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Cultures of Disengagement

Engaged employees feel a strong sense of ownership, some for their jobs, but fewer for their department or the business as a whole. Employees are disengaged because managers hog the lion's share of ownership. They delegate execution and routine tasks, keeping more interesting work for themselves.

Organizational cultures are based on the metaphor of the organization-as-person, which means that the "head" thinks and the "hands" do, hence why we refer to Department "Heads" and sometimes call employees "hired hands." With such a mindset, it's very difficult for managers to ask employees "What do you think?" An executive who made a practice of being so engaging moved to a new company and, when he asked for the input of an old-timer, one of his new direct reports, the old-timer asked him in return: "Do you want me to tell you how to do your job?" What better proof that we expect managers to have the answers? Surprise, surprise, they identify with the role of solution generator. It's how they got promoted, after all, what they're good at.

Scoring goals gets rewarded because organizational cultures are based on male values that fuel hyper-competition. Businesses need to be competitive to beat their competitors hence the popularity of sports and war metaphors. Unfortunately, internal competition for promotion is as fierce as it is between businesses. Just as the best goal scorers in sports earn the most money, executives with the best ideas to improve the business win the top slots. In this context it is no surprise that so-called "alpha males" often win out.

In The Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson tell us that alpha males ‘’are aggressive, results-driven achievers who insist on top performance from themselves and others.’’ Michael Eisner, formerly of Disney, is a classic alpha male. Chainsaw Al Dunlap, famous for ruthless cost-cutting, is another. Ludeman and Erlandson endorse a more feminine style of leadership, noting that "female managers tend to be perceived as more consultative and inclusive, whereas men are more directive and task oriented.’’

Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There argues that executives need to rid themselves of 20 bad habits such as never apologizing or thanking people, taking all the credit and interrupting rather than listening. As Goldsmith explains: "Winning too much is easily the most common behavioral problem that I observe in successful people.’’

But even less aggressive types base their self-worth on goal scoring. When they have little to say in meetings it's because they only see value in making statements about the content under discussion. Being engaging just doesn't occur to them. Or if it does, they don't see it as "real work."

In cultures shaped by masculine values, too many employees are mere onlookers. With no say in its direction, they feel little commitment to the overall enterprise. They can only observe the battlefield from the sidelines as passive onlookers to see who gets to call the shots while betting on the likely winners and casualties.

Doing versus Engaging

Bearing in mind that thinking is work too, albeit mental work, managers spend more time doing than managing, including negotiating deals, solving major customer problems and developing new markets, forging new strategies, thinking up new products, to name a few. 

In "The Effective Manager" I listed the following reasons why managers DO things rather than manage:

  • Doing is more fun than managing.
  • Facilitating, nurturing, supporting and developing do not feel like real work.
  • Doing things, scoring goals, is the core of their identity, why they got promoted.
  • Management responsibility generates a strong feeling of ownership.
  • Ruthless accountability discourages mistakes (get it right first time).
  • Authority confers the right to call the shots.
  • To avoid giving the boss bad news, doing things to ensure they are done right.
  • Thinking creatively or strategically is harder work than concrete forms of doing.
  • A bias for action encourages doing, so managers feel like they are achieving.
  • Lean and mean demands that everyone do more.
  • Doing is faster; there is little time to facilitate.

How Career Advancement Works

Career progression is based on making a visible impact through:

  • Achieving outstanding results
  • Scoring goals in meetings

To achieve outstanding results, managers must be good with people, but real fast-trackers also score goals whenever they interact with key players across the organization. They present solutions that impress anyone willing to listen. The smartest, most confident, most vocal and assertive are increasingly competitive as the number of slots gets fewer near the top. Executives are the same as politicians campaigning to get elected: the key to success is convincing people that you have better answers to pressing problems than any of your competitors.

The Engaging Manager

Managing has always meant getting work done by delegating tasks. But delegation is a two-edged sword. It can develop employees but it is also a means of freeing managers to do the "more important" work of scoring goals. Delegation fosters execution by the "hands" leaving the "head" free to do the thinking, making strategy off limits to employees.

Delegation was essential in the industrial age but in a knowledge driven era managers need to get mental work done through others too: thinking creatively, solving complex problems and making delicate decisions. Getting mental work done through people means asking engaging questions such as:

  • You’ve made a good case for doing X. What do you see as the disadvantages, risks, costs?
  • What other options are worth considering?  Their pros and cons, risks, costs?
  • What evidence do we have that your proposal will work?
  • What are the implications of doing X for other functions, strategies, customers, etc?
  • What potential obstacles do you foresee? How would you propose addressing them?
  • Who else has any ideas on this issue?
  • How can we test your idea to verify that it will work in our context?
  • How can we put your plan into action? Who else needs to be involved?

This form of contribution is not as much fun as generating solutions. Crucially, it doesn’t get rewarded. Being great facilitators, catalysts or coaches is not the fast track to high office.

The Effective Manager

No manager should only facilitate and never do anything but it is arguable that the balance is seriously out of whack. How much time to spend engaging others is an investment decision that must be made in context. It depends on the likely return: how much value would be added by greater engagement of these particular employees?

Unfortunately, managers see their role as a decision making one. This is self-serving because it is how they want to spend their time regardless of whether it is justifiable on investment grounds. But it is arguable that facilitation IS their job or at least a much bigger part of it than they recognize.

So, cultures are disengaging because managers do all the thinking and thus feel the strongest ownership for business direction. Managers argue that their team members have little to say about the bigger picture. But with no time invested in fostering their interest and developing their perspective, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Balancing Facilitating and Doing

  • Reward facilitation. The performance of managers in meetings should be rated highly only if they do some facilitating.
  • Train managers on how to facilitate, how to engage others.
  • Revise the managerial role and criteria for advancement.
  • Recognize teams, and those who manage them, for generating the most bottom-up improvement ideas.
  • Reward objective measures of employee engagement such as turnover and the number of good ideas or innovations generated by team members in addition to survey results.

Ironically, managers need to foster goal-scoring in their teams just as they struggle to do less of it themselves. But non-managerial employees can also be trained and rewarded for facilitating so that employees and managers alike achieve the same balance of skills.

As long as organizations confine employees to execution (as "hands"), while allowing managers to do all the thinking (as "heads"), deep employee engagement won't happen.

Revised January 2, 2012. The original version was published in Human Resources IQ, May 5, 2010. See also: How Engaging Are You?How To Be An Engaging Manager, and Four Levels of Employee Engagement.

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