Webinar Wrap-up: Engaging Employees from a Distance

The term “employee engagement” made its first appearance in an academic journal in 1990. Since then, the concept has evolved and transformed; while some organizations take it as a serious imperative, for others, it’s become a loose catchall term for anything from a fitness center to a foosball table.

In the midst of the current crisis, when more than half of workers in the US are working remotely, keeping employees engaged, in the truest sense, takes on increasing importance. Engagement is no longer a “nice-to-have;” – it has become essential that leaders focus clearly on how to keep their employees engaged and committed, even when many of the traditional tools to promote engagement are not at their disposal.

At MRG, we turned to our rich research database, along with our practitioners’ ample experience, to see if we could answer a few questions: what do leaders who effectively engage employees have in common? What will best engage the rising generation of leaders? And what can leaders focus on now to foster engagement in these extraordinary circumstances?

We explored our findings in the webinar Employee Engagement: Practical Approaches to Building and Sustaining Higher Levels of Performance and Commitment, presented by David Ringwood, MRG’s Head of Client Development for the EMEA region. The full webinar is available to watch on-demand here, but we’ve also summarized the highlights below, along with answers to your questions from the session.

The Behavior Profile of Effective Leaders

In a study of leaders who took the LEA 360™, leaders who rated high on effectiveness for Employee Engagement exhibited a distinct behavioral profile:

  • Empathy: this is the biggest differentiator; these leaders demonstrate sympathy, lead with compassion, and can put themselves in others’ shoes
  • Excitement: they bring energy into the room and lead with enthusiasm
  • Communication: they set clear expectations, minimizing misunderstandings
  • Strategy: they have longer term plans and have a less reactive, more considered style
  • Putting others first: these leaders are less autocratic, and more democratic

We also looked at leadership behavior through the lens of effectively managing diversity. We found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that leaders who are effective at employee engagement have a lot in common with leaders who effectively manage diversity. For an in-depth comparison, watch the webinar on demand.

What engages the rising generations?

As new generations take on a larger presence in the workplace, they will contribute inevitably to the evolution of engagement – what drives and motivates the rising leaders is inextricably linked to how we keep them engaged. To gain some insight into what drives Generations Y and Z – and what drains them – we looked at generational data from the Individual Directions Inventory™, an assessment tool that measures motivation.

Some observations about what motivates Generation Y (perhaps more widely known as Millennials):

  • Collaboration: they gain a lot of satisfaction from both giving and receiving, meaning they like to be supported, and they like supporting others
  • Predictability and structure: this is not a generation that likes surprises; they want a lot of information and clarity
  • Achievement: they have high expectations for excellence and growth
  • Getting support from others: this generation may be less comfortable with a high level of independence

Looking further ahead, what motivates Generation Z?

In general, Gen Z’s motivational profile aligns with Gen Y’s… but more so. They are even more driven by the motivations of their Gen Y peers, and even more drained by a level of independence. In addition, they exhibit a tendency to be motivated by a sense of belonging, and feeling like they are part of a community, team, or group.

Practical approaches for Gen Y and Gen Z

  1. Be inclusive. Democratic, inclusive decision making is their clear preference. They prefer to decide together and to seek input actively.
  2. Communicate clearly. Clear and ongoing flow of information is essential. Be specific and tangible, not conceptual. They really need to know the “how to.”
  3. Don’t catch them off guard. Millennials and Gen Z don’t like surprises. Last minute situations and communication can be perceived as disruptive.
  4. Give frequent feedback. Feedback to Milliennials and Gen Z is critical. Delivering it frequently – and sensitively – will help them feel respected and included.
  5. Create community. Building community and a collaborative culture will help them feel like they fit in.
  6. Use technology wisely. Digital technology and community building can work well together, but only if they are used wisely.

Employee engagement from a distance

For many workers, the current reality means that many of the more traditional methods of connecting and engaging are inaccessible. This caught many leaders off guard. In a poll during the broadcast, 50% of those in attendance said that most leaders they worked with were completely unprepared for distance leadership – and another 33% said that they were only somewhat prepared.

What does this mean – particularly for the large portion of the workforce who we’ve learned are so motivated by a sense of community and collaboration?

5 strategies for effectively engaging employees from a distance

  1. Avoid too much flexibility. What happens when employees lack firm start, break, and end times? Don’t leave the answer to chance, as it can lead to drift; set the tone by providing guidance and frequent check-ins on this topic.
  2. Meet employees’ motivational needs. Support employees’ needs for starting energy (that motivational “kick start”), sustaining energy (structure and focus), and finishing energy (defined boundaries).
  3. Provide reassurance. Set clear expectations from the outset by providing tangible instructions and objectives. And make an effort to understand each individual and their needs, assuring that they feel seen, particularly in this time of uncertainty.
  4. Don’t over-rely on technology. Yes, tech enables us to stay in near constant contact with ease. Focus on the quality of engagements, not just the small and frequent touches.
  5. Avoid unclear messages. Stay vigilant about clear communication. Emails and messages can be easy to misinterpret, and one misunderstanding can quickly gain momentum, snowballing into a larger conflict. Err on the side of excessive communication and clarity.

There is, of course, much more to say on this topic, as many of us explore and respond to remote work and remote leadership ourselves – at a level we may never have imagined. We welcome your thoughts and ideas in this area – comment below or reach out to research@mrg.com to continue the conversation.

There were a number of provocative questions, most of which we did not have time to answer on the broadcast. Read on for a Q&A with presenter David Ringwood.

Q: We see that Empathy is an important behavior for leaders who are effective in both employee engagement and managing diversity. We also learned in a prior MRG webinar that empathy is not the same as being compassionate. What is meant here?

A: In some regards I would put greater emphasis on the Empathy definition insofar as it implies a certain perspective and type of insights. It’s not just intellectually understanding people’s needs and concerns, it’s about really caring and seeing things from their point of view. The types of compassionate behaviors that can come from this can be very varied but are based on a more emotional understanding of others.

The following to questions were in reference to a study on the proportions of older workers (ages 55-64) who are projected to remain in the workforce.

Q: Why do you think the older generation is projected to decline in the workforce relative to other countries in the world?

Q: What suggests that older workers will still have a place in the workplace versus simply being replaced by younger workers? Just because they need/want to work doesn’t translate to having enough jobs to support multiple generations going forward.

A: There are likely to be many causal factors at play here. As this wasn’t MRG’s original research, it is probably best to refer you to the original study so you can fully explore its implications.

Q: Does the present crisis create potential new leadership behaviors/qualities that MRG does not currently measure (for example, resilience)?

A: MRG measures a combination of behaviors and competencies in the LEA 360™. While approaches to leadership change over time, what we see is a shift in behavioral patterns rather than a fundamental adaptation of new behaviors or the complete relinquishing of behaviors that have been around for a long time. The competencies, however, do change, and we have added new competencies to reflect newer trends and considerations in leadership (e.g. Ethical Leadership).

We have recently completed a Best Practice Report on resilience in leadership, which you can download here.

Q: If the IDI data were to cover Asia, would we see a different pattern?

A: There are regional differences in IDI data. Europe and North America are different but only in specific areas. Asia is more moderate across the board and seems quite distinct in many ways from the other regions. The full details of those variances are quite complex, but please contact clientservices@mrg.com if you would like more details.

Q: How does an HR rep. influence all those groups (diversities, generations) when leaders are themselves from different groups of diversity and/or generations? How do we make sure it’s sustainable and fits the company culture?

A: I think that’s a matter of judgment and can only be looked at relative to a specific context. In the same way that there is no right/wrong way to lead, it is hard to generalize about such questions without taking into consideration the specific culture of an organization and the expectations that it implies of its leaders.

Q: The COVID crisis did not exist when the leaders completed LEA in your study. Can you predict whether the same Leadership Practices would lead to effectiveness in engaging employees remotely?

A: We don’t have any research as yet based on what has changed since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is still very recent and we would need enough time both to gather those data and to analyze same relative to prior trends.

The second reason is that we are gathering less data now as far fewer people are actually doing assessment work at the moment because of the COVID-19 crisis, which is somewhat ironic.

We did recently offer a webinar with research and insights on leadership during challenging times, which you can download here.

Q: How can one deal with subordinates who are motivated by feedback, and how can one master this area of remembering to give feedback?

A: This is largely a question of ongoing awareness. Some leaders do not value feedback but they consequently forget that others do, in which case it’s something that should be built into their routine. It’s not realistic to expect them to remember spontaneously. They might also need to consider that feedback it not just informational. With the right level of empathy and measure, it can also have positive learning and motivational consequences.

Q: What strategies would you suggest using to effectively interact with a manager who thinks they are democratic, when in reality they are autocratic (for example, asking for feedback but then not taking it into consideration)?

A: That’s a complex question and would require a deeper understanding of this specific instance. It might be a lack of self-awareness or a limited ability to be objective and complete in their observations of the needs of others, which can occur even in very seasoned leaders. It might be a manifestation of different categories of bias. It might reflect differences in expectations from the various counterparts, or a need for validation from that leader. Using a tool like the IDI, I would look at the motivational DNA of the leader to see what might be going on before deciding on next steps.


(Are you part of the MRG network? Log into the MRG Knowledge Base once to access more webinars, along with the full MRG research library.)

Also, if there’s anything we at MRG can do to help support you or advise you as you transition to more online coaching, training, and facilitation in the coming weeks, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re all working through this together (even if we’re apart!).

About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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