Myths of Employee Engagement

Photo courtesy of Lou Gold

Looking for Answers Anywhere Except the Place You’ll Find Them

Harvard Business Review articles are usually thought-provoking, but not the kind of thought-provoking that “Why Good Managers Are So Rare” produced. Ludicrous comes to mind; also dangerous. Randall Beck and James Harter (both of Gallup) argue that employee engagement is at an all-time low in the U.S. and around the world because there is a lack of good managers in corporations. They describe five characteristics of good managers, and present these characteristics as traits and talents, qualities that good managers possess (the word they use is “endowed”) and that cannot be learned through training or coaching. Finally, they claim that people who possess these traits and talents are rare—10 percent of the population, maybe 20 percent.

The entire argument is based on nineteenth and twentieth century thinking and ignores the substantial body of current research findings on brain plasticity, mindsets, and emotional intelligence.

So what are these rare traits and talents? Here is the list:

“They motivate every single employee to take action and engage them with a compelling mission and vision.

They have the assertiveness to drive outcomes and the ability to overcome adversity and resistance.

They create a culture of clear accountability.

They build relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency.

They make decisions that are based on productivity, not politics.”

All of these so-called traits and talents are behaviors. There is nothing “raw and natural” (the authors’ words) about them. Even top-notch Olympic athletes will tell you that “talent” accounts for little of their accomplishments. They work hard, engage with effective coaches, strive to always improve their performance, and work hard some more. In Carol Dweck’s language they embrace and cultivate a growth mindset.

Anyone who wants to can learn to be a good manager. The characteristics are skills that can be acquired through learning, dedicated practice, feedback and coaching, and perseverance.

What is so dangerous about this perspective is that it perpetuates a fixed mindset about the nature of management. When people have a fixed mindset they believe their “qualities are fixed in stone…you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality…a hand you’re dealt and have to live with…” What’s more, people with a growth mindset—“the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts”—make better decisions, are more likely to be successful, and make better leaders (Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2008).

The other thing that is dangerous about the talent perspective of management is that it perpetuates the myth that in order for companies to be successful they need to pay CEOs huge salaries. It’s a Catch 22.

Low employee engagement has more to do with today’s work environment than with whether or not a manager has the “talent” to manage. Here are some characteristics of today’s corporate work environment:

1. Each employee does the work of multiple people in order to support a lean corporate work force, which ensures profit margins that corporate shareholders (are believed to) approve of.

2. Work must be done at the speed of the internet because of, well, the internet.

3. Combined, more work for each employee needing to be done at a faster and faster pace has made multitasking a facet of current management thinking. Yet focus, according to Daniel Goleman, is what is most likely to yield the best work results. In fact, the human brain doesn’t support multitasking. Instead, people switch from task to task very quickly. This switching, in turn, undermines focus, leads to a deterioration in the quality and speed of performance, and causes mental fatigue.

4. If quarterly profits are not as high as Wall Street pundits think they should be, any number of employees can be laid off.

5. CEO pay scales can range from around 250 times more to over 1000 times more than average worker pay.

If you don’t have enough time to do high quality work, you have more work than one person can do in a 40-hour work week, and you know you’re considered a cost that can be reduced (laid off) to maintain profit margins, how can you feel that you are a valued member of a team? Maybe disengagement is a rational response to a toxic environment.

No one has been talking much about these realities of the corporate environment. Well, except Simon Sinek. In his recent talk at TED2014, Sinek is reported as saying that good leaders create an environment that enables employees to feel safe.

Sinek’s point is compelling and consistent with much of what we know about how people operate. We’re social beings, and for good reason: in prehistoric times the safest place to be was in a group. And at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—a fundamental theory of human motivation on which a lot of other psychological science is based—is safety. Not much gives a feeling of safety better than knowing that someone has your back.

Who has an employee’s back? When your job can be outsourced or eliminated, there isn’t much that’s going to convince you that someone has your back. Yet, employees are still expected to work in teams and collaborate to get their work done, to achieve corporate “results.” Is it possible to achieve the trust that underpins teamwork when you’re looking over your shoulder or wondering whether you or your teammate will survive the next round of layoffs?

I’m not sure you’re going to see much change in employee engagement until corporate America figures out how to reestablish trust, safety, and an authentic positive group culture, and cultivate a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset.

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