The way to engage employees is to disengage management

Gallup studies have shown that employee disengagement has held level for 10 years:



There is variability geographically, and more critically, the companies with the highest levels of employee engagement are 60 percent more likely to be in the top quartile for overall “business health,” according to McKinsey studies.

What’s jumping out at me is the fact that disengagement is level over a 10-year time frame. Yes, companies may change their standings, but as a business community only 3 employees in 10 is actively engaged at work.

Therefore one or more of the following must be true:

  • Whatever organizations are doing to counter disengagement isn’t working.
  • Organizations aren’t doing anything about disengagement.
  • What organizations think decreases disengagement doesn’t and may be actually increasing it.
  • The fundamental relationship between managers and their reports — direct or indirect — leads to disengaged employees.

As I said, all or some of these statements must be true. Let’s imagine, as a thought experiment, that the last one in particular is true.

Frederick Herzberg is a famous work psychologist who found a connection between engagement at work and autonomy and self-direction at work. So we can turn the thought experiment around as an argument: A major factor in worker disengagement is that management is unwilling to yield enough autonomy to workers, where “enough” is defined as the amount that rekindles their interest in the work.

I could rephrase that: Employee disengagement is the side effect of managers that are too engaged in the work of their reports. To make employees more connected to their work, managers need to loosen their control of employees and allow greater degrees of autonomy.

I also believe that there is a subtle shift involved as people become more engaged. They are not simply getting in line to support company strategy and to subordinate themselves to the company. The paradox involves getting people engaged in their own work instead of efforts to get them engaged in the company.

Instead, as companies grant them more autonomy, they become committed to and identify with a set of values about how work and work relations should operate. And two of those principles are that workers should be as autonomous as possible in their own work and that those involved in co-work should decide how to coordinate their joint efforts, instead of following the directives of outsiders, even if the outsiders are management. This is shared autonomy instead of the cartoonish “teamwork” we hear about at many companies, which is often simply code for “do what you’re told.”

It’s another paradox in business here in the postnormal: To make employees more engaged, their managers must disengage, step back, and let individuals and cooperating groups make more — many more — of their own decisions. This requires management to commit to the same work principles mentioned earlier.

Is is possible to have high-performing companies where all workers — even senior management — are principally committed to a way of working, a way that starts with the obligation to invert decision making so that the smallest number of involved people should decide how to attack problems, test work innovations, up to and including engaging others in self-identified projects? This starts with individuals and grows to pairs, small groups, radiating outward from there through social relationships, not hierarchies of control.

Individuals need to pull the company forward into a better future instead of the company pushing them there.

The role of management is profoundly shifted in such a context, and “engagement” will have quite a different meaning.

In other upcoming posts, I will connect the dots with other characteristics of the fast-and-loose business.