There is plenty of research supporting what most of us already believe: people disengage with organizations because their leaders and managers create an environment that is… well, hopeless. Even more troubling is the fact that employee engagement in the U.S. is not only low (less than 33%), it’s been relatively static for more than ten years. For all the talk about engagement, for every best-seller and management fad for the past decade, it’s time to admit that what we’re doing isn’t working.
How is it that so many leaders and managers get engagement wrong?
A Dated Perspective
There is no question that the consistently low levels of employee engagement are a failure of management. In my experience, this failure stems from misperceptions around the very purpose of leading and managing others.
Engaging employees requires abilities far beyond those of the “good managers” described in timeless best-sellers and business school lectures – those who perform the classic managerial functions of planning, organizing, and controlling. When it comes right down to it, these are relatively static skills; and though necessary for administration, they simply aren’t sufficient enough to empower dynamic results.
To be fair, these functions are the product of prior operating conditions: a time when success often relied upon accumulating more traditional resources. Financial capital, new technology, and proprietary information or processes, for example, once created identity – distinguishing the brand, energizing marketing campaigns, and even fueling recruitment and retention. Those days have passed.
Financial Capital: Perhaps the least differentiating resource these days, funding sources are …well …everywhere. Consider the once challenging arena of venture capital which provided nearly $60 Billion in financial capital in 2015 alone. Equity capital, angel investors, and even reality television shows have joined in the popularity. Got something your friends like? Go collaborative – crowdfunding is currently providing more than $30 Billion a year.
New Technology: Technology is so ubiquitous that it’s no longer a necessary resource. Most businesses don’t need tech novelty or uniqueness; they simply need to take full advantage of the existing availability. Have you got an idea of an app for that? You’re not alone. More than 1,000 apps are submitted to Apple each day. Apple’s App Store crossed the 2 million mark last June (2016) firmly placing Apple in second place behind Google Play’s 2.2 million available apps.
Proprietary Information: In today’s 24/7 transparent world, gossip is immediate, news (when not fake) is a produced commodity, and even our individual, personal privacy is a thing of the past. Still think you’ve got something no one else has? You’re still not alone. Nearly 1 in 5 founders believe that they’re raising a unicorn. (…that’s a lot of unicorns!)
Today, traditional resources make you average.
Success in business now requires a sustainable competitive advantage – and this requires formidable, cumulative, renewable, and therefore hard-to-imitate factors. It requires invincibly unique (in other words: human) factors. Zappos, Warby Parker, Southwest Airlines, Twitter, Chevron, SquareSpace, Google, REI – all leverage how they treat employees and customers (their “culture”) to create a sustainable competitive advantage. And herein lies the key:
As Simon Sinek recently reminded us, leaders are not responsible for results. They are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results – or perhaps more accurately, they are responsible for creating and maintaining an atmosphere that empowers others to achieve results. Managers are in the people business not the resource business. Hire “A” Players and then get out of their way.
Which brings us to the second reason so many managers and leaders get engagement wrong:
The Power Trap
Too many managers fall into the power trap of setting all the goals, making all the decisions, and carefully detailing every step their employee should take. Although their intentions may be to increase performance through what they perceive to be as hands-on leadership or control, confusing leadership with authority stifles growth – first personally, then cumulatively – encouraging only hopelessness and disengagement.
Engaged employees are hopeful employees. They envision a future they desire and are creative and resourceful in pursuing it. They also tend to be independent thinkers, requiring some degree of autonomy to express and utilize adaptability and resilience. But in a restrictive, non-supportive work environment, hopeful employees become frustrated; unable to exert their energy in a positive direction, they look instead towards alternatives.
Those who tolerate or even succumb to power come across as conformists. These employees spend hours appearing busy but are generally unwilling or unable to accept new responsibilities, make independent decisions, or engage with challenging problems (sadly, most organizational reward systems target just this type of behavior). Nothing good – certainly nothing that contributes to a competitive advantage – comes from prioritizing self-interest.
And these “good soldiers” bring us to the third reason so many managers and leaders get engagement wrong:
The Warfare Analogy: Command & Control
The war for talent… the war for customers… the war for market share… you can blame it on Hollywood or Sun Tzu, but the business as warfare analogy is overused, inaccurate, and damaging. Sure there are threats we face, but they’re more psychological than anything else (and we tend to create the big ones for ourselves).
The greatest problem with the war analogy is that it conjures an image of shoring up the front line – emphasizing a managerial role that looks for what is wrong, what isn’t working, or what needs fixing. And all this attention on weakness, keeps fallacies in the crosshairs (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Some refer to this as reactive management mode but I prefer to think of it this way: Fixation inspires exaggeration – reinforcing over and over again that things just aren’t good enough – accelerating the downward spiral in performance and engagement. But hope breaks the cycle. It’s the antidote for fear and because it involves agency (taking action), it keeps us moving towards the outcomes that matter most to us.
Gallup analyzed 2,000 managers’ responses to open-ended questions about their management approaches. Of particular interest was whether the supervisor believed it was better to devote more of his or her energy to “fixing” people’s weaknesses or to further improving an area of strength. On average, a workgroup led by a strengths advocate was almost twice as likely to create above-average results as one led by a manager biased toward patching up problems. Other studies have shown strengths-based management practices increase engagement (average of 33%) and productivity (average net gain of $5.4 million), yield fewer absences (down 24%) and lower turnover (average of 13%), and increased sales (average of 11%) and profitability (average of 20%).
Despite all the evidence (and much of this research isn’t exactly new), the Gallup data suggests that a disturbingly high percentage of managers are not meeting the needs of their employees. Actively disengaged employees outnumber engaged employees by nearly 2-to-1. Getting managers to encourage hope, however, requires some new thinking (and likely some help).
Which brings us to the fourth reason so many managers and leaders get engagement wrong:
Aversion to Getting Help
Most managers simply don’t know any better. They’re frequently fixated on accomplishing the objectives they’ve been given and rarely understand the effect of their behavior on others. Moreover, most managers believe that they are doing their jobs well and don’t see a need for a change. They may resist help for fear of appearing weak or ineffectual.
Even though it may have been the past environment or a prior set of experiences that resulted in the position of manager, to move forward there should be a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. Take a lesson from every star athlete, actor, or business leader: when it comes to setting a new benchmark, breaking records, or a standout performance, a good coach will give you insight and perspective. There is simply too much to learn, too much to accomplish, to avoid any opportunity for assistance. No matter where you are in your career, a coach can make you work harder and progress faster than you would on your own.
Hopeful managers and leaders are self-aware. They know their capabilities, values, and vulnerabilities. In other words, they’re authentic. They’re involved (and you want them to be) because this is the type of leader that others want to follow. They accept and respect others, supporting both the goal and the pathway to reach that goal – even when one or both are non-traditional.
How to Develop Hope in Work Teams
If you’ve read The Hope Narrative then you already know about the power of hope – not the commonplace version that involves some form of wishful thinking, but the personal and corporate capital version of hope that includes the mental willpower and waypower to achieve goals.
Rick Snyder, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Kansas, is credited with originating Hope Theory: a “thinking state” in which an individual is capable of setting a goal, taking action towards achieving the goal, and developing alternatives when obstacles arise. Basically, another day (or financial quarter, or even year) at the office. Or is it?
Establishing Clear and Meaningful Goals
Hope allows people to approach problems with a mindset and strategy-set suitable to success, thereby increasing the chances they will actually accomplish their goals. The goals themselves, however, are deserving of some attention.
There is an undeniable link between goal setting and performance, but when it comes to hope, two characteristics must be present: meaning and clarity.
Some managers believe that goal setting is a form of motivation for the wrong reasons. They know that their employees’ performance is under their evaluation so they set goals for them in relation to their own agenda. I’ve never seen this process produce the quality or quantity of work that employees are capable of and, if taken too far, this parochial approach can extinguish hope altogether.
The real power in goal setting is in the relationship. Meaningful goal setting is a collaborative process. This thought isn’t new (it’s a common theme in Tom Peter’s In Search of Excellence and Jim Collin’s Good to Great – both of which studied the characteristics of well-run businesses): when employees sense that their input actually has an influence on goals, that their management listens, they become invested in the goals and energized to pursue them. If a goal must be set without input (read as rarely occurring), then the rationale for the goal must be clearly communicated in an effort to make up for the collaborative steps that were just skipped. In other words, get them involved.
“Exactly what kind of goal should I be setting,” I’m often asked. There’s no one correct answer, of course, but to get you in the right mindset, consider it this way: A goal shouldn’t be so easy that it’s a guarantee, and it shouldn’t be so hard that it’s totally impossible. Look for those “50/50” moments – things that can be done but will be tough to pull off. 50/50 goals are always meaningful and inherently require some clarity to explain.
This one is a little trickier to cover with brevity because it involves bottom-up decision making, functional interpersonal communication, opportunities for participation, task autonomy, and employee engagement (basically all the things that clients typically hire me to work on in the first place). For now, just think of it this way: a workforce with the power, freedom, and authority to make decisions and choices has agency – the power to affect their own outcomes.
You can read The Hope Narrative for more on involvement, but let me add two additional take-aways here:
#1 – When employees understand what needs to be accomplished, they know what’s expected of them. Clear and meaningful goals tie and individual’s work to the overall objective, better enabling them to make their own decisions of how to spend their time and effort to promote the overall mission.
#2 – The idea is to establish an environment where employees can hit their goals – you can keep them challenging while also being realistic – because experiencing meaningful success increases productivity, commitment, and hope. To do that, they must be supported with resources.
Developing alternative courses of action requires some enabling. Occasionally this will include time, money, or other material resources. But it will always include support. Here’s what you’re looking for: The more disengaged the employee, the more defeating situational constraints are. You’ve seen it before. It manifests itself as frustration and, with no alternatives seen, develops into a victimized perspective that results in hopelessness and eventually apathy. Top-down support and belief are among the most powerful resources in building hope.
Not enough leaders and managers consider hope in their overall strategy. When they do, it’s like hitting a light switch – and hope becomes a critical component of the organization’s sustainable competitive advantage.
The good news is that if your competitors haven’t yet realized it, there may be time for you to remarkably get ahead of them. And if you’re in a highly competitive marketplace, hope is among the most strategic opportunities you have for differentiation.
Want to see where you stand? Try this simple exercise (which originates in Buckingham and Coffman’s book, First, Break All the Rules with only slight revision).
On the left-hand side of a blank piece of paper, write down the names of those you manage from most productive to least productive. On the right-hand side, write down the names of the people you spend your time with – the most amount time spent with at the top and least amount of time spent with at the bottom. Now draw a line connecting each name on the right where it appears on the left. If your lines cross, say Buckingham and Coffman, you’re spending your time ineffectively. I would add that you’re also missing out on a definitive strategic element:
Spending the majority of your time with strugglers emphasizes the “command and control” perspective – which may have a place with novice employees, but offers little return anyplace else. This can be difficult because understandably the urge to jump in and do a subordinate’s job is great (the manager knows how to do the job exceedingly well – perhaps better than any others – and has presumably been promoted because of it). But the strategic role of management is not controlling everyone’s work; it’s turning talent into performance. And this is best accomplished by prioritizing hope.
Remember: Hopeful people and organizations are those that develop strategic initiatives emphasizing meaningful goal setting, promoting both the creative agencies to pursue these goals and the resilience to overcome the inevitable obstacles that will be encountered.
Have another suggestion for why leaders and managers get engagement wrong? Add your thoughts to the comments below.