Employee Engagement and Control Don’t Mix

Jamie Notter takes us down an important reality that seems to be unfolding in our understanding with each passing year: the power and influence of networks of people. Jamie explores this important social trend and its influence on businesses and employee engagement. It’s another great installment in our month long blog series – Winning Employees through Engagement.

Employee engagement is one of those ideas that we all can support. When’s the last time you heard an executive or manager saying, “Let’s make sure we keep our employees disengaged—imagine the disaster if our people were engaged at work!” Employee engagement intuitively makes sense. Of course people who are engaged in their work will be more productive and solve problems more easily. We get it.

So why are we so bad at it? Each year the global employee engagement survey numbers get worse and worse. With maybe one-third of our people truly engaged and as many as one-fifth of them actively disengaged, it makes me wonder how we even manage to stay profitable these days.

The problem here is that our desire for engagement is constantly overshadowed and thwarted by conflicting desire—one we don’t talk about as much, because it doesn’t look as good on our inspirational posters or internal communications about our culture:

We want control.

We’re managing an enterprise here, and it’s not easy. We’ve got complicated schedules, deliverables, processes, metrics and those ever-fickle customers to manage, so we’ve spent centuries building organizations that can handle all that mess—organizations that know how to control things. Control gives us order. Control gives us efficiency. Control gives us quality. Control gives us scalable productivity. In that regard, control is a good thing.


With maybe one-third of our people truly engaged and as many as one-fifth of them actively disengaged, it makes me wonder how we even manage to stay profitable these days


Unfortunately, control does not give us engagement. The two ideas are basically incompatible. Control is one way and zero-sum. Engagement is an organic relationship. Control is directive, and engagement is expressive. Control is mechanical, and engagement is human.

For a hundred years we have been working in organizations that were designed based on machine thinking, and these organizations definitely love control. Machines are good at control (and, not surprisingly, very bad at engagement). In Humanize, Maddie Grant and I are offering an alternative—organizations whose cultures and processes are based on more human principles, because we think organizations that are more human will have a much better shot at engagement.

For example, we argue that human organizations should be more open and decentralized. We should design our processes to actually give more power to the periphery as a path to more effective engagement. The shining example of this is Google and their “20% time,” where employees get to spend 20% of their time working on any project they want. That’s giving decision-making power to the periphery, and it does wonders for engagement.

But notice that it’s only 20% time, not 80% time. They still have to spend 80% of their time working on the Google core business and following the orders of their superiors, and working to the job description. Control needn’t disappear for engagement to flourish.


We think organizations that are more human will have a much better shot at engagement


But we’re going to need to loosen our grip on things just a bit. We have over-invested in control over the past several decades, and in today’s social world we’re seeing the power of decentralized networks moving mountains by tapping into engagement at the periphery more effectively.

This disruption is permanent, and the smart organizations are going to make important shifts in the way they lead and manage to make it through this transition period. Invest in clarity over control. Build the capacity to learn a little bit more than you direct. Stretch to include difference before you enforce consistency. Embrace the strategic value of transparency, even though it makes you afraid. Build these elements into your culture, and you’ll be able to (finally!) tap into the power of engagement.

Connect further with Jamie

I am a Vice President at Management Solutions Plus Inc., in Rockville, Maryland, where I lead MSP’s consulting division. Clients call on me to help them solve tough problems, build internal capacity, and amplify leadership. I also speak extensively for corporations and associations. Jamie is the co-author of Humanize: How People-centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.

Art courtesy of  Stephen Gonzales

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a founding partner at WorkXO where he helps leaders create stronger cultures and upgrade their workplaces, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, leadership, and culture change to the consulting firm he started with Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy in 2016. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, and Humanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

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    There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

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