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I’ve been a supervisor for more than a year now and have seven direct reports.  Three of them are young, energetic and restless.  They are graduates of good schools in Metro Manila.  I am 13 years older than they are and I find it challenging (a.k.a. difficult) to supervise them.  They can not keep their minds and hearts on the tasks they have to do and do these tasks according to standards.  On a number of occasions I find their celphones and internet competing for the kind of focus that I wish they would give to their work.  During our weekly meetings, I see them using their celphones.  I can not be keeping my eye on them and closely supervising them all the time as I have other tasks to do related to my function.  Can you advise me on how I can make them become focused on their work?

Ms. Troubled


It seems that you yourself are distracted by what you observe to be the lack of focus on work that your young direct reports display.  The attention you give them and your non-verbal reactions are positive reinforcements for their negative behaviors.  Their behaviors affect your productivity as well as your emotional balance.


This phenomenon that you observe and which is also common in other work places is now referred to in Human Resources parlance as employee “disengagement” or work “disengagement”.


It’s not just celfons and the internet that make employees disengaged from their work.  Keeping your eye on your young employees and closely supervising them to ensure that your standards of quality and timeliness are met will not make them work engaged.  They will find ways to “put one” over you.


The following are probable causes for employee disengagement:


§  Job dissatisfaction.  There are also many reasons why workers are not satisfied with their jobs.  There is no job-person fit.  The nature of their work does not fit their career interests; it does not use their knowledge and skills; it does not offer challenge.  HR recruitment and selection process, more specifically the assessment tools used, can be blamed for this.  Turnover of employees who are not qualified for the positions they fill in terms of skills requirements — both hard and soft skills — and personality and character requirements, for which they were hired lead to boredom, fatigue and to fast turn-over which is costly for the company.


§  Employees don’t see how their jobs contribute to their section’s, department’s and organization’s goals.  They do not know nor appreciate the mission and vision of their organization.


§  Incompetent and poorly trained supervisors/managers add to the engagement issue.  Companies don’t realize how important it is to give their supervisors and managers the tools and trainings they need to do their jobs of supervision and management well.


§  Because of lack of feedback and coaching from their own superiors, many supervisors and managers don’t know what it takes to succeed in their particular roles.  Thus, they can not help their organizations hire, retain or develop their employees successfully.


§  Employees are not given opportunities for growth and development.  They are not given opportunities to learn new skills and knowledge or enhance their skills.

Some Notes on Employee Engagement. I looked up this topic in an HR journal and in the internet because it has captured the attention of workplace observers, HR managers and corporate executives.  In the US, Canada and Australia, employee engagement has become a formal, dedicated HR program since research studies the past years have shown that high engagement levels have a strong impact on business growth, employee retention and financial returns.

Employee engagement was defined by The Conference Board in its 2006 publication using 12 major studies by top research firms such as Gallup, Blessing White and others, as a “heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his/her organization that influences his or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his/her work”.

The concept of discretionary effort is important and relevant. Many employee engagement studies conclude that organizations that can harness discretionary effort will far outperform organizations with employees who just do the minimum that they can get away with. As regards discretionary effort, a research study describes three types of employees.

§  Engaged – employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company.  They drive innovation and move the organization forward.

§  Not Engaged – employees are essentially “checked out”.  They are at work physically but mentally have lost energy or passion for their work.

§  Actively Disengaged – employees are not only unhappy but busy voicing and acting out their unhappiness.  Everyday these workers are reversing the positive outcomes of their engaged co-workers.

As a concept, employee engagement is generally viewed as managing discretionary effort, that is, when employees have choices, they will act in a way that furthers their organization’s interests, not their own personal agenda. An engaged employee is a person who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work. He/she is one who is mentally and emotionally invested in his/her work, contributing to their company’s success.

Engaged employees feel a strong emotional bond to the organization they work for.  They feel connected to the company that values their contribution.  Such employees work with passion.  They are likely to build their careers with their company and contribute to its long-term growth and success. A recent McKinsey survey rightly suggests employee engagement as an important aspect of organizational well-being.


A number of HR literature states that engagement is not about creating “happy” or “loyal” employees, but about measuring the state of emotional and intellectual involvement or commitment of the workforce. It goes beyond satisfaction (“how much I like things here”) and commitment (“how much I want to be here”) to engagement (“how much I want to, and actually do, improve our business results”). Intention to stay or leave is an imperfect measure of employee engagement.   Rather, three elements are measured: say, stay and strive.  Engaged employees:

§  Speak positively about the organization to co-workers, potential employees and customers,

§  Have an intense desire to continue to work in the organization, and

§  Exert extra effort and are dedicated to doing the very best job possible to contribute to the organization’s business success.

What Drives Employee Engagement. Research has identified 8 key drivers of engagement which offer concrete targets for development:

  • Trust and integrity – How well managers communicate and ‘walk the talk’.
  • Nature of the job –Is it mentally stimulating day-to-day?
    • Line of sight between employee performance and company performance – Does the employee understand how their work contribute to the company’s performance?
    • Career Growth opportunities –Are there future opportunities for career advancement?
    • Pride about the company – How much self-esteem does the employee feel by being associated with their company?
  • Coworkers/team members – significantly influence one’s level of engagement
    • Employee development – Is the company making an effort to develop the employee’s skills?
    • Relationship with one’s manager – Does the employee value his or her relationship with his or her manager?


From these 8 drivers, three elements stand out:  contribution, connections, and growth and advancement.

Contribution. Companies with a clear mission and vision are likely to have employees who know that what they do at work contributes to the success of their organization.  Employees feel a sense of pride in what their company is striving to achieve as well as a sense of empowerment that they have a role in helping achieve those goals.


Connections. This refers to the healthy working relationships and even friendships among employees.  The paradigm that friendships at work lead to idle talk and reduced productivity has changed with the finding from a study that friendships and good relationship with co-workers are   conducive to employee engagement because employees feel connected to each other in their work.


The finding of an ASTD-Dale Carnegre Training-i4cp learning and employee engagement study has shown that the most important relationship at work is between employees and their immediate supervisors.  Supervisor-employee relationship has been found to be the most important factor influencing engagement.  In fact, it was rated higher than “opportunities to excel,” “good work-life balance” and “competitive compensation”.


In this study, most of the respondents named managers to be the group most responsible for employee engagement.  Although employees won’t stay in an organization just because they have a good relationship with their managers, a poor relationship alone is more than enough to make employees leave.  There is a popular saying that “Employees join good companies but leave due to bad managers”.  Thus, supervisors and managers are held “most” accountable for the engagement of their employees.  Organizations that hold “all managers” responsible for engagement were most likely to have a persuasive engagement-based culture.

Growth and advancement. Employees desire opportunities for growth and career advancement in their organization.  The same study shared that the “quality of training and learning opportunities” positively influenced employee engagement to a “high or very high extent”.

Application To Your Own Work Situation.  Translating the above into your own particular situation, the following are some ways you can do to promote employee engagement:


1.      Have a meeting with all your direct reports to communicate to them the following:

The mission and vision of your organization.

The long term and short term goals of your department and of your own section of which they are a part. Relate these goals to the mission and vision of your organization.

Have them list down the strengths and weaknesses of your section.  Ask the young employees to be assertive and to be open because being new, they are the ones who can see what the reality is.  Tell them that you will welcome and appreciate their inputs.

Let each one list down his/her strengths that they can use to enable your section to meet its goals.

Get suggestions from them on the action plans to address the weaknesses of your section to achieve your section’s goals.

2.      Acknowledge your employees for their participation during your section’s meetings.  Give sincere recognition for their contributions.  Look and feel happy when you do this.

3.      Know the strengths and weaknesses of all your direct reports.  Your basis for this is your observation of their performance, the output they deliver, and their work behaviors.  Validate with each one your perceptions of their strengths and areas for improvement.  Ask them what help they want from you to address their areas for growth.

4.      Tell them your own strengths and weaknesses, as a person and as their supervisor.  Validate your self-perceptions with their perceptions of you.

5.      Communicate and clarify with them your expectations of them. Ask them likewise what their expectations of you are as their supervisor.

6.      Give positive reinforcement correctly for the right behaviors done at the right time and at the right frequency  Make your positive reinforcement verbal (so that they know exactly what positive behaviors you approve of and recognize)  and sincere, i.e., look and feel happy.


Here are some rules for the efficient and effective delivery of positive reinforcement


§  Make it personal.  The positive reinforcement must mean something to the person receiving it.  Should it be given in public or in private?  Find out what is the preference of the person by observing his/her reaction when you give positive reinforcement in public or in private.

§  Give it immediately.  The longer it takes you to reinforce desired behaviors, the less effective the reinforcement becomes.  Catch them doing the right things and positively reinforce the person in the act of doing what you want them to do.

§  Make it frequent.  Can you reinforce too much?  This depend on how the praise is delivered.  If you do it wrongly, one time is too much. If you do it correctly, don’t worry about doing it too often.  People almost never complain about too much reinforcement:  they frequently complain of too little or none at all.

§  Make sure it is earned.  Indiscriminate praise is bad practice for the person receiving the praise and for the person giving it.  People respect leaders who deliver reinforcement contingent on some accomplishment.  Leaders who reinforce every behavior — positive, neutral or negative — are perceived as weak and do not get the respect of their staff.

6. Give negative reinforcement in private and at the first opportunity.  Identify the behavior you disapprove of, your feeling(s) towards it and the consequence.  This is known as the “I – message.”  Example: “I’m disappointed that you submitted your report only now when I needed it two days ago.  As a result, I could not complete my report to Mr. _____ who was waiting for it.”. End your encounter on a positive note.  “I hope you will give your report on the date agreed as you had done in the past”.  Or “I saw you use your celphone while we were having our meeting.  I’m disappointed about this because we have all agreed that non-use-of-celphone is one of our norms during meetings.  I know that texting was important for you but it is distracting to me.”

7.  Develop a strong positive relationship with your   employees.   Look for opportunities to have positive interactions with them.

§  Take your meals with them.  If they bring their lunch and eat in the pantry do the same.

§  Visit an employee in his/her workspace to see how they are doing rather than having them go to your office or work area.  This is an opportunity to give positive reinforcement for the positive behaviors you observe.

§  Have conversation with them during lunch break.  Ask your employee about how things are going on in his/her life. You could also share about your own life.

§  Make time to listen to them talk about their life and career goals.  Ask them how their present job performance will contribute to these goals.

§  Ask him/her how he was able to accomplish a difficult task and have him/her share their ideas and work practices with others in the next meeting.  Give him/her recognition for these.


When you do all the above, you are also enhancing your own EQ (Emotional Quotient) which is so important for effective leadership.


It is highly desirable that your organization launch a formal employee engagement program.  However, you don’t need to wait for this. The above suggestions can be your own initiative and will show your proactivity.


There are other resources on employee engagement from books and on-line that you can access.  Make time to read up for your own growth and self-development.


God bless you.


Josie O. Santamaria