We need to stop always talking about “leaders” in an organization as some class separate from “employees”. Of course, those in formal leadership positions have a different sort of role than those not in supervisory and/or executive roles. And I get that often we resort to talking about leaders and employees as a sort of shorthand. But it also reinforces the prevailing “us vs. them” dynamic in many organizations, and that’s not really helpful.

It becomes a real issue when we start talking about the popular issue of employee engagement. In many organizations, engagement is presented (often deliberately) and perceived as something that “leaders” are supposed to deliver to employees. Sure, leadership has a large impact on engagement. But this often overlooks a few important points, including:

  • Those leaders need to be engaged, too. Nothing will kill employee engagement like a leader who isn’t engaged in the work of the organization and the people they are supposed to be leading and engaging.
  • Engagement isn’t something that only flows down the org chart. Our engagement is greatly influenced by the actions not just of our supervisors but of all the people who work around us. It’s an exchange between us and all the people we interact with and, whatever measurement tool you use for it, engagement is a measure of the health of those many relationships. We are responsible for engaging each other, regardless of reporting relationships. And, although some people refuse to accept this, we are each also responsible for our own engagement to some extent.
  • As much as a supervisor influences the engagement of their team, the team also influences the engagement of the supervisor. As a supervisor, there are few things more disengaging than team members who don’t make a positive contribution and fight the supervisor at every turn. This takes a lot of forms and the supervisor may have a number of ways to try to deal with it, but the effort is invariably a tax on their engagement. And, as noted above, that isn’t good for anyone.

The point is that engagement doesn’t just flow in one direction – it is influenced by everyone in the organization. And, while leaders may have operationally important roles that separate them from the rank and file in essential ways, at least when it comes to engagement the notion that they are not employees themselves is both misleading and damaging. Wise organizations should rethink that dichotomy and consider how to bridge the gap we created with it.