How People Managers Can Change the World

The extraordinary power of the middle manager

We’re in the midst of a stress epidemic. Burnout is commonplace. Quality sleep is routinely traded for digital hyper-connection and the majority of us are chronically bored and ‘checked out’ at work. When work life turns sour, life turns sour.

Just 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs(1). The remainder have detached. Indifferent to the mission of their organisation, they fail to utilise or nurture personal strengths on a daily basis and lack purpose.

Who doesn’t dream of making the world a better place through work? Anyone who believes that only those dedicated to acute social or environmental causes have the potential for genuine gratification while saving the planet is mistaken. People managers have this opportunity with every employee interaction, every day. When seeking lasting engagement and long term productivity, changing the world goes from opportunity to obligation.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report(1) is a formidable call to action for people managers at every level to raise their gaze from short term performance metrics to comprehend the critical role they play in the wellbeing of their teams, their companies and the global community. Managers can absolutely save the world.

The Status Quo

A majority of staff pass the time languishing in the half-charged zone of ‘not engaged.’ They are ‘checked out,’ showing up but leaving energy and drive at the door. A Bupa study confirmed just 7% of UK employees claimed to be working to their full potential(2).

At the bleakest end of the spectrum, ‘disengaged employees’ aren’t just uninspired, they actively redirect their energy compromising the efforts of their engaged counterparts, who they outnumber almost 2:1. Positive Psychology heavyweight and Gallup advisor, Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton suggest “We all know these types of people. They walk around the office with glazed looks or move from cubicle to cubicle stirring up trouble with whining, complaining, and even paranoia.” (4) Its infectious.

Emotions are Contagious

Stress is more contagious than the flu and the idea that we’re influenced by the emotions of those around us, even virtually, was supported by Facebook in their controversial Emotional Contagion study in January 2012(3). As leaders we dictate the accepted norms of our group. When we work through lunch, show up late to team meetings, send emails at 11pm and blatantly neglect our physical health, we’re broadcasting the idea that this is how you get ahead here. It’s irrelevant that we claim not to expect adoption of these behaviours. Actions (and inactions) speak louder. If we don’t love what we do, and how we do it, can we truly expect our teams to?

Our influence isn’t confined to the office. Gallup’s extensive study of more than 1,000 clients in 142 countries verified that leaders who are thriving, that is rating their lives highly on a 0-to-10 scale, are much more likely to have employees who are thriving.

The ‘Save the World’ Formula

Engaged employees are at least 1.6 times as likely as their actively disengaged colleagues to be ‘thriving’ in their lives in general. Given how much of our waking time is spent in work, or thinking about it, this figures.

Engaged employees are four times as likely as the actively disengaged to say they like what they do each day. Imagine the impact on self-esteem and life satisfaction for the former. Managers have a remarkable influence on this reality. Perceptions of our immediate manager contribute to around 70% of employee engagement(1).

Engagement in the office has a knock-on effect to physical and emotional health. Engaged workers are less likely to suffer from:
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol
• Diabetes
• Obesity
• Depression
• Heart attacks

They tend to eat more healthily and exercise more frequently, further fueling the virtuous cycle the competent manager begets.

An interesting phenomenon uncovered in the Gallup study is that engaged employees are almost twice as likely as the actively disengaged to state that their companies are hiring. Conversely, actively disengaged employees believe that their companies are cutting staff at almost three times the rate of the engaged population. This is relevant because the biggest cause of work related stress, by far, is job insecurity. With stress being linked to a whole host of mental, physical and emotional disruptions from insomnia and hair loss to cardiovascular disease and depression, the consequences for disengaged staff are vast.

This idea that managers should take responsibility for their employees’ wellbeing was eloquently tweeted by leadership expert and bestselling author of ‘Start with Why’, Simon Sinek:

“A good leader takes care of those in their charge. A bad leader takes charge of those in their care.”

When we fail to prioritise wellbeing, we’re inviting breakdown and burnout to act on or behalf. The same is true for our teams. Connect the dots — the critical input in the formula for employee engagement and happiness is the quality of the immediate manager. His influence transmits, with every interaction, from office to home and out into the world.

How Can I Help You?

“Leaders often say that their organization’s greatest asset is its people — but in reality, this is only true when those employees are fully engaged in their jobs.”(1)

Engaged employees are recognised as willingly ‘going the extra mile’. Many companies include that very phrase, or an iteration of it, in their core values but continue to hire and reward talent without even a nod to sustainable engagement? When someone does go that extra mile, we hold them up as examples for their disenfranchised colleagues to emulate, alienating the latter further and failing to acknowledge the power we have as leaders to make the exception the rule.

BUPA found almost half of UK workers admit that they do not go above and beyond at work because they believe extra effort won’t be acknowledged or rewarded(2). What might happen if we ask ourselves why the engaged employee is so rare. How does she feel about her job and how can we help others feel the same?

This emphasis on feelings may be a factor. There is a tendency for empathy to drop as power increases. Perhaps because management is often considered the ‘obvious’ path after a reasonable time spent as an individual contributor. Lack of creativity and mass insensitivity to the impact of management on engagement maintains this order. Gallup makes this challenging appeal:

“Instead of using management jobs as promotional prizes for all career paths, companies should treat them as unique roles with distinct functional demands that require a specific talent set. The reality is that many people who are the best performers in their current roles do not have the talents necessary to effectively manage people.”

To truly care for our teams, there is a prerequisite to be able to, metaphorically, put ourselves in their shoes. Top leaders display high levels of empathy and emotional intelligence. It may not be practical to cull the entire management team as we raise engagement up the agenda, but we can invest in training that nurtures these skills effectively.

As leaders we must hone self-awareness sufficiently to ask ‘What can I do to re-engage my team?’ Failing to ask can be the difference between identifying a stellar people-manager and co-creating a ‘checked-out dissenter.’ This mistake can be catastrophic.

No More Excuses

A perceived lack of compelling figures was previously a major barrier to acknowledging employee engagement and wellbeing as a key performance indicator. The magnitude and robustness of research available today effectively eliminates this excuse, leaving apathy or fear as the only plausible hurdle.

To start a movement we must begin with ourselves. Embrace wellbeing in and out of the office as the first step in creating the supportively challenging workplace our teams require.

If senior leaders hold fast in the ivory tower reciting ‘We can’t manage what we can’t measure,’ we must hold ourselves accountable for the engagement of our teams. Vocalise our intention, up and down the chain, to measure success in terms of souls as well as goals and make employee happiness equal with sales figures when assessing the health of the business.

For genuine transformation, engagement must be weaved into the very fabric of the organisation but it must start somewhere. Superheroes know that with great power comes great responsibility and they willingly rise to the challenge. That is their purpose. Exceptional managers effortlessly weave performance goals with the personal goals of their teams, knowing that the former will never be met in the long term without working towards the latter.

Ask Google’s Chade-Meng Tan — an engineer who believed that mindfulness meditation would be good for business. From running poorly attended group sessions with his co-workers, he’s now leading Google’s mindfulness-based emotional intelligence course full time, where his job description is “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace”.

What has always been known on an intuitive level has now been proven, repeatedly. Employee engagement breeds productivity, creativity, emotional and physical resilience and, most importantly, life satisfaction. Immediate managers are the gatekeepers to this world. It’s up to People Managers at every level to answer the call and change the world.


1. State of the Global Workplace 2012: Employee Engagement Insights for Business Leaders Worldwide, Gallup, Inc, 2012
2. Fit for Growth, BUPA, 2013
3. Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks, Adam D. I. Kramera, Jamie E. Guillory and Jeffrey T. Hancock, 2012

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