Thought for the Week: Dis-engaging Employees

Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work. Vince Lombardi

An interesting article in today’s Mckinsey Quarterly argues that “senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees…” Assuming that the senior executives don’t get up in the morning and ask themselves, “How can I destroy the inner work lives of my employees?” what is happening?

According to the authors of the McKinsey study, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, of everything that can deeply engage people in their jobs, “…the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” They go on to share results of their multi-year research study, published in their recent book The Progress Principle.

As unfortunate as it is, this makes a lot of sense. And the problem isn’t limited to senior executives. Managers at all levels have a tendency to set priorities in a way that the daily lives of their subordinates are much less visible and much less important than perhaps they should be. Granted, no manager of multiple employees (or multiple levels of employees) can be expected to know how every corporate decision affects every individual person. At the same time, it is possible to at least consider the consequences of a decision in terms of its impact on engagement.

For example, one of the traps menEmployee-engagementtioned in the McKinsey article is in “Strategic Attention Deficit Disorder.” While it is important for leaders to remain flexible to current challenges, often initiatives are started and then, once underway, stopped (or worse, simply abandoned) in order to start new initiatives. For those Type A leaders that are out there driving change, it is important to remember that these kinds of initiatives often take time and require patience that many of us simply don’t naturally have.

As it relates to engagement, the problem with Strategic ADD is that it undermines the ownership of the initiatives by the people who are charged with implementing them. This is the standard “flavor of the month” feeling. Sometimes the best and brightest of your employees will hold back on committing to the success of a particular initiative because they are unsure as to whether or not it is worthy of their personal investment. The more often that long-term initiatives are pitched by leaders, only to be abandoned down the road, the more cynical the employees become.

The overall lesson of the McKinsey study is one that we’ve known for a long time. While leaders may struggle with engaging their employees over a long period of time, it is possible to dis-engage them fairly quickly. Make a conscious effort to consider the consequences of your decision. If it contributes to a lack of engagement, the decision may be more costly than you think.

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