Who has the biggest impact on front-line employee engagement?

Todd Leach | May 1, 2019 Todd Leach 05/01/19

If you’ve held positions in workforce management, you’ve heard the phrase “Engagement starts at the top”—and you also probably know how true that is. Our research repeatedly shows top-performing organizations have highly engaged executives, and engagement levels tend to cascade accordingly across the organization. In other words, the further down the organizational hierarchy you go, the less engaged employees are on average.

Unfortunately, that means your least engaged employees are typically the ones on the front line, directly interacting with customers in ways that shape brand perceptions and influence future purchase decisions. So how do you make sure they’re as engaged as possible?

Shifting focus to where it matters most

Common knowledge would say location-level engagement falls on the shoulders of the location (or general) manager. But one trend we’re seeing bear out across nearly every industry is that shift leaders (or assistant managers) actually have a bigger impact on front-line engagement than location managers.


The funny thing is, every time I deliver this insight, the immediate reaction of just about everyone in the room is “That makes perfect sense.” That’s because while location managers are focused on larger-scale responsibilities critical to day-to-day operations, shift managers are more in the weeds with the front-line staff, doing things like:

  • Assigning duties to individual team members
  • Jumping between tasks during peak periods
  • Quickly resolving team conflicts as they arise

Not every role gets the attention it deserves

Of course, it doesn’t take long for that immediate “Of course” reaction to give way to a look of slight panic as everyone slowly realizes this position may not be getting enough organizational attention. For the vast majority of service industry companies, the hiring process is considerably less stringent for shift managers than it is for location managers.

At best, shift managers get promoted to the position because they excelled in front-line roles. At worst, they’re just the ones who have shown up for work the most often, the longest. The reality is that even if they excelled in their previous roles, those abilities don’t necessarily translate to the type of leadership skills needed for team management.

This is compounded by the fact that, similar to the less-stringent hiring process, training for shift leaders is considerably less comprehensive (or sometimes non-existent). That lack of training and role readiness eventually causes shift leaders to score lower on some critical drivers of engagement than the front-line employees they supervise.


Specifically, the measures most affected include:

  • Recognition: With the added responsibilities, we often find that location managers fail to continue providing recognition to their newly hired and more responsible front-line supervisors. In some ways, it’s the perfect storm for these new managers. Not only do they get to deal with being the person responsible for putting out the “fires” on a shift and filling in for front-line employees not pulling their weight, but they also seem to be forgotten when it comes to receiving recognition. Our observations seem to be that location managers are not immediately clear they are largely responsible for providing this recognition and encouraging front-line employees to give recognition to shift leaders. It’s also clear that location managers aren’t sure how to provide this recognition. And that’s problematic, because shift leaders need to have a clear model for recognition best practices if they’re going to be effective at recognizing front-line employees for great work.
  • Having the equipment needed for the job: While a new shift leader may be familiar with the tools from previous experience, they may not be ready to interact with them in the ways they’ll need to. In other words, checking the weekly schedule isn’t the same as managing it, and reporting an equipment concern isn’t the same as submitting official work tickets.
  • Having the information needed for the job: This one can be especially damaging, as information often has to cascade across levels of management to reach the front line in a timely manner. We find the communication breakdown often happens between location managers and shift managers, and guess who your front line employee looks to when they need information during their shift. That’s right—the shift managers, who feel they don’t have the information they need. Needless to say, these communication issues have to be ironed out quickly and effectively.
  • Equipping shift managers for success. It may seem obvious, but it’s worth spelling out. If your shift managers have the biggest impact on front-line engagement and they’re scoring lower on critical engagement measures, that can lead to some major issues. Fortunately, there are some key steps you can take as an organization:
  • Acknowledge how important the role is. This will go a long way in helping you justify the increased investment you’ll likely need to make. If you’re already measuring engagement—and looking at segmentation to see how different roles experience and impact the workplace environment—analyze the data to quantify the shift leader’s impact on front-line engagement.
  • Put more thought into how you select and promote shift managers. If you use a selection tool to aid in the hiring process for front-line staff, consider the fact that the qualities it’s calibrated for may not necessarily translate to managerial duties. Know which qualities to look for and make sure you’re promoting based on a combination of experience, merit, and potential.
  • Treat the position like a new hire. It can be frustrating to go from excelling at your job one day to feeling like you’re constantly struggling with new responsibilities. Remember shift leaders are going from completing day-to-day tasks to leading teams—and that’s quite the learning curve. Just as with any position, make sure the right support systems are in place, including comprehensive training and onboarding processes.
  • Recognize them already! One of the easiest things you can do to make sure this critical position sticks around longer is to acknowledge their good work. Make a point to ask them how they want to be recognized and articulate for them what you are looking for in clear terms, including specific behaviors you want them to execute. And when those behaviors happen, be the first to praise and reward their performance. 

Bottom line:

Front-line engagement is by far the most complicated aspect of workforce management. But too often, those of us in executive positions trick ourselves into thinking we’ll be able to solve it with the perfect top-down initiative. Sometimes we’d be better served to stop shouldering the responsibility for every employee’s engagement and start empowering those in positions to effect meaningful change.

Read more insights surfaced through SMG’s employee engagement research by checking out our report: Five things we learned from talking to one million employees.

Todd Leach
Sr. Vice President, Client Insights

Customer Experience Update