4 ways finance leaders can increase employee engagement

Leading like a coach has the potential to boost engagement and the bottom line.
4 ways finance leaders can increase employee engagement

Employees around the world remain woefully disengaged, with just 15% of employees worldwide and 34% of employees in the US engaged, according to 2019 Gallup research.

“Unfortunately, those numbers do not surprise me,” said Annie McKee, Ph.D., senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and author of How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship. “I’ve worked with people all over the world at various levels, and I find far too many people bored, miserable, unhappy, and cynical about their work, and that’s no way to live.”

Those numbers have remained relatively consistent since Gallup started measuring employee engagement in 2000. Leadership is key; “70% of the variance in a team’s engagement is related to their management” and “managers create the conditions that promote the behaviours of engaged employees”, according to Gallup’s research. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of remote working, managers may have to take an even more hands-on approach to employee engagement.

“Managers can do something about it very quickly and simply for virtually no cost,” said Chris Roebuck, economist and honorary visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School in London.

Roebuck argued that small, day-to-day actions taken by senior leadership and line management have the potential to increase engagement, which could, in turn, increase the bottom line.

Finance leaders should take note, he added, because they drive home the direct relationship of employee engagement to an organisation’s financial wellbeing.

“Leaders in financial services often confuse employee engagement with a sort of fuzzy, nice to have idea, when it’s really a hard indicator of effort and whether people care about outcomes,” he said.

With that in mind, here are a few steps finance leaders can take to increase engagement within their teams:

Genuinely get to know your team as individuals. Creating an environment where people feel engaged can boil down to some surprisingly simple things, according to McKee, such as saying thank you and meaning it, getting to know your employees on a personal level and actually caring about them, and providing them opportunities to do the things they’re interested in and excel at.

“All of those things are worth their weight in gold, and if employees feel their manager cares about them and is looking out for them, they’ll walk through a wall for that person,” she said. “If they feel under-appreciated or as if their manager couldn’t be bothered, the employees can’t be bothered either.”

One of the top four behaviours Gallup pinpointed as unique to highly engaged employees is that they focus on their strengths and not their weaknesses. Managers who take the time to get to know their employees and identify those strengths have a better chance of pairing them with assignments that suit their skillsets, creating a natural engagement boost. Try talking with each employee and discussing their individual strengths, and then formulate a plan together on how they can use those strengths more often at work.

Help employees understand their impact and clarify goals. Spelling out how the work employees are doing contributes to the company as a whole can also increase engagement, according to Narinder Phull, ACMA, CGMA, UK-based director of financial planning and analysis with US multinational corporation CA Technologies.

“A lot of employees don’t understand why they’re doing specific tasks, but as they develop and go further, let them understand the strategic impact of their work, no matter how basic,” he said.

Roebuck agreed, adding that managers who explain to their team how their work contributes to the big picture can encourage employees to put in significantly more effort than a line manager who simply orders people to do things. Along with painting the big picture, managers must also be crystal clear about what they expect from each member of their team.

Gallup listed clear expectations and access to necessary materials as the two basic elements necessary for employee engagement, indicating that managers should first meet those benchmarks before building upon them.

Facilitate continuous development. Managers who genuinely care about their employees will naturally wish to encourage their development. And employees who see a path forward in their career are more likely to become engaged in their work, according to Phull. For that reason, he recommends seeking out areas of development for each employee and actively helping them develop further.

Another key quality of engaged employees, according to Gallup, is that they tend to independently strive to increase their own engagement. In other words, engaged employees don’t need a boss to coddle them, but they will readily seek out advice and assistance from managers and mentors in order to improve their personal performance. For that reason, Phull also recommends managers pair employees with a mentor with whom they can speak freely, process ideas, and receive unfiltered guidance.

Take a coaching approach to managing. Gallup research emphasised that managers create the conditions that promote the behaviours of engaged employees, with the most effective management style being that of a coach rather than a boss. While coaches empower and encourage, bosses demand. McKee agreed that a coaching approach to managing is highly effective but may not come naturally to everyone.

“There are skills involved in coaching,” she said. “Number one is really learning how to listen. What you have to say may be valuable, but it’s not valuable until after you’ve listened.”

Once leaders have learned to listen, McKee’s second tip is to build relationships with employees that involve mutual respect and compassion. Gallup illustrated the difference between a coach and a boss with an example of how each would deal with an employee struggling to complete a project. An engagement-destroying boss, they said, would likely double-down on the deadline, whereas an engagement-creating coach would ask process-oriented questions to figure out why the employee is struggling and what they can do to clarify expectations or supply necessary materials.

McKee’s final tip for leaders looking to take on a coaching approach is to infuse a dose of joy into the workplace.

“Try and make work more fun,” she said. “Most of us are not saving lives (well, some of us are), but we’ve got to lighten up a bit, and managers can help us all do that.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at