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Creating an Engaging Culture

Much of Gallup's employee engagement advice repackages decades old motivation techniques that may improve business performance somewhat but without fully engaging employees.

Deeper engagement requires a significant culture change, one that entails involving employees more fully in management decisions.

We need to see why this is such a challenge for managers, what can be done to make organizational cultures more engaging and how employees can engage themselves.

How Cultures Disengage Employees

Organizational cultures in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. are the most individualistic on the planet according to Geert Hofstede's research (Cultures and Organizations). These cultures reward individual success and self-reliance more than teamwork and collaboration.

Individualistic managers try to inject engagement into employees with a stirring vision and volumes of one-way communication rather than involve them in their own thinking.

The metaphor of the organization-as-person blocks deeper engagement. The "head" (management) does the thinking while the "hands" (employees) do the work. Expressions such as "hired hands" and "department head" reinforce the status quo.

The popular mantra: "play to your strengths" fosters disengagement by emphasizing the manager's analytical ability. Strengths aside, it is what they most enjoy doing. Solving problems scores goals and provides managers with a sense of achievement.

The popularity of sports metaphors shows the popularity of goal scoring. This is how aspiring politicians and executives get ahead, just as goal scorers in sports get the most media attention and lucrative contracts.

Books about narcissistic and alpha male leaders highlight the excesses of particular individuals rather than the culture that gives rise to them. Marshall Goldsmith's book What Got you Here, Won't Get you There is about the excessive need of individual managers to win, to be right.

But focusing on extreme individuals obscures the fact that goal scoring is what gets rewarded. Even quieter employees say little in meetings because they can't think of any compelling content to contribute.

Unfortunately, acting as a catalyst or facilitator isn't seen as a useful way of contributing. It's just not sufficiently impactful to ask others what they think. It doesn't differentiate one individual from another, differentiation being the prime individualist driver.

According to Hofstede, individualistic Anglo-Saxon cultures are mid-way on the masculinity-femininity scale. Japan is the most masculine culture, thus the most assertive and decisive. However, the Anglo-Saxon combination of high individualism (self-reliance) and relatively strong masculinity (assertiveness and decisiveness) can stifle collaboration and engagement.

Individualistic, masculine cultures idolize visionary and charismatic leaders: those with the best answers to pressing problems who can promote them most inspiringly. Crucially, this is not just a problem with some leaders: being visionary and charismatic is how leadership is widely defined.

An inspirational delivery may engage some employees but not knowledge workers who want to be involved in strategic thinking and innovation. No one with good ideas likes to be talked at before being listened to.

Changing the Culture

The crucial step is to reduce the gap between executives and employees by eliminating the metaphor of the organization-as-person. It's not about suppressing heroes but rather providing more recognition for other ways of contributing to create a better balance between goal scoring and being a facilitator, catalyst and coach.

The CEO must do more asking than telling or selling. Managers need to balance using their analytical ability with asking engaging questions, variations on "What do you think?" such as:

  • What do you see as the main issue here?
  • What options would you propose to deal with this issue?
  • What are the pros and cons of your preferred option?
  • What new strategic ideas can you suggest?

Of course, employees who are used to following direction may not welcome such questions initially. They need to trust that they won't be blown away for disagreeing with their boss.

Delegation is the classic individualist tool for getting work done through "hands." But the very rationale for delegation is disengaging: to free the manager to do more "important" work thus keeping employees in their place as "hands."

Asking people for their advice is surely the best way of showing that they are valued. This is a much more interactive way of engaging and motivating people than the more individualist approach of doling out rewards or recognition for individual effort.

Jim Collins has influenced us to admire the humility of the level 5 leader. But merely promoting one's own ideas less assertively overlooks the level 5 leader's "first who, then what" principle of showing humility by drawing ideas for new strategies out of others. Getting "who" together to decide "what" means asking rather than selling or telling.

Language Matters

Calling managers "department heads" reinforces the metaphor of the organization-as-person. But so does calling them leaders or executives. Our idealistic image of leaders is a two-edged sword. It can be inspiring but also disempowering because of our tendency to look up to, and depend on, leaders.

Calling managers executives also suggests a large status gap between them and employees. If people are genuinely an organization's most valuable resource, then the top priority of managers should be to maximize the return on this resource.

But, the most critical skill of employees, especially knowledge workers, is their ability to think creatively, to solve difficult problems and devise innovative products or processes. Hence, the top priority of managers should be to ask employees what they think.

To create a more engaging culture, therefore, those in charge should call themselves something that reflects their primary purpose: to stimulate creative thinking in others as catalysts, facilitators or coaches thus dropping the status labels: leader and executive.

Changing the culture should include the following steps:

  • Change the language – replace status oriented labels like "leader" and "executive" with labels like "catalyst," "facilitator" or "coach."
  • Start rewarding engaging styles of managing as much as goal scoring.
  • Balance the way management works: analyzing and deciding versus being a catalyst, facilitator, coach and developer of others.
  • Train managers to ask engaging questions to develop more joint solutions and involve employees in strategic thinking, at least for their functions or departments.
  • Train managers to base their confidence as much on their facilitative skills as they do on their analytical and solution-promoting strengths.

As a rough rule of thumb, executives should devote 80% of their time to engaging others and 20% to generating their own solutions. At the front-end, these percentages should be reversed but even this level should start learning how to engage others. While those at the top must make final decisions, the thinking hierarchy must be turned upside down.

Obstacles to overcome include the following

  • Executives climb the ladder by developing and promoting their own solutions.
  • Their identity and confidence are based on their ability to "call the shots."
  • Leadership means being a charismatic visionary – promoting one's own solutions.
  • It is harder to recognize and reward the less visible style of engaging others.

There are several risks of not changing:

  • Complexity and rapid change make it harder for individuals to have all the answers.
  • The rising importance of knowledge means that content trumps form (charisma).
  • The "wisdom of crowds" makes heroic individuals a liability.
  • Innovation requires everyone to be engaged in helping the organization succeed.
  • Intelligent knowledge workers want to contribute their thinking, not just implement.
  • The creative thinking potential of young employees is underutilized.

Encouraging Employees to Engage Themselves

Creating a more engaging culture must include training employees on how to engage themselves and manage their own careers. Instead of being "hired hands," they need to act like small businesses serving internal customers. Paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, they need to stop asking what their employer can do for them and seek ways to do more for their employer.

Employees need to see the organization as a market and be more proactive in searching for "business." They need to learn to diagnose business issues by asking the same open questions that managers should be asking them. This can stimulate fresh thinking and make a contribution without employees having to promote their own solutions.

Career advancement needs to be reframed as a search for leadership opportunities, not vacant positions, but changes that employees can champion. "Business development" for entrepreneurial employees means getting involved in the projects of key influencers.

A job can morph into something new over time as new responsibilities are added and others are dropped. Entrepreneurial employees drive such career advancement proactively, not just by proposing solutions, but by asking engaging questions of their key internal customers.

Managers must be trained to foster this way of working while employees should be trained to operate as catalysts, facilitators and coaches. They need to be rewarded for so doing and learn that advancement is not just about goal scoring.

In conclusion, many organizations already encourage employees to take ownership for their careers but without the more fundamental shift from a goal scoring, individualist culture to one that is more deeply engaging. The major challenge is to de-emphasize playing to strengths that disengage employees, especially when such strengths are also those that executives most enjoy using: doing their own thinking.

Cultures that are truly engaging go beyond lip service to partnership and collaboration. In a knowledge driven age, the thinking of all employees needs to be fostered so that their minds are engaged, not just their "hands."

See alsoCultures of Disengagement, How To Be An Engaging Manager, and Four Levels of Employee Engagement.

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