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Why Managers Matter When it Comes to Employee Engagement

Written by: Andrew Clark
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Managers' ability to effectively reward and recognise achievement can increase employees' discretionary effort and intent to stay with an organisation by up to 22.7% and 31.6%, respectively. This results in increased performance and improved retention, thereby improving shareholder return. (Source: Corporate Executive Board)

Ok, so that's just one answer, however, there's more. It's also about inspiration. We are looking for meaningful sustained cultural shifts that inspire teams, drive performance, innovation, and measurable business results.

Let's make it genuine and personal.

Firstly, it's about priorities, capacity, and capability. Whenever a new employee initiative is launched, it often falls to middle management to communicate to employees and ultimately initiate implementation and provide ongoing support. These initiatives can include changes in policy, new processes and procedures, wellness programs, productivity programs, and recognition programs. In addition to their wide range of duties, managers also increasingly have to deal with rapidly changing diversity in their direct reports. Many managers supervise employees covering four generations ranging in age from 18 to 80 from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and experiences.

Overwhelmed and often overlooked, middle managers are, in fact, a key resource for turning top-line strategy into day-to-day action by their team. According to Ethan Mollick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's renowned Wharton Business School, “middle managers play a key role in fostering innovative and creative environments.”

Mollick explains that while every organisation needs employees who are creative and innovative, they also need middle managers who have the skill sets to put these ideas into action, know how to direct a project, secure resources, facilitate progress, and communicate with key stakeholders all while keeping their entire teams excited, engaged, and inspired to do more. Good middle managers have those critical skills. Let's face it that is a lot to do. How can a leader possibly manage all of this and know how to engage this diverse audience effectively?

In our global employee research, we learned that there are some specific things that you can do to make a real difference. We call them BI WORLDWIDE's New Rules of Engagement, and there are 12 rules to consider. Perhaps to quote Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Barbossa “they are more guidelines than actual rules”, however, our research shows us they can have a real impact if managers embrace them.

1. Get inside their heads.

Employee inspiration is an individual phenomenon. It's personal. Every person's motivations, abilities, and goals are specific to them. Their reasons for showing up at work differ. Everything—including the New Rules themselves—should be tailored to the circumstances and personality of the individual. Don't assume that everyone who has the same job role has the same needs and expectations. The most important thing to prevent the disengagement of employees is to ensure each is led and managed in a way that fits their personality. That can happen only if someone takes the time to really understand what drives that employee their abilities, their aspirations, and how they work best, to “get inside their heads”.

2. Make them fearless.

Once you are “inside” your employees' heads, it's essential you ensure they are not so distracted or paralysed by fear that nothing else matters. Fear is the most primal emotion. It's a survival instinct. We are hardwired to experience and react to it. Because the human brain evolved a powerful fight-or-flight response against mortal dangers that means people struggle to give measured responses to non-lethal dangers. It sounds a bit extreme but it's the same trigger that makes it hard for people to manage a poor performance evaluation, a boss who yells or the potential downsizing of an organisation.

3. Make money a non-issue.

The goal is improved performance and measurable business results as such employees are expected to look out for the long-term financial health of their organisations. It seems reasonable for the employee to expect the same. We call it reciprocity. Think of it like this. The investment made in engaging employees has a direct correlation to the intensity of their work and their commitment to the organisation, a theme that comes up time and time again in all of our studies. To real people, it's the thought that counts as much as the cash. More than in absolute terms, will it pay the mortgage? Employees measure their pay relative to others (and yes they are talking about it). What appears to make people happiest is making more money than the other guy/girl. We all need to get paid properly, make money a non-issue.

4. Help them thrive.

We are all accountable for our own health and wellness. And yet, there is no escaping the fact that a person's job influences his/her health one way or the other. No one leaves the office at the office, especially when so much of it comes home, to the movie theatre, on a hike or even to bed inside the worker's smartphone. Policies, workloads, vacation time, boredom, manager quality, and other aspects of work can either help employees thrive or can degrade their health, their psychological wellbeing, and the performance of the business. You must help them thrive.

5. Make it cool.

A cool place to work simply makes things easier and comfortable. Time spent there is enjoyable, rarely boring, at least occasionally fun, often different or unexpected, unique, authentic, quirky, and intense. As a generation with 140-character attention spans takes its place in the mix and the line between time off and time on is erased, it's now a full-blown imperative, make it cool.

6. Be boldly transparent.

Almost nothing is secret anymore. It's never been more important to run a company so that there's nothing to hide. To be boldly transparent, a company must communicate with its employees candidly and frequently. Rumours, and now online reviews, fill any vacuum. Silence is now assumed to mean either the news isn't good or the employees aren't trusted. And ulterior motives can be spotted a mile away. There are very few situations today where the best option is not the most transparent one.

7. Don't kill the meaning.

Purpose-driven motivations charge through in the comments of those who participate in BI WORLDWIDE studies. 'Helping others.' 'Working with graduate students.' 'The mission.' 'Knowing that my decisions directly benefit people financially.' 'Keeping the public safe.' 'Doing work that matters.' And, from a young woman working for a biotech company, 'curing cancer'. This is the reason why the seventh New Rule of Engagement is don't kill the meaning. Most people simply need meaning in their work. Their identity is intertwined with their career, and often with their current job. If it isn't fulfilling, your employees will find somewhere that is.

8. See their future.

It's almost impossible for an employee to see their future with the company if the company itself is not going anywhere. Share the vision. It's equally unlikely that someone sees the company going places unless it's taking him/her along for the ride. If the dual optimism that people hold for their current employer and their own prospects at the company is extinguished, they need to escape to rekindle it somewhere else. The reaction is part logical; why shouldn't someone look for the best path forward? And it's part emotional; seeing little future is too depressing to bear for long.

9. Magnify their success.

For the same reason that a fly fisherman will stay in an area of the river where he's catching trout, employees keep ‘casting' where they get recognition. Those who anticipate recognition for their future successes feel a greater obligation to work hard, give a higher proportion of their full effort, look for ways to improve the way they do their work, and deliver more of their best ideas to the company. You must magnify their success.

10. Unite them.

Collaboration and teamwork have wide-ranging effects on an employee's performance. Hard work is socially contagious. It's not just teamwork, but its intensity that drives the highest levels of performance. There is a direct relationship between the quantity and quality of collaboration and the degree to which employees say their job brings out their best ideas and how hard they intend to work. In other words, ‘good enough’ teamwork leaves a lot of performance and breakthroughs on the table.

11. Let them lead.

Most employee engagement surveys include some questions about making people's opinion count. It's a nice sentiment, but it doesn't go far enough. Employees today don't just want to voice their opinion and have it taken seriously. They want to take the lead and show what they can do. Our research bears this out. Getting the chance to run things is a more powerful motivator than just getting to comment on how things are run. Let them lead. You will be surprised at the commitment and enthusiasm you will see.

12. Take it to extremes.

We live in an age of ever increased extreme accomplishments whether it's parachuting, bungee-jumping, and mud runs. Many employees do big things on the weekend and want to do big things— something to shout about—during the workweek. If they don't find that sense of accomplishment at their current employer, they'll go somewhere else. You need to take it to extremes.

Is employee engagement a priority? It should be.

On any given day, a middle manager could be:

  • Conducting interviews with job candidates
  • Holding a performance review with a current employee
  • Helping deal with a customer crisis
  • Filling in for an employee who is out of the office
  • Training in new employees
  • Completing budget planning
  • Consulting with other departments on cross-functional projects
  • Meeting with senior management on a strategic initiative
  • Meeting with unhappy employees
  • Serving on special project committees
  • Attending training for themselves
  • Meeting with customers
  • Approving orders
  • Researching new equipment and supplies
  • The list goes on and on.

Make employee engagement a priority for your leaders. They know what's in it for you. What's in it for them? Ensure you have measurement and rewards for managers to engage in these critical activities.

Provide managers with the tools.

Now that leaders understand it's a priority and how the New Rules impact employee engagement, you must ensure they have the tools they need to fit the situation. Recognition solutions can provide ease of use and the ability to track and monitor recognition, budget allocation, and spending. Analysis against business results can be quite revealing for your leaders. Some of the most common recognition tactics include:

Manager Discretionary recognition (with or without award points).

We all want to know that our leaders appreciate the effort that we are putting in. A recognition with a personal comment from a leader has a material impact on the level of commitment and intensity of that commitment. Adding discretionary award points magnifies that impact. 

Service Award contributions.

Service Award contributions can be fairly generic. Typically, a corporate and leader message is included with a service award. Good leaders can change things up and make it current, fun, social, and personal with observations and comments relative to the employee's tenure.

On The Spot cards.

In addition to Manager Discretionary recognition, On The Spot (OTS) cards are a great way to reinforce an observed behaviour. OTS cards are physical cards containing points that are handed to recipients as the behaviour is happening. Some common behaviours are project milestones or project completion, holiday giving and appreciation, or a thank you gesture. Award points can be redeemed for a wide array of rewards including merchandise, travel, and experiences.


 We all like to win. Creating competitions with measurement and recognition are great ways for managers to create excitement and focus on a given task or specific objectives for a limited period of time. Contests also inspire people to change behaviour or perform at a higher level and ultimately drive your strategies and deliver targeted results.


We all like to be recognised by our peers or supervisor and to know that our efforts have been noticed. Creating a formal framework for contributions from teammates with specific criteria can really help align behaviours and provide a platform to celebrate key contributions.

Reporting and analytics.

Reporting and analytics is the key to understand the impacts of recognition and reward tactics. Intuitively, managers know what they think is going on around them. On occasion, our interpretation is clouded by our beliefs our expectations. We need to take off the rose-coloured glasses and really look at the data. Once they understand what has actually happened, based on data, it can provide great insights for managers coaching and program corrections.

In reality, managers are busy and have many demands on their time, and sometimes don't remember to recognise their team. An additional innovation to our employee recognition solution, DayMaker, is Recognition Advisor – a simple and smart “personal assistant” that provides managers with key insights, guidance, and encouragement to recognise their employees from their First Day and throughout their entire work lifecycle.

Using data algorithms and behavioural science principles, Recognition Advisor continually informs managers of the precise point in time at which giving recognition will have the most impact on an individual employee's satisfaction. Based on each employee's personal data and recognition history, Recognition Advisor nudges managers to recognise employees during these opportune times. Either online or via our EZ Thanks app, it is fun, fast, and easy for you as a manager to reinforce your company's Employee Value Proposition by maximising the positive impact sending recognition has on your employees. 

So what should you do now?

If you already have an employee recognition program in place or if you are considering launching one, be sure your strategic plan includes distinct communications, training, and support tactics to gain middle management commitment. Here are five things you'll want to include in your strategic recognition plan:

1. Middle management input.

As you create the program design, invite middle managers to share what they need from a recognition program. They will have unique and targeted insights to share.

2. Middle management evaluation.

Ask middle managers to do a “sanity” check on your program design:

  • Will it work for them?
  • What obstacles do they see?
  • How could things be done differently to make the program easier for them to utilise?

3. Middle management training.

Conduct specific training for middle managers on exactly how the program will benefit them. Ensure managers know specifically how the program works and how to utilise all of the program tools. Employees will come to their manager for help or to ask questions on how to participate. If managers can't quickly answer these questions, employees will likely not participate and managers will avoid using the program as well.

4. Middle management communications.

Managers are busy and using a recognition program is just one more thing they have to remember to do. Keep reminding them about the program and how it benefits them on an ongoing basis. Share results and best practices. Provide tips and strategies on how to integrate recognition into the activities they are already doing.

5. Middle management component.

The “what's in it for me” (WIIFM). Include a special middle management aspect to the program. Senior executives should be measured on how well they recognise their middle management direct reports. Have special rewards for middle managers only. Always encourage employees to recognise their managers for good work too.

Recognition really matters.

Successful middle managers keep their teams innovating and creating by using recognition. When effectively recognising employees with praise that is timely, specific, sincere, and positive; managers:

Create a "line of sight" for the organisation's mission and values.

According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a leading expert in motivation and recognition, “recognition creates role models and heroes and communicates standards. It says: these are the kinds of things that are valued here.”

Build loyalty.

Studies conducted in all industries and in companies both large and small consistently show that employees choose to stay with an organisation that makes it a point to communicate the simple message: “You matter.”

Inspire and drive increased performance.

Most workers find a "comfort zone” of acceptable performance. Knowing they will be recognised for their improved performance pushes employees to strive for the next level.

Improve morale and employee attitudes.

Recognition creates a positive work environment. Attitudes spread quickly. Inspired and energised employees serve as unassailable role models to colleagues.

Enhance productivity.

Employees who are recognised regularly work smarter and more effectively. They better understand what is expected and will work diligently to meet or exceed those expectations.

Reduce turnover.

We know from our study of over 30,000 employees, that turnover is 17.7% less among employees receiving at least one recognition throughout their eligible program tenure. There is a correlation between the frequency of receiving recognitions and turnover. Employee turnover decreases as the frequency of recognitions increases. A 10 percent reduction in turnover is seen between the low-to-high receiving rate.

A positive correlation existed between employee turnover and recognition receiving rate, driven almost exclusively by those receiving recognitions with awards. Turnover is 4x higher among employees with the lowest ‘recognitions with awards' receiving rates compared to the highest rate of receiving recognition with awards.

Effective middle management is crucial to every organisation's success. With programs running in over 160 countries, time and time again we see this key resource make the difference when it comes to inspiring employees and driving performance. By fostering the best in their employees using recognition as a key engagement tool, middle managers can have a dramatic impact on the vitality and sustainability of a company.

(*The New Rules of Engagement℠ and The New Rules Index℠ are registered service marks of BI WORLDWIDE. The New Rules Index and its associated metrics are copyright protected by BI WORLDWIDE and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

Andrew Clark

President, BI WORLDWIDE Canada

As President of BI WORLDWIDE Canada, Andrew's primary focus is to develop employee engagement strategies and recognition solutions that change the behaviours of employees and achieve measurable results. Andrew is an evangelist for the principles of behavioural economics, which are at the core of what BI WORLDWIDE does across the globe.

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