Exposing management's dirty little secret

June 25, 2012: 11:32 AM ET

If employees aren't as enthusiastic as they could be, it's not because the work sucks; it's because management blows.

By Gary Hamel

(TheMIX) -- How would you feel about a physician who killed more patients than she helped? What about a police detective who committed more murders than he solved? Or a teacher whose students got dumber rather than smarter as the school year progressed? And what if you discovered that these perverse outcomes were more the rule than the exception, that they were characteristic of most doctors, most policemen, and most teachers? You'd be more than perplexed. You'd be outraged. You'd demand that something be done!

Given this, why are we complacent when confronted with data that suggests most managers are more likely to douse the flames of employee enthusiasm than to fan them? Why aren't we a little bit angry that our management systems are more likely to frustrate extraordinary accomplishment than to foster it?

Consider the 2007–2008 Global Workforce Survey1 conducted by Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson). In an attempt to measure the extent of employee engagement around the world, the company polled more than 90,000 workers in 18 countries. The survey covered many of the key factors that determine workplace engagement, including the ability to participate in decision making, the encouragement given for innovative thinking, the availability of skill-enhancing job assignments, and the interest shown by senior executives in employee well-being.

Here's what the researchers discovered. Barely one-fifth (21%) of the employees surveyed were truly engaged in their work, in the sense that they would ''go the extra mile'' for their employer. Nearly four out of 10 (38%) were mostly or entirely disengaged, while the rest were in the tepid middle. There's no way to sugarcoat it: this data represents a stinging indictment of management-as-usual.

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So why aren't we scandalized by this data? I talk to thousands of managers each year and for most of them, employee engagement isn't Topic A, or B, or even C. How do we account for this apparent disregard? There are several possible hypotheses.

1. Ignorance. It may be that managers don't actually realize that most of their employees are emotionally tuned out at work. Maybe corporate leaders haven't seen the many other studies that mirror the results of the Towers Watson survey. Or maybe they just don't have enough emotional intelligence to recognize the low-grade disaffection that afflicts most of their workforce.

2. Indifference. Another explanation: managers know that a lot of employees are flatlining at work but simply don't care, either because a callous corporate culture has drained them of empathy, or because they view engagement as financially unimportant. It's nice to have, but not an imperative.

3. Impotence. It could be that managers care a lot, but can't imagine how they could change things for the better. After all, a lot of jobs are just plain boring. Retail clerks, factory workers, call center staff, administrative assistants -- of course these folks are disengaged, how could it be otherwise? Like prison wardens, managers would be shocked if their charges suddenly started bubbling with joie de vivre.

Let's evaluate these hypotheses. The first seems to me unlikely. Anybody who has ever read a Dilbert strip knows that cynicism and passivity are endemic in large organizations. Only an ostrich could have missed that. More

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