The quality of leadership is suffering. We see that in all types of organizations and at all levels. One of the many reasons for this deterioration of leadership quality is the lack of rigor and precision in many so-called thought leaders. Many people assume the mantle of consultant and thought leader in the field of leadership because they think there are no right answers. Just throw opinions up against the wall and see what sticks. While they are right that leadership is much more of an art than a science, it does not give us the right to be sloppy or imprecise in our definitions and approaches. It does not give us the right to ignore the principles that underlie leadership and which guide appropriate courses of actions.

One of the biggest consequences to this sloppy thinking is that leaders are led to take actions that they think are appropriate. When these misguided actions do no produce the results intended, both leaders and employees become frustrated. Leadership then discards their efforts in that area as another leadership fad that did not work.

The Murder Of Employee Engagement

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this is the assassination attempt thought leaders have made is in the area of employee engagement.

Recently I read another misguided article on employee engagement. This article was published in a respected business journal with the involvement of a panel of eleven thought leaders (an esteemed council of leadership coaches no less!) yet the focus of the article was so far off base as to be laughable. The name of the article? “How Managers Can Balance Pushing A Team For Results While Keeping Them Engaged”.

The article’s title demonstrates a colossal misunderstanding of employee engagement that threatens to kill one of the most important tools of modern leadership. The article implies that employee engagement and performance are like a horse and buggy that are unhitched. Both are valuable separately but you might also need to bring them together from time to time. Not True! Engagement is always about results. There is no reason for engagement except to achieve results. Engagement is about unleashing efforts to create optimal solutions that lead to results. It is about providing optimal solutions while creating meaning and excitement of staff in participating in achieving challenging outcomes.

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One might ask, “Why is a magazine article title so important? Isn’t it just for the purposes of getting readers’ attention?” The answer is simple. The title sends a false message and establishes in many leaders’ minds that engagement and results are two separate entities. It implies there are two foci, distinct and apart, that must be brought together because they are not related. In reality engagement is distorted and becomes superficial when it is separated from its partner, performance.

The Importance of Employee Engagement
Employee engagement is one of the most important acts a leader can create. Hitching employees together with the organization’s purposes and harnessing employee capabilities and mind share to obtain the best thinking and production/service possible is a recipe for unparalleled success. There have been multiple studies on the benefits of engaged employees. Genuine employee engagement produces results for the organization and its employees: a true win-win. False employee engagement creates damage. It creates leadership that focuses window dressing rather than substance. When one leaves the core of employee engagement out of the equation, it will not only fail but creates distrust in leadership. It also creates frustration on the part of both management and employees when the “engagement program” does not work.

Caveat Emptor: Trying To Fit What I Sell Under The Tent

Lets face it. Management consultants hock their wares under the umbrella of the latest and greatest fads. These consultants seldom change their services but only market them differently when a new fad arises.

Today we see employee surveys and happiness touted as employee engagement. Communication training is billed as a vital engagement tool. Recognition, relationship building and giving constructive feedback have all been reinvented as the paths to create employee engagement. How is a manager ever to decide what to pick off this “smorgasbord” of employee engagement technique treats? Never has the admonition, “caveat emptor” been more appropriate.

It’s All About Performance, Stupid!

So why did the title of this article create such a visceral reaction? Why distress over the fact that eleven “thought leaders and, God forbid, leadership coaches) would not see the fallacy in the question the article posed?

The major purpose of an organization is to produce products or services. This is the core of what an organization does. The term engagement implies the interlocking of two or more items to produce synergy. Results and outcomes are not something tacked on at the end of an engagement effort; it is the core of all true engagement efforts.

The engagement partnership is about harnessing the hearts and minds of employees around organizational issues and opportunities. It is a partnership between leadership and staff. Leadership defines or blesses both the opportunities and the definition of what success looks like. (One of the most significant actions of trust a leader can show staff is when they are given the opportunity to work on issues that are important to an organization). Leaders appoint or bless the people who are to participate on an opportunity or issue. They provide or bless the use of resources necessary to come up with solutions and outcomes. Employees, individually or in teams contribute maximum involvement and thinking to create solutions to meet those definitions of success. They innovate around the “how”. They present their recommendations to management by making their thinking visible. Management responds and accepts or modifies and coaches for additional work as necessary. The essence of engagement is shared decision making around significant performance issues. This is where partnerships are truly created. It is where innovation is produced and commitment grows. (For additional information on this core engagement competency of decision making, read http://9by9solutions.com/2016/04/leadership-nugget-20-the-intersection-where-direction-commitment-excellence-and-meaning-meet/)

Misguided thought leadership has done a horrible disservice to the profession of leadership in watering down the concept of employee engagement. They confuse and distort one of the most effective tools truly successful leaders have. They sell to leaders that picnics and happiness surveys are as important as asking for help on significant organization issues.

The worst damage created by this type or article is not to an old geezer who gets ticked off at the superficial thinking and imprecise definitions. The worst damage is to young leaders who want to know how to practice good leadership and true employee engagement but will now go down the wrong path.

Copyright 9 By 9 Solutions 2016 All Rights Reserved

2 Comments

  1. Bob Gately

    Doug, excellent observations.

    “One of the many reasons for this deterioration of leadership quality is the lack of rigor and precision in many so-called thought leaders.”

    Perhaps we need to separate the so called from actual thought leaders?

    “Many people assume the mantle of consultant and thought leader in the field of leadership because they think there are no right answers. ”

    When people are told that, “everyone can be a leader” we should not be surprised that many non-leaders actually believe it. 

    I love this one, “Just throw opinions up against the wall and see what sticks.” This allows non-leaders to skip the knowledge acquisition necessary to become leaders. No wonder so many leaders pretend to be leaders. Getting selected to be a leader does not a leader make.

    Too much effort is spent trying to get employees to be engaged.
    Employee engagement is what employers get in return for doing all things well.
    Doing all things well is very hard work for most of us.

    In the article “Transforming the Engineer into a Manager: Avoiding the Peter Principle,” Civil Engineering Practice, Fall 1989, the author, Dr. Neil Thornberry a Professor at Babson College, asserts that young engineers are judged on technical merit and accomplishment, and that promotions go to the technically proficient and verbally expressive engineers, while less technically proficient and less verbally expressive engineers wait their turn.

    The Peter Principle is “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

    Dr. Thornberry found that for a group of engineers the MOST talkative, competent engineer gets the first promotion into management. The second MOST talkative, competent engineer gets the second promotion into management. However, the third MOST talkative, competent engineer makes the BEST manager.

    Now let us presume that a growing company keeps promoting their most talkative competent engineers into management. What do we have? The best technical experts no longer doing the work and the best managers not in management and if they are in management they report to someone who is less capable of managing effectively–they talk too much and listen too little. No wonder so few CEOs have a positive culture.

    Employers often hire the best specialists they can find, i.e., the best and the brightest from the best schools. Then the employers promote the best and the brightest (the ever popular high-potentials) based on their job performance doing the work of the employees they will then manage after the promotion. But which ones get promoted into management? The best talker first, the second best talker next, and then the third best talker. 

    The only problem is that the third best talker makes the best manager. Why, because the first and second best talkers talk too much, listen too little, and managers need to listen more than they talk otherwise they never hear what is going right or wrong. The end results is that the best managers never make it into management or if they do they report to senior managers who are not well-suited for management. Then HBR publishes an article bemoaning that specialist cannot function as well as generalists. 

    After CEOs and other executives read the article they’ll then hire the best and the brightest generalists from the best schools, does this sound familiar? Then the employers will promote the best and the brightest generalists based on their job performance doing the work of the employees they will then manage after the promotion. But which ones get promoted into management? The best talker first, the second best talker next, and then the third best talker. The only problem is that the third best talker makes the best manager, reread the paragraph above. 

    The solution to ineffective managers is to stop hiring the best and the brightest candidates and start hiring candidates who are well suited to be managers. It is more about who the people are than their degrees.

    Employees’ lack of engagement starts with the CEO. 
    CEOs hire the managers. 
    Managers hire the employees. 
    Employees don’t hire themselves.

    When there are disengaged or problem employees we need not look beyond managers and executives.
    * Too many employees are in the wrong jobs, i.e., management errors.
    * Too many managers are in the wrong jobs, i.e., executive errors.
    * Too many executives are in the wrong jobs, i.e., CEO errors.
    * Too many managers and executives Reward A hoping for B.
    * Poorly behaving employees are tolerated, i.e., management errors.
    * Poorly behaving managers are tolerated, i.e., executive errors.
    * Poorly behaving executives are tolerated, i.e., CEO errors.

    In other words, we get who we hire and who we promote.

  2. Olga Pulido

    I completely agree with your assessment in this article! Working and connecting with people requires passion and ability to engage the employee with the organizations goals and objectives. Employees/People need to feel they are a part of those goals and objectives and that they personally can affect the bottom line. People need purpose and they need to belong or they will move on.

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