Without realizing it, too many leaders assume that the role of leadership is to control. They espouse Plato’s “division of labor,” which has influenced government and military structures for thousands of years, according to social thinker Hannah Arendt. With the advent of the industrial revolution, she argues that corporate action, like the action of monarchies and armies, proceeds in two phases: planning and execution. Accordingly, in most organizations you find a class-divided lot—the minds and the bodies, the brains and the backs, the knowers and the doers, the manipulators and the manipulated.

Organizations that perpetuate this leader/led distinction tend to be riddled with justification and blame. Those tasked with doing can always blame poor performance on uninformed or unrealistic plans, while those who did the planning can always blame failures on poor execution. Leaders will cry for greater engagement, but the way most organizations are set up breeds a constant lack of engagement.

At the heart of the employee engagement conundrum, then, is the way a leader sees those he or she leads. A leader who sees their employees as people can free themselves from the constraints of leader/led distinction and create an environment that invites, encourages, expects, and empowers those he or she leads to be fully responsible. This means that they empower their people with the responsibility both to execute and to plan their work.

Fundamentally shifting the responsibility to plan work into the hands of those who do the work is much more difficult than simply introducing new programs or policies such as providing more employee perks. However well-intentioned, these efforts generally try to get employees to actmore engaged, without addressing the core issue that most contributes to their detachment. Only a leader who sees their employees as people—with goals, brains, creative energy, talent—can create an environment where their employees can be fully engaged to exercise all their creative energy and talent.

Case in Point

One of the largest IT companies on the fortune 500 called us in to work with its leadership after the company experienced a dramatic free fall in market share. When asked what they thought was the most important factor in their historic decline one leader spoke up. “We had the best engineers in the industry. But we simply told them what to do. As leaders, we had all the answers and they were assigned to simply do what we determined was best. They did what we asked, and then went home at night and built amazing technologies in their garages.”

The point? Employees have brains, creative energy, and talent.  If leaders don’t see their employees as people and provide an environment for them to apply their energy in the planning and execution of their work, those employees will find other outlets, and their organization will be the worse for it.

Bottom Line 

Our 37 years of experience helping organizations create a culture of engagement has shown that engagement is significantly influenced by whether employees feel their managers see them as people—as full contributors—and act accordingly.  Research collected over the years by Gallup in their annual State of The American Workplace supports this conclusion.

Author and speaker Mark Crowley conducted a recent interview with Dr. Jim Harter who concluded that successful managers of highly engaged teams have one thing in common: “They share, teach, coach, support, and appreciate their employees.”  Crowley concludes that “Regardless of what’s on their plate, they invest the time to know their people personally, what motivates them – their career dreams and aspirations.”

Only when leaders begin to see and treat their employees as people with goals, objectives, and the capacity for creative initiative will organizations be freed from the chains of low employee engagement.

About the author: Cameron Cozzens serves as the director of government practice for Arbinger Training and Consulting. He is a former U.S. Army colonel with more than two decades of distinguished leadership and operational experience in the intelligence and special operations communities. He has lived on five continents and traveled to more than 75 countries. Throughout his career he has led numerous diverse organizations ranging in size from 50 to more than 1,000 and has extensive experience advising, consulting, and training leaders from large multinational corporations and federal government agencies on how to successfully lead organizational and cultural change. 

For a deeper dive into the impact employee engagement has on the workforce, join us for the Certificate In Employee Engagement on 18 – 21 December 2016.