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Empowering middle managers is central to employee engagement

5 min read

Empowering middle managers is central to employee engagement

Middle managers can have the largest impact on employee engagement. Find out how you can support them.

by Shawn Murphy

The way organizations approach employee engagement is a problem. The wrong approach begins with an assumption—it starts with the top. While it’s ideal to have leadership support from the top, the truth is that a company's CEO and other executives have only modest levels of influence on engagement. The true influencers are the managers at the mid-level.

Research from Hay Group shows that an employees' immediate manager shapes 70 percent of their experience of work. That’s big. A manager's leadership style has more meaning to employees than company benefits, peer relationship, project work, and even CXOs.

So, if middle-managers are best positioned to create the conditions for employee engagement, how can leadership motivate them to maximize their abilities? Consequently, how would results improve? Here are three focus areas that position managers to positively influence employee engagement.

1. Concentrate on the workplace climate

Climate is what it feels like to work at an organization and in a team (while culture is how things are done in an organization). At the team level, direct managers have the greatest influence on workplace climate. The good news is that these middle managers have a lot of options to change the climate in their teams. Here are some of ways they can create a more engaging experience:

Create clarity

Leaders intentionally and consistently set out to ensure team priorities, expectations, and goals are known and understood. Employees receive ongoing feedback on their progress. So, too, does the team. In high-performing teams, feedback from employees to the manager occurs regularly.

Focus on well-being

Check in with employees to understand how their work load is impacting them. Specifically look for symptoms of weak work recovery. Work recovery is the discipline of “turning off” work when at home. Constantly working after normal work hours increases stress levels and, over time, can degrade performance. Despite what the organizational practice is, managers of teams can implement a practice of no emails after a certain time. This can reduce the temptation for employees to respond to emails that are sent after work.

Create psychological safety

Promote curiosity in other team members’ ideas and teach them to engage in open dialogue to develop stronger solutions. Google, through their Oxygen Project research, learned that the biggest influence on team performance was psychological safety (the belief that it’s safe to share ideas, even “silly” or contrarian ones). Leaders can model behaviors that signal it’s safe to share different ideas. For example, in my team I’ll ask for others to poke holes in my ideas or to challenge my thinking. (Below, I refer to the 30-day retrospective practice, which also helps to promote psychological safety.)

There are many elements that can help change the climate to be more energizing, positive, or optimistic: peer-to-peer recognition; consistent, transparent communication; a sense of belonging; autonomy; meaningful work; and purpose. The goal is to select elements that can improve your direct reports’ engagement levels. It often takes a combination of elements to impact the climate.

2. Audit your meeting schedule

We commonly hear from clients how busy managers are. What we see is managers are double and sometimes triple-booked in back-to-back meetings. Meetings have made it impossible to do deep work or project work.

As a result, managers are unavailable to their employees. There are no one-on-ones (or at least infrequently held). Managers don't have time to reflect on what's going on in their teams. The absence of time means managers are in constant fire-fighting mode.

Managers can audit their meeting schedules and identify which ones can they can delegate. Additionally, they can evaluate which meetings are adding value and decline those that aren't. Organizations are notorious for inviting "everybody and their brother" to meetings.

3. Implement team health review sessions

One of my favorite practices from Agile is the 30-day retrospective. It's a time for employees to reflect on how the previous 30-days went for them as a team. Instead of limiting the review sessions to project work, re-purpose them. Here are some examples that we’ve seen work:

  1. Focus on what's helping the team succeed.
  2. What barriers are in their way, or any other variables that influence commitment, discretionary effort, and employee pride.
  3. If you're using elements from Point 1 to improve engagement, have a conversation about those topics. 

Any of these above can help managers overcome engagement detractors that stifle cultures, such as workplace stress and incivility. Managers who choose to take on the responsibility for influencing their employees’ experience of work will find they can make a difference. Their focus should be on creating a contagious pocket of excellence.

Executives can significantly influence engagement efforts by reducing the barriers middle-managers face on a daily basis. These include: 

  1. Lack of clarity on priorities.
  2. Too many ineffective meetings.
  3. Too many concurrent change initiatives.
  4. Corporate rules that create unnecessary red tape.
  5. Outdated leadership development solutions.
  6. HR is too often the owner of engagement efforts.


Employee engagement is central to the health of organizations and its people. Managers cannot wait for approval or a message from the CEO declaring engagement is a priority. What’s more, managers cannot wait for HR to roll out an initiative. The best thing an organization can do is focus on the middle-managers and give them the support they need. 

About the author

Shawn Murphy serves as CEO of WorqIQ, formerly Switch and Shift, an organization that helps
leaders transform the experience of work to be energizing and optimistic. The goal is to help
employees and the organization achieve greater levels of success while creating a great place to
work. You can read Shawn’s weekly column, Positive Business, on Inc.com. His debut book, The Optimistic Workplace: Creating an Environment that Energizes Everyone, is out now.

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