How To Improve Engagement Without Putting Leaders On the Firing Line


According to the Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report, a whopping 87% of global employees are either “checked out” or “acting out their unhappiness”.

“Not Engaged employees are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.”

Or

“Actively Disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.”

These are the exact words by which the Gallup describes 87% of the 25 million employees across the 195 countries they captured in this report.

Shocking!!

Why would so many employees consistently report such negative experiences?

There are many reasons, and it would be a challenge for anyone to attribute these experiences to just one reason. Equally, making too broad an argument would make it impractical to address this dire situation.

My chosen lens is “leadership” (or lack thereof) as one of the key contributor to poor engagement.

In my experience, the main reason why today’s leadership negatively contributes to engagement is because most “leaders” are actually administrators.

An ‘administrator’ is someone who executes and delivers someone else’s work, a person who “gets things done”. How well they get things done is irrelevant here, the point is that they do someone else’s work.

DISCLAIMER – All organisations need administrators and there are some really amazing ones. This article emphasises the mismatch that arises when organisations appoint administrators and expect them to dream up the future of the organisation.

An example of an administrator is the new head of department who tells us, “I don’t have a strategy for our department, and my strategy is that of the organisation!”

DOES IT MATTER?

Why should this make a difference to engagement?

Because employees at all levels are at least one level removed from the next level of information, which they need to create a direction for themselves and their teams.

I believe most employees go to work because they want to give their best. However, the conditions for that best to emerge must be provided by the organisation.

While walking in the dark, without the relevant information, the right people, tools or processes, our best is to walk tentatively to avoid tripping and hurting others or us.

This is an unlikely scenario for impactful work and contribution, let alone engagement.

If I were paid a dollar for every person who, over the last 20 years, told me they had no idea how their work contributed to the good of the company because of lack of direction from their boss, I would be very, very rich.

In my opinion, the bosses we so love to complain about have no ill intentions (most of them anyway). Like us they want to be their best. But we can’t expect them to do something that they are either unable or not incentivised to do.

The leadership paradigm needs to shift and we must set the right expectations on the employees we appoint to each role. Here are my suggestions to start us on this journey:

  • Simplify leadership

  • Separate responsibilities

  • Resource appropriately

SIMPLIFY LEADERSHIP

I have spoken about the confusion about the concept of leadership in another article (You can read it here: Leadership: They got it all wrong).

In this context I am defining a leader as the person who creates and executes his or her work.

Note that by “his or her” I am referring to work they create in line with organisation expectations, not their selfish agenda. The keyword is ‘create’.

I once asked about 100 people in my network to answer the question, “What does leadership mean to you?” I also asked them to give me 5 names of great leaders and explain why they chose them.

It would be of no surprise if I told you that I received 100 different answers.

The word ‘leader’ can be applied to so many context and mean something slightly different in each of them. For example:

  • A general who marches the troupes across the front line is a leader

  • An innovator who invents a revolutionary product is a leader

  • A student who drives the masses to raise millions for charity is a leader

  • An athlete who achieves incredible records is a leader

  • A musician who introduces a new genre in the market is a leader

  • A child who motivates other children to join the playground is a leader

  • A monk who inspires millions to follow his teachings is a leader

What we can be curious about is not the ingredients that make each of these people a leader; those are unique by definition and by context. We can be curious about the common denominator that we identify in each situation where we see a leader.

The most fundamental definition of leadership, and in my model the common denominator, comes from the meaningful interaction between someone with the potential to lead, and an audience with the potential to lead. If the leader, the followers or their ability to meaningfully interact is missing, there is no leadership.

Note that this concept is equally applicable to the self, where we can be leader and follower at the same time.

I call for a simplification of the leadership definition, so we can help every employee understand how they can be leaders within their unique context and give them the opportunity to be the best at what they are.

SEPARATE RESPONSIBILITIES

Every organisation needs skilful administrators, and thankfully there are many available. But organisations also need people who can dream up the future, however remote.

The mismatch happens when people are expected to do both, but are either incapable or not incentivised to do so.

I call for organisation to explore the possibility to split administrative and leadership roles, or to develop a yearly operating rhythm when people are allowed to formally switch between the two.

I certainly call for organisations to be clear about the behaviours they incentivise. I have seen endless times people being asked to be leaders, future focused, thinking in the long term, and yet, be incentivised, financially or otherwise, for thinking in the short term, focusing on results now, and ignore long term repercussions.

Many large companies around the world have split the Chairman and the CEO roles. That’s great, but I am asking whether we can do the same across all levels of the organisation.

RESOURCE APPROPRIATELY

Ideally, with a clearer definition of leadership, organisation should gain an advantage on how to select, assess and develop their future leaders and administrators.

Many senior employees live daily with the anxiety that the “impostor syndrome” creates. This is the fear that others will discover they are incompetent or unsuitable for the role they are in, whether true or not.

Much of this syndrome is driven by personal beliefs and expectations, but in many situations it is further exacerbated by organisations appointing them to roles for which they are either unsuitable or unprepared for.

With the right tools and processes in place, organisations could easily identify and appoint leaders to leadership positions, administrators to operational positions and hybrids to hybrid positions.

The case and the ideas presented here merely scratch the surface and are unlikely to be applicable to every organisation out there.

However, with 87% of the global workforce feeling miserable about their work experience, something must be done.

Let’s address this unsustainable situation whichever way; let’s not create a future where our children and we look at work with despair, rather than with excitement and positive anticipation.

If you are curious to learn more about how I apply my Essence Leadership model to help organisations that are looking to redefine their leadership, you can reach me here:

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