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Viewpoint: Fully engaged employees can drive transformative leadership

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Jack Harshbarger
Guest Columnist

Among the factors that can lead to business success or failure, employee engagement is often overlooked as a strategic advantage.

The opportunity for improving employee engagement appears significant. Gallup’s 2017 data on employee engagement shows that 85% of American workers are not engaged in their work. Said another way, more than four out of five employees are less motivated to be productive, ultimately affecting customer satisfaction, profitability, innovation, and rising costs. Clearly, there is much to be gained by increasing employee engagement.

Jon Hellevig, a Finnish lawyer and businessman who has worked in Russia since the early 1990s and written extensively about employee engagement in Russia, believes a fully engaged culture exhibits the following desirable behaviors:

  • Trust
  • Fairness and respect
  • Alignment
  • Great communications
  • Efficient processes
  • Organizational structures that facilitates teamwork
  • Self-discipline
  • Employee-driven focus on customer satisfaction and quality
  • Leadership and management behavior acting as examples for employees
  • Job profiles that are broadly formulated and leave opportunities to develop, as opposed to narrowly defined functions
  • Reward systems and recognition for individual and group talents
  • A strong HR business partner who takes the role of empowerment of employees.

If a strategy for implementing these behaviors could be found, any company could benefit.

Research on engagement points to a positive connection between motivation/engagement and business results. A study of 95 auto dealerships over a six-year period showed that higher levels of engagement led to superior business results, according to a February 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal.

Building on the work of researcher MacGregor Burns, Bernard Bass argued in 1985 that transformative leadership can result in Jon Hellevig’s desirable list of employee engagement behaviors. 

Seventy-five years before the work by Burns and Bass, Mary Parker Follett, a Bostonian graduate of Radcliffe College and leadership researcher wrote “transformational leadership and the interrelationship of leadership and followership, and the power of collective goals of leaders and followers.” Many believe Follett first used the word teamwork and Burns and Bass rediscovered her work.

Arguing for transformative leadership, Bass felt most other forms of leadership are much like a transaction. A worker gives the business something, say labor, and the business gives the worker compensation.

Transactional leadership is a philosophy that has lost traction in the face of corporate downsizing and mergers. Transformative leadership asks a very different question, “How can the leader support the employees, so they can be to creative, fulfilled, and fruitful?”

Transformative leadership is mentioned in many ways in the literature, but with few references to employee engagement. For example, Jeff Bezos transformed Amazon by actions other than employee engagement by focusing on volume, online retail, and marketing. 

When it comes to solid examples of connecting transformative leadership to employee engagement one example stands out. In a July 2016 Forbes article, Louis Efron outlined ways that Ceridan’s CEO David Ossip connected transformative leadership to employee engagement, leading to positive business results.

In 1989 I found myself in a somewhat similar situation as Mr. Ossip while leading a division for Kodak, which had invested $36 million over three years in a business with no products or sales. Expectations were high. Senior management’s direction was to launch a successful business in 18 months or be fired.

Historic and transactional leadership styles were not going to yield success. Something special would be needed. Hellevig’s list of behaviors looked attractive but achieving that goal to drive employee engagement and business results initially eluded me.

Investigations into leadership and engagement finally yielded results Soon, seven transformative leadership How To’s were developed and applied to my organization. Launch was achieved in 20 months and the team generated ideas resulting in 137 patents. We needed them all. Under the new culture, engaged employees developed a new acronym for work in place of TGIF: Thank Goodness It’s Monday (TGIM).

Jack Harshbarger is president of Thank Goodness It’s Monday, a Delaware-based consulting firm that teaches transformative/compelling leadership and how small businesses can survive the early years. He
can be reached at Jhars5511@gmail.com 

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