Senior leaders and staff engagement

Staff talking

18 / 7 / 2014 1.23pm

NHS Employers is aware of increasing interest by senior leaders outside HR in the issue of staff engagement and positive activity around these issues.

There is a growing set of evidence on the impact that senior leaders have on staff engagement in their organisations. The Engage for Success working group released a report at the beginning of July, on the key behaviours of engaging leaders across the economy. Based on experience outside the NHS, it appears that senior leaders can help foster staff engagement in three key ways:

  • linking staff engagement to the overall aims of the organisation
  • supporting HR to improve staff engagement working with all managers
  • leading by example through developing an engaging leadership style.

Linking staff engagement to overall NHS aims

Staff engagement is key in helping organisations improve patient care and deliver high quality services. There is a clear body of research evidence demonstrating that improved staff engagement has a positive impact on patient care. For example, it is strongly linked to improved patient satisfaction and associated with lower mortality. Organisations with high levels of staff engagement also tend to have better overall organisational performance and there is clear impact in areas such as absence. Staff engagement is also a central element of successful service improvement. Recent work by Professor Michael West and colleagues, has established staff engagement as a key element in a culture, which supports delivery of safe, compassionate and quality care. His work has identified that leaders help create the conditions for staff engagement by:

  • promoting a positive climate
  • recognising staff contribution
  • giving helpful feedback
  • supporting innovation
  • promoting fairness and transparency
  • developing relationships of trusts.

There is a growing recognition of the benefits of staff engagement and senior leaders can make these links clear in their communication and in particular ensure that boards consider these issues as part of overall performance rather than a HR issue.

Supporting staff engagement

Senior leaders are best placed to convey the message that staff engagement is a responsibility for all managers and clinical leaders rather than an issue for HR alone. There is an increasing understanding of this issue, with most organisations reporting that staff engagement is a joint responsibility. Senior leaders can support HR to improve staff engagement by providing resources for internal interventions, such as engagement events or training for line managers. Senior leaders may also consider where appropriate the use of external advisers, though this is a matter for organisations based on assessment of costs and benefits.

Senior leaders can support staff engagement though wider work on organisational development to strengthen capacity and ensuring the leadership development programmes take staff engagement skills into account. Many organisations have also found that the development of local values based on those in the NHS Constitution, can also help strengthen engagement. Some trusts are now linking appraisal and promotion to behaviour based on their values. Local awards schemes and other formal recognition programmes can also have a positive impact.

An engaging leadership style

Leaders can demonstrate their support for engagement in principle through the practice of a more engaging personal leadership style. This can be shown through the way they interact with colleagues and the board, for example, seeking feedback and presenting options. Because leaders remain responsible for decision and consultation it does not mean a consensus needs to be achieved on every issue.

The behaviour of senior leaders will be scrutinised by staff and have an impact on credibility. Recent research on rebuilding trust in organisations has shown that organisations can sustain trust, even in difficult times, if leaders have the confidence of staff and behave in an engaging way. These issues are explored further in forthcoming research.

There has been an increase in senior leaders seeking to improve communication by direct face to face interaction with staff through ward visits and open meetings. These have had a positive impact on visibility of senior leaders and it is important that this momentum is maintained. In many areas, senior clinicians have implemented ‘back to the ward’ working shifts to experience front line pressures and these have also been well received. These work best when they are learning exercises and include time for reflection and discussion with staff although this can be difficult due to work pressures.  

There has also been a rise in direct communication from senior leaders through newsletters and online blogs. These have a positive impact on engagement when combined with opportunities for staff to feedback thoughts and suggestions. One of the main areas of weakness according to the staff survey, is that staff feel their suggestions are not acted on. Senior leaders can tackle this by ensuring that ideas that are submitted are responded to.

The NHS is seeking to develop a new approach to leadership skills, which is more suited to the challenges it currently faces. This is often referred to as developing a more distributed or collective leadership style. A more engaging leadership style from senior leaders will contribute to developing this new approach to working with partners and patients. There are already many examples of this type of approach in the NHS and NHS Employers can also provide examples of approach outside the NHS.

Please contact Steven Weeks to share examples on these issues or request further information on these areas.

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