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Captain the Ship Through Rough Waters: Senior Leadership’s Role in Employee Engagement


Jun 23, 2017 | by Christopher Adair

Conventional wisdom says that managers are the primary driver of employee engagement. And while managers no doubt play a role in the “engagement equation,” placing significant weight on the manager may not fully capture all of the complexities of today’s workplace. Some of what is driving employee engagement may have shifted up – specifically, to Senior Leadership. In Aon’s 2017 Trends in Global Employee Engagement, we had two key observations with regard to Senior Leaders: perceptions of Senior Leaders are dropping and, most importantly, Senior Leaders’ impact on employee engagement is increasing.

Dropping Perceptions of Senior Leadership

Employees globally are less confident in Senior Leadership, especially in their ability to create excitement about the future of the organization. This is not a big surprise: organizations large and small are increasingly in a state of near-constant change, trying to adapt to an increasingly volatile business environment. Employees may not know what the future holds for their organization or their role in particular. In most cases, Senior Leaders bear the brunt of most of the anxiety employees experience about change. When you consider that half of employees globally feel that change initiatives are not well managed, it’s easy to see how more broad perceptions of the leaders managing the change would drop.

Increased Impact of Senior Leaders in the Engagement Equation

This drop in perceptions of leaders is an important trend in itself. However, it is made even more important by the fact that Senior Leadership was one of the top drivers of employee engagement in 2016:

  1. Rewards & Recognition
  2. Employee Value Proposition
  3. Senior Leadership
  4. Career Development
  5. Enabling Infrastructure

As we see, Senior Leadership is listed third on the list of drivers in 2016, and Direct Manager doesn’t even crack the top 51. This suggests that Senior Leaders need to take on a more active and involved role in order to engage their employees.

But this raises an important question: What might have caused Senior Leadership to become a more important driver of employee engagement? The way we see it, there are four possibilities:

1. Senior Leaders have more discretion over many of the other key drivers in 2016 compared to the Direct Manager. Rewards, Pay, Infrastructure, and EVP are all largely driven by Senior Leadership. Managers can play a role, for instance by clarifying how pay is calculated, but larger discretion on actually changing these facets of the work environment fall on Senior Leadership.

2. When we compare our global averages to those in the Top Quartile, we see massive gaps on Senior Leadership items – and, in fact, these gaps are twice as large as for the Direct Manager items. What does this mean? Top companies really differentiate on perceptions of Senior Leadership, particularly on creating excitement for the future, more than they do on perceptions of the Direct Manager.

3. Our model looks at all of these drivers together within the same model and not independently. Doing so allows us to identify the unique contribution of each driver to engagement. With this, we see that while the Direct Manager is still important, Senior Leadership rises to the top as a more influential driver when included in the same model.

4. Based on Aon’s research into Managing Engagement in Times of Change, we know that Senior Leaders play an increased role in engagement during times of change. Although our research focused on more transformational changes (such as M&A), it stands to reason that the same holds true with the more incremental change that characterizes many organizations today. This is a vital point since there are so many external forces that are pressuring organizations today. Two of the most important external forces are rapid technology advancement and populist sentiment within the geopolitical environment.

    How can Senior Leaders “LEAD” their organizations in creating a culture of engagement?

    In reality, the increased importance of Senior Leadership in driving engagement is likely due to a combination of several if not all of the above reasons. Regardless, this leaves us with an important question: what can leaders do about it? The visual below summarizes four key behaviors that leaders should keep in mind that emerge as key factors for driving employees’ engagement. Consider how well your organization, specifically your leaders, exhibits these four behaviors.

    2016 Global



    Let employees know they are valued. This actually increased 3-pts globally, but is still important. A personal sensitivity from leaders to lead people and drive growth will continue to be paramount.


    Encourage open/honest communications. This is critical for both senior leaders and line managers. Greater openness and transparency reduces the risk of confusion or rumors on important messages.


    Allow for greater accessibility and visibility. Employees felt less connected to leaders in 2016, suggesting a need for Senior Leaders to create a clearer line of sight between them and their employees.


    Drive excitement & energy for the future. With the extent of economic and political volatility, it is no surprise that employees are feeling more apprehensive. Ensure employees know where the organization is going… and how they fit in.


    Consider for a moment that the data above show 41% of employees DO NOT feel valued, 37% DO NOT feel open and honest communication is encouraged, 36% DO NOT feel connected to leadership, and 41% DO NOT feel confident they know where the organization is going.

    That is unacceptable and if that is the profile at your organization the waters are more than choppy…they are turbulent. In order to lead the ship through the storm, it is clear that Senior Leadership has to be invested in the engagement of employees just as much or more than your organization’s direct managers.

    To learn more about Aon’s 2017 Trends in Global Employee Engagement report, please go to To learn how Aon can help you measure and improve your organizational culture and engagement, please go to


    1For context, in last year’s Trends Report, Senior Leadership was also not in the top 5 engagement drivers globally.


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