Tom Varian asked me to comment on how to assess employee attitudes towards their leaders and how to develop personal connections between employees and CEOs and other leaders, with whom they may never personally interact.  It’s an interesting topic and brings up a few issues:

1)    Do employees who feel a close connection to senior leaders perform better?  Are they more satisfied on the job?

2)    Does such a connection give senior leaders “credits” in case they have to deliver bad news (e.g., layoffs)?

3)    Does such a perceived connection lead to higher senior leader satisfaction?

The two primary methods to assess employee attitudes towards leaders are through surveys and focus groups/interviews.  Surveys allow many people to provide anonymous feedback on a variety of issues.  There are several online programs that make these types of surveys easy to administer.  Focus groups normally only allow for a sample of people to provide their input (unless you’ve got a BIG budget), but the depth of information can be greater as the focus group facilitator can delve into areas more deeply.

One important rule about assessing employee attitudes:  Don’t ask questions about things that management is not willing to change.  Put another way, you shouldn’t ask employees whether they like the color of the walls unless you’re prepared to buy some paint.

To Tom’s question about how to develop a connection between employees and senior leader, the onus is on the leader to either create these opportunities or to communicate with employees in a way that will allow them to feel connected.  Employee seeking to create such a relationship will be viewed suspiciously.  Co-workers may see them as a brown-nose and most company cultures lead managers to frown upon communications that skip rows in the organizational chart.  In building the relationship, consider how much charisma the senior leader has.  We’ve all heard the expression when meeting a famous person or leader that s/he, “Made me feel like I was the only person in the room.”  Some people have this and some don’t.  However, people also develop connections with others who they can relate to or feel have related to them.  If someone is working behind a counter at a retail chain and the Sr. VP can look them in the eye and put together a few sentences and questions that related to them or their work, s/he can make that connection.  We see politicians succeed and fail at this all of the time.

Senior leaders don’t have (or make) many opportunities to meet employees in person.  How else can s/he create opportunities for employees to connect with them?  I’m not a communications expert, but I would suggest creating different opportunities to do so through a variety of media (e-mail, video, etc).  By different opportunities, I mean that they should not just communicate about the stock price or the company’s direction.  Rather, they should be seen with their families, at ball games, charity events, company picnics (dressed like everybody else), etc.  When they do talk about business related issue, candor is the key.  No one believes a perfectly rosy scenario.  Be specific about how the events will affect the business and the people working there.  How a leader communicates not only affects the connection employees have with him/her, but also sets the tone for the company’s culture.

I’ve worked for companies where the president/CEO was revered (sometimes in an almost cult-like fashion) and others where that person was an abstraction to the employees.  I don’t think there is a correlation between job performance and this perceived personal connection.  However, I will say that there was a lot more employee engagement when this was the case and there’s some scholarly research which backs up this observation.

When I’ve done employee surveys of companies, higher level management usually gets higher ratings than first line supervision.  Why?  Because the employees don’t normally have a “warts and all” relationship with senior management.  In surveys where employees feel connected to a senior leader, the ratings are through the roof.  This is another example of high engagement, which partially comes from feeling connected to senior leaders.

Interestingly, the effects of engagement on leader satisfaction have not been researched.  I would think that higher employee engagement would lead to higher leader satisfaction in that engagement is related to several aspects of organizational performance.  Also, who doesn’t want to be liked?

Thanks for the question, Tom!

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