Integrating timeless principles with modern research to transform mindsets and organizational cultures

Disengaged Employees? Then, Look in the Mirror

Disengaged Employees? Then, Look in the Mirror

How many American workers are happily engaged at their jobs? Gallup has been doingsurveys of employee engagement for years, and the latest results again find that less than one-third of American workers are engaged at work. Seventeen percent of employees are “actively disengaged,” which means they are so disgruntled that they are working to harm the organization. The rest are going through the motions, doing the minimum to get the job done and giving the organization little discretionary effort. Many of us know workers like this or have felt disengaged ourselves.

In my experience, a major cause of worker disengagement is a top-down organizational hierarchy whose leaders make liberal use of command and control as a management style. Employees come to believe that their intelligence and expertise aren’t valued. They don’t trust management and fear speaking out. Disengaged, dissatisfied, and uncommitted employees are the result. Shirking, lethargy, and apathy are common in organizations where innovation is resisted and resources are squandered or underused.

Participants who are sympathetic to free-market ideas but who run their organizations in a command-and-control fashion often attend my leadership workshops. I ask them, “Why do you believe central planning will work in your organization when you know it doesn’t work in economies? Heads may drop sheepishly, but no one has ever replied. I hope the question helps them see that the consequences of top-down hierarchical controls at work are similar to the consequences of central planning in the economy.

The late Richard Cornuelle advocated volunteerism as the most effective way to solve social problems. Cornuelle served as an executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, the nation’s oldest and largest industrial trade association. A question that weighed heavily on his mind was how regimented hierarchical controls at work influenced employees’ politics. He observes,

The regimentation of work has created a political majority whose attitudes about themselves and their world are heavily conditioned by a lifelong habit of subordination.… There is little in their daily experience which would cause them to conclude that a society is kept alive by a continuous process of adaptation, led by independent enterprising people. They are bound to see society as something static — something to be administered. Employed people can scarcely be expected to revere qualities they have been carefully instructed to repress. They tend to become what the work requires: politicized, unimaginative, unenterprising, petty, security-obsessed and passive.

It’s hard to disagree with Cornuelle’s conclusion. This election year, we will choose between two dreary candidates who are eager to “administer” the country. Leadership expert Jim Collins in his book Good to Great show that ego-driven command-and-control leaders damage their organizations. Perhaps more importantly, as Cornuelle argues, they contribute to a political environment where those who champion more centralization rise to the top. Are authoritarian business leaders fueling authoritarian politicians?

New Ways to Organize Firms

In his book De-managing America, Cornuelle writes that people are inherently “self-propelling, self-actualizing.” Yet, because we don’t understand the “invisible processes” that help to guide us “so that the necessary work of society is done,” we “cling desperately to the discredited conviction that management makes the world go round.”

Dee Hock, the founding CEO of Visa, does not cling to that discredited conviction. While there is no evidence that Hock ever studied Hayek, he used principles of spontaneous order to grow Visa into an organization that does over a trillion dollars in sales a year in over 200 countries. On the growth of Visa, Hock observed, “It was beyond the power of reason to design an organization to deal with such complexity, and beyond the reach of the imagination to perceive all the conditions it would encounter.”

Arguing that human ingenuity is the “most abundant, least expensive, most underutilized, and constantly abused resource in the world,” Hock explains in his bookOne from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization how he learned that, by setting simple rules, leadership taps and engages dispersed employee intelligence: “Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, stupid behavior.”

Hock kept rules to a minimum by insisting that those who promulgate the rules and regulations “must submit to them as well if they were to be continued.” Universal enforcement of all rules was enough to prevent their proliferation at Visa.

“At bottom,” Hock tells us, a “desire to command and control is a deadly destructive compulsion to rob others of the joy of living.… Tyranny is tyranny no matter how petty, how well rationalized, how unconscious or how well intended.”

Hock is not the only CEO who has successfully employed elements of what Charles Koch, CEO of Koch Industries, and others call market-based management. Koch, Bill Gore at W.L. Gore, John Mackey at Whole Foods, Tony Hsieh at Zappos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google, and Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington at Valve Software, among others, have flattened or eliminated the hierarchy and relied on imbued principles, values, and purpose to guide behavior.

Leaders Are Not the Value

Authoritarian CEOs are acting out the legacy left by manufacturing efficiency expert Frederick Taylor, who wrote Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, when the model of manufacturing was standardized jobs. He believed most workers would shirk if given the chance: “Hardly a competent workman can be found who does not devote a considerable amount of time to studying just how slowly he can work and convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.”

As a consequence of that observation, Taylor believed, “All possible brain power should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying-out department.”

Are vestiges of Taylorism still creating disengaged workers today? Does disengagement create the need for command and control, or does command and control create disengaged workers? Corneulle believed it was the latter, and so do many of today’s most successful CEOs.

In organizations, authoritarian leaders think they are the value, while effective leaders understand that their job is to free organizational intelligence so that the organization can create value. Authoritarian leaders can’t imagine a world where their right to command others is not guaranteed by virtue of their position on the organizational ladder.

In organizations, authoritarian leaders think they are the value, while effective leaders understand that their job is to free organizational intelligence so that the organization can create value.

As more Americans find jobs in the expanding areas of the economy that do not rely on command and control, a reverse Cornuelle effect could emerge. The population may become more open to those candidates who see the economy as a spontaneous order “kept alive by a continuous process of adaptation, led by independent enterprising people.”

A 2012 IBM survey shows that CEOs see command and control as an “outdated and ineffective” leadership style. Firms organized like W.L. Gore, Google, and Visa may be playing a large role in the future of freedom.

This essay originally appeared in The Freeman as Authoritarian Business Leaders Threaten Freedom.

Do you need assistance in increasing employee engagement? My workshops can assist in shifting mindsets. Contact me to learn how we can work together.

Trust is Good for Business

Trust is Good for Business

The install crew ran into a problem as soon as they started to replace the cracked plate glass window in our dining room. The company’s policy is to preserve the original wood frame, but dismantling the frame was proving difficult. The crew decided to cut the frame out which meant they’d go to a lumber… Continue Reading

Deescalating Conflict

Deescalating Conflict

Shortly after I woke up, I began  my work day in my study. Looking out a window to the north, I saw the morning light on the meadow and shadows along the edge of the forest that rims our property. And, what was this? A steady stream of Major League baseball players in full uniform… Continue Reading

Breaking Love’s Code at Work

British pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park changed the course of World War II when they broke the Nazi Enigma code. Some of Turing’s superiors had scoffed at his unorthodox methods and thought his time and resources invested in code breaking was a waste. His commander Alastair Denniston told the… Continue Reading

The Second Monk

Two monks are walking to their destination when they come to an unbridged river crossing. They notice the  water is unusually high and see a distressed woman standing at the river’s edge. Like them, she is not able to continue to her destination without crossing the river. Without hesitating, one monk offers to carry the… Continue Reading

Done-in By the Need to be Special

Done-in By the Need to be Special

Consider this recent story of a leader done-in by his need to be special: Cincinnati fired Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell citing a “culture of hostility” and “an unprofessional obsession with publicity and self-promotion.” Mr. Blackwell, it is charged, “expected his subordinates to risk defying state law in order to protect his own image and, when… Continue Reading

Leading is Not Firefighting

Leading is Not Firefighting

“My work environment is toxic.” How many of your employees complain about their managers and colleagues when they go home at night? What are the consequences of such complaints? It should not surprise us that these sentiments are so common. In many organizations, individuals rise to leadership positions based on time in service. These same… Continue Reading