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Does management limit engagement?

Are you concerned about engaging employees? It is a perennial issue that has gotten more attention in the last few years due in particular to a new generation of workers. According to many sources, younger workers—mainly those in their twenties—have dramatically different priorities than us older folk, and require different work arrangements to keep happy. Flexible hours, telecommuting, workplace social events and incentives such as food, games and even massages—these are some of the new practices employers are using to engage employees. But do they really matter more than a good work environment, a decent salary and benefits, a say in one’s work and the opportunity to build a career?

Average engagement among Canadian workers is around 60 percent according to the latest “Best Employers in Canada” study by Aon Hewitt. That number jumps to 79 percent among the top 50 employers, and I don’t know how many of them have ping pong tables and beanbag chairs at their offices.

No doubt there are many factors that engage or disengage employees—both personal and work-related—and each employee’s level of engagement rests on a unique matrix of those factors. One thing that is universal to all employees, however, is management. All employees (or the vast majority) work under a supervisor (or more than one). Are employers considering how these managers are affecting their employees’ engagement?

Jim Clifton, chief executive officer of research firm Gallup, wrote recently:

The single biggest decision your company makes every day is who you name manager. … In fact, the people picked to be managers account for the majority of variance in almost all performance-related outcomes. Yet leaders will spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year on everything but hiring the right managers. They’ll buy miserable employees latte machines for their offices, give them free lunch and sodas, or even worse—just let them all work at home, hailing an “enlightened” policy of telecommuting. Hell, some of these practices might even earn your company a business magazine’s Great Place to Work award.

So, he’s obviously not a big fan of the new ideas about employee engagement. However, that might be because the situation is far more dire in the United States, where up to 70 percent of employees are disengaged from their work. No employer incentives have changed that number since Gallup started keeping track of employee engagement in 2000. Nonetheless, the problem of management applies as well to Canada. According to Clifton, since managers are responsible for employee development, low engagement means many managers are failing in their duty.

He offers three recommendations:

  1. Name the right people to be managers
  2. Ensure that these managers encourage your employees’ development
  3. Focus on employees’ strengths

He explains:

Employees need managers who encourage their development and who value their opinions. They need a company that gives them the opportunity to do what they do best every single day. … And employees’ strengths never stop growing throughout their career—particularly when they have talented managers who build unique development strategies around their individual, innate talents, and who make sure they are always in roles where they get to use those strengths every day.

Regardless of his stance on current engagement trends, this sounds like pretty good advice employers can apply to their general workforce management and many specific workplace problems.

On the other hand, however, author and business consultant, Chuck Blakeman, recommends doing away with managers altogether. In a response to Clifton’s blog post, Blakeman says:

Disengagement is not an employee problem. It is a hangover from the Industrial Age that invented a middle tier in companies so useless and intrusive that a cartoon strip called Dilbert is the best picture we have of how it functions.

Blakeman suggests that management is based on mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor’s late-19th-century belief that workers were too lazy and stupid to perform modern work without management from a more intelligent class of employee. “Taylor believed in transferring control from workers to management,” according to Wikipedia.

He set out to increase the distinction between mental (planning work) and manual labour (executing work). Detailed plans specifying the job and how it was to be done were to be formulated by management and communicated to the workers.

Sound familiar? Taylor’s ideas proved influential, and here we are, in a world quite different from a century ago, labouring under the weight of assumptions that might have seemed reasonable at the time, but lack supporting evidence and fall well below current moral standards.

So, according to Blakeman:

People are not stupid and lazy. Management MAKES them stupid and lazy. The solution is to stop managing people, and lead them like adults. A management system needs at least one smart and motivated manager for every ten stupid and lazy employees. But a leadership system needs one leader for every fifty to one hundred stakeholders (no managers required).

Hmm! Neither of these strategies relies on special or unconventional incentives to improve employee engagement. Could today’s fancy incentives provide cover for poor management? Or are they actually a subtle way of ceding (or appearing to cede) to workers some control over their work? Telecommuting, for instance, at least on its face, clearly asks workers to independently manage their resources and output. So do alternative work arrangements and social workplaces. Yosie St-Cyr outlines some other contemporary benefits that are keeping employees engaged at Canada’s top employers.

Let us know what you think? We’d love to hear about unconventional benefits or management arrangements at your workplace!

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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