By Marcus Nicolls, senior partner for Partners In Leadership who works with global leaders on overcoming tough business challenges. He is also the co-author of  the leadership book, Fix It: Getting Accountability Right.

Success comes from good leadership--there's no argument there, but leaders are mainly in the driver's seat, navigating a route and steering the company towards success. However, no leader or company is going to get very far without a reliable engine to power it.

What's the engine? Your people. And whether you have a good or bad engine will determine how fast you'll get there or fail to get there at all--and that's where employee engagement comes into play.

When your people are engaged, the very best flows from them and the company's work will be done more effectively, efficiently, and with more success.

On the dark side of engagement, Gallup reported that actively disengaged employees costs the U.S. between $450 - $550 billion per year.

With figures like that, it should come as no surprise then that improving employee engagement is on the minds of leaders everywhere, raising the question, "How do I get my people more engaged?"

Fueling Employee Engagement

We've all experienced the standard approaches of companies trying to increase engagement through incentives, perks, compensation and rewards. But this form of "bribe 'em" engagement has very limited appeal and a short shelf-life.

What, then, increases employee engagement? In a word: Culture. Culture is the fuel for the organizational engine.

Companies with high levels of employee engagement tend to have organizational cultures where:

  • People take accountability for results.
  • Employees are open and candid in respectful yet deliberate ways.
  • People feel empowered to take ownership and find ways to overcome obstacles that inevitably arise.

These cultures typically provide purpose, foster innovation, and enjoy a healthy level of trust at all levels of the organization.

Culture Reflects Leadership

How can leaders manage culture and provide the right types of experiences that sustain the right culture over time?

One essential component is to model the very culture the company needs in order to succeed.

Turning back to Gallup, another study found that there is a trickle-down effect of employee engagement, known as a "mediation effect," which suggests that engagement cascades down from senior levels to the frontline.

  • Managers led by highly engaged executive teams are 39% more likely to be engaged than managers who are led by disengaged executive teams.
  • Frontline employees led by highly engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged than those with less engaged managers.

How does this influence work? Leaders create experiences that foster beliefs among employees. Those beliefs determine what people choose to do and not do; how to show up in a staff meeting; what level of effort and ownership they'll demonstrate and how to interact with supervisors and direct reports.

When a leader models the behavior they want their people to demonstrate, people tend to follow suit--whether positive or negative. If a leader rules with an iron first, regardless of the short-term results this approach brings, it could lead to a toxic work environment, resulting in poor engagement at multiple levels.

If a leader leads with purpose, integrity, and accountability, people will experience this, inviting the right mindset and behaviors that flow from that thinking.

Modeling in this way is leading by example and creates expectations for others to follow.

Manage Culture to Fuel Engagement

We'd like to propose three tips for leaders to help shape culture and, ultimately, fuel engagement.

1. Model the Right Culture

Start by asking yourself: "What type of team and company culture engages me?" "What type of leader do I want to follow?" and "What is it about that leader's style that draws me in?"

Write down your thoughts and determine how and where you'll demonstrate those same traits.

2. Clarify Purpose at All Levels

Help your people understand the purpose of the organization, the team, and their own connection to the business results of the company by using tools such as storytelling and recognition to reinforce how the right actions impact company performance.

Water what you want to grow!

3. Make Feedback Real

Create a feedback-rich culture by inviting feedback that flows both up and down. Ask for feedback every day; even from people you normally wouldn't ask. Demonstrate that you want honesty through your own example of open and candid feedback exchanges.

Every person in an organization impacts engagement, but it's culture that truly fuels engagement, and culture is shaped by you and leaders at every level. By shaping the culture you want through modeling, purpose, and feedback, you'll increase engagement and fuel your company engine to accelerated performance.