The Moderating Influence of Senior Leadership on Work Engagement at Colleges and Universities

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The U.S. . higher education system faces unprecedented challenges that command considerable attention, scrutiny, and public debate. . Colleges and universities have struggled to respond to a complex and volatile institutional landscape, with senior college leaders facing competing and often conflicting pressures to reduce costs, absorb reductions in government support, and improve outcomes. Resolving these challenges requires faculty, staff, and administrators to work together. Over the past 20 years, employee engagement has gained prominence as a measurement of worker experience related to achieving desirable organizational outcomes. Numerous private organizations have developed engagement programs. They have begun measuring engagement levels and identifying factors that contribute to higher levels of employee engagement in efforts to boost morale, performance, retention, and institutional reputation, and to build better work environments. Yet, research has shown that only about one third of employees are actually engaged, and the rift between employees and employers may be even greater in higher education institutions. The purpose of this study was to explore the extent to which senior leadership can positively influence faculty and staff work engagement and performance-motivation efforts at colleges and universities. The study involved examining agreement levels of responses to six questions assessing the perceptions of senior leaders; these questions are part of the “Great Colleges to Work For” program, administered by ModernThink on behalf of the Chronicle of Higher Education. College representatives answer a 60-question survey and compete for their respective institution to be recognized as a Great College to Work For based on overall survey responses. Six questions serve as prompts for key engagement factors that the literature has shown to be related to engagement and leadership such as vision, communication, employee well-being, trust, and value congruence. Two research questions guided this study: What is the relationship between high degrees of affinity and positive attitudes expressed by faculty and staff toward campus senior leaders, and workplace engagement? How do faculty and staff perceptions of senior leaders vary based upon demographic traits of campus employees and characteristics of the campuses themselves? The study offers an overview of engagement, including its various definitions, constructs, and conceptual/theoretical frameworks. It also explores relevant studies that have examined the status of engagement in the workplace, the factors that drive it, its correlation with leadership, the link between engagement and performance, and the difference between engagement and other related concepts. Cross-tabulated results are examined to determine agreement levels of respondents by position type (i.e., faculty vs. non faculty), institution type, age, gender, length of service, and whether respondents were from a Recognized or non-Recognized Great College to Work For school. The impact of leadership perceptions, as suggested by the survey results, is discussed in the context of correlations between leadership and engagement supported by the literature. The study concludes with a discussion of implications, observations, and recommendations for further study, which can help broaden understandings of how leaders can better identify and harness engagement drivers to motivate employees and help institutions overcome current and future challenges.

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  • 03/05/2024
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