Command Issue May 2021

3 Supervisory Tips for Improving Employee Engagement

By Joseph Fitzgerald, Ph.D.

Joseph Fitzgerald has a doctoral degree in organizational leadership from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He is a sergeant in the Berwyn Police Department and the founder of The Peele Group, a consulting firm.


Employee engagement is a vital component of an effective organization. "Extensive research consistently demonstrates a strong positive relationships between high levels of employee engagement and desired organizational outcomes such as customer satisfaction, safety, low turnover, productivity, and profitability" (Marrelli, 2009, p. i). Unfortunately, recent studies estimate that less than 30 percent of employees feel fully engaged at their workplace (Federman, 2009, p. 3). As a result, employee engagement remains an untapped resource for the majority of organizations, creating a need to develop strategies to cultivate highly engaged employees.

Supervisors have the ability to profoundly influence the level of engagement experienced by their subordinate employees. "The conditions that lead to employee engagement are most salient in their local work teams, with significant influences from the employee's supervisor" (Asplund & Blacksmith, 2012, p. 354). This article discusses three specific supervisor behaviors that directly influence employee engagement:

  • The supervisor's choice of leadership style,
  • The development of a fair work environment, and
  • The content of performance evaluations.
  • Given the importance of employee engagement to organizational performance, police leaders cannot afford to ignore the link between supervisor behavior and employee engagement.

Supervisors and Employee Engagement: Leadership Style Counts

Employee engagement is a relatively new organizational concept. Engagement is defined as "a high level of motivation to perform well at work combined with passion for the work" (Marrelli, 2009, p. 1). Highly engaged employees will invest themselves intellectually and emotionally into the successful completion of their job responsibilities. They experience personal and professional satisfaction from a job well done.
Despite the relative newness of the concept, employee engagement is recognized as a vital component of an effective organization. Employee engagement is strongly correlated with a wide range of advantages, including increased employee loyalty, reduced employee turnover, high performance and enhanced profitability (Federman, 2009). Highly engaged employees will generally outperform lesser engaged workers with similar skills and competencies (Marrelli, 2009). Many leaders are working to develop new strategies and policies to promote employee engagement (Frank et al., 2004).

Supervisors can directly influence the level of employee engagement through the selection and utilization of transformational leadership. Transformational leaders focus upon developing the intrinsic motivation of their employees. It is a very demanding method of leadership because it requires leaders to get to know their followers while developing strategies that suit each individual's specific needs and aspirations. Transformational leaders often provide professional development opportunities to their employees in order to grant the employee greater autonomy within the workplace. "Employees are mentored, developed, and empowered to make decisions about their jobs, organizations, and careers" (Mosley & Patrick, 2011, p. 85). The transformational leader's delegation of some power to the employee fosters employee motivation and self-actualization.

This leadership approach is consistent with research examining the influence of supervisors over employee engagement. Employee engagement is fostered by supervisors expressing faith in the employee's abilities and offering opportunities to exercise independence. "A supervisor who understands the employee may offer the employee autonomy and thereby encourages self-initiation" (Bakker, 2010, p. 238). Such strategies are already part of the approach of a transformational leader, making this form of leadership appear particularly well suited to fostering employee engagement.

Research studies evaluating transformational leaders confirm a link between this type of leadership and improvements in employee engagement. Ghafoor et al. (2011) distributed questionnaires to 270 workers and their managers to determine the mode of leadership exercised by the managers and the impact of that leadership style on the engagement and performers of their workers. The employees working under managers using transformational leadership strategies scored higher on measures of employee performance and employee engagement. The researchers hypothesized that transformational leadership practices, such as delegation, transfer a psychological stake in the organization's success to the empowered employee. This stake creates sense of psychological ownership and responsibility, which encourages the employee to become more engaged. These empirical results confirmed previous research also linking transformational leadership to increased levels of employee engagement (Koppula, 2008).

The contrary is likely also true. Transactional leaders use punishments and rewards to motivate their employees. Their power is rooted in rank, and empowerment strategies are rarely utilized. While transformational leadership encourages employee engagement, transactional leadership likely undermines engagement by keeping employees dependent upon the authority of their supervisors.

Fostering a Fair Work Environment

Supervisors can also encourage employee engagement through the cultivation of a fair workplace. Employee trust is directly linked to employee engagement (Schneider et al., 2010). Supervisors influence employee engagement by establishing a climate of fairness. They achieve this goal in two ways. First, supervisors influence the appearance of fairness through their personal conduct. Supervisors that appear to favor particular employees will undermine the development of a climate of fairness.

In addition, supervisors can develop and implement policies that enforce fairness within the workplace. The development and enforcement of fair procedures is likely more important to the development of a climate of fairness than the personal conduct of the supervisor. As Schneider et al. (2010) note, "feeling fairly treated is a function of supervisory, co-worker, and system attributes (benevolence, capability, integrity) but perhaps more importantly, the fact that they happen in procedurally fair ways" (p. 167). For example, the development and enforcement of sexual harassment and anti-discrimination policies or policies aimed at encouraging minority success can create the appearance of an organization interested in treating its employees fairly, encouraging loyalty and creating engagement.

The Importance of Feedback via Performance Evaluations

One important practice that reflects the perception of fairness is the performance evaluation. Supervisors who perform fair performance evaluations that recognize the effort of their subordinates can directly influence employee engagement. The process of evaluation creates the opportunity for supervisors to recognize performance improvements and goal attainment, promoting employee engagement. In 2009, Gallup conducted a poll of American workers to evaluate the impact of supervisor feedback upon engagement. Based upon the answers to survey questions, the study divided the population into three groups: those who felt that their employers offered predominantly positive feedback, those who felt that their supervisors focused upon negative feedback, and those received little to no feedback of any kind. The Gallup study revealed that the most engaged employee group was composed of those workers who received predominantly positive feedback. Just one percent of those workers feel actively disengaged, supporting the idea that positive feedback and recognition fosters engagement.

Interestingly, supervisors do not need to shower an employee with compliments to encourage engagement. Negative performance evaluations or constructive criticism can also promote engagement. In fact, negative comments are more effective at encouraging employee engagement than silence. The Gallup study is notable for its revelation that workers prefer negative feedback over no feedback at all. "Being overlooked, it seems, is more harmful to employees' engagement than having to discuss their weaknesses with their manager" (Brim & Asplund, 2009, p. 1). The ignored workers, those who receive no or minimal evaluations lacking real feedback, were twice as likely to feel disengaged as those who received primarily negative feedback.


For good or ill, supervisors exercise considerable influence over the engagement levels felt by their employees. This article explored the ways that supervisors both bolster and harm employee engagement. Some of the insight offered by this article is intuitive. Leadership strategies that empower employees encourage engagement. Employees feel more engaged when they perceive fairness in the workplace. Employees are also more likely to feel actively engaged when their performance is appreciated by their supervisors. Employees respond well and become actively engaged when they receive praise or when their effort is recognized as a valuable contribution to the wellbeing of the organization. Employees who feel ignored or unappreciated are likely to feel disengaged. However, this article also highlighted the fact that supervisors do not always need to be positive to encourage engagement. Employees respect honest critical feedback and even negative comments offered by supervisors are better than no comments at all.


Asplund, J. & Blacksmith, N. (2012). Productivity through strengths. In Cameron, K. & Spreitzer, G (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (pp. 353-365). New York: Oxford University Press.

Bakker, A. (2010). Engagement and 'job crafting': engaged employees create their own great place to work. In Albrecht, S. (ed.). Handbook of employee engagement: Perspectives, issues, research and practice. (pp. 229-244). Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.

Brim, B. & Asplund, J. (2009). Driving engagement by focusing on strengths. Gallop Business Journal. Retrieved from engagement-focusing-strengths.aspx.

Federman, B. (2009). Employee engagement: A roadmap for creating profits, optimizing performance and increasing loyalty. San Francisco: John Wiley & sons, Inc.

Frank, F., Finnegan, R. & Taylor, C. (2004). The race for talent: retaining and engaging workers in the 21st Century. Human Resource Planning, 12-15.
Ghafoor, A., Qureshi, T., Khan, M., Hijazi, S. (2011). Transformational leadership, employee engagement and performance: Mediating effect of psychological ownership. African Journal of Business Management 5(17): 7391-7403.

Koppula, R. (2008). Examining the relationship between transformational leadership and engagement. Master's Theses, Paper 3482. Retrieved from

Marrelli, A. (2009). Management for engagement -- Communication, connection and courage. A Report to the President and the Congress of the United States by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. Washington, DC: U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Mosley, D., Patrick, D. (2011). Leadership and followership: the dynamic process of building high performance cultures. Organization Development Journal 29(2): 85-102.

Schneider, B., Macey, W., Barbera, K. & Young, S. (2010). The role of employee trust in understanding employee engagement. In Albrecht, S. (ed.). Handbook of employee engagement: Perspectives, issues, research and practice (pp. 159-173). Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.