them to the top might not be the right ones for the top. Only then do they identify culture, systems and hierarchies as another potential block – but they invariably see these issues as outside themselves, things that exist despite their leadership.

    However, the reality in many cases is that the culture, systems and hierarchies of a company shape the people that work there, shape the leaders that rise through the ranks, shape the board decisions on executive appointments and, ultimately shape the type of CEO the company ends up with. Changing the CEO rarely changes the culture because the culture determines the choice of candidates.

    Company culture has its roots in the decisions of the founders and subsequent shareholders and board members. It reflects what those in charge – those who make the executive appointments and those who make the senior management appointments – value most. Often they value in others what they see as virtues in themselves – as such, they rarely appoint people who challenge their thinking.

    Before you can build true engagement, you have to be sure that everyone with real influence really wants it and understands that they might have to change their own ways of thinking first.

    Kind regards

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