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Why are managers unable to make employees love their work?

Aug 30, 2010 Business Daily, Management

“How would you feel about a physician who killed more patients than he helped? What about a police detective who committed more murders than he solved? Or a teacher whose students were more likely to get dumber 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, policemen and professors? You’d be more than perplexed. You’d be incensed, outraged. You’d demand that something must be done!
Given this, why are we complacent when confronted with data that suggest most managers are more likely to douse the flames of employee enthusiasm than fan them, and are more likely to frustrate extraordinary accomplishment than to foster it?”

Gary Hamel, WSJ.com (16 December 2009)

Gary Hamel is making a big point here. It is managers’ job to manage – which means to get work done through others, by motivating them to give their best. So why are they mostly so very bad at it, and why do we put up with this state of affairs?

Hamel is referring to a survey by Towers Perrin that came out last year. This global study attempted to look at employee engagement by polling 90,000 workers around the world. It revealed some shocking news: that only a fifth of employees feel ‘truly engaged’ in their work – ie would go the extra mile if asked to. Nearly 4 out of 10 are mostly or entirely disengaged. What a damning indictment of management – and I have to tell you I think things are even worse in this part of the world.

So how do we explain this? Is it that managers don’t know this about their workforces? Highly doubtful – workplace ennui is too common. Walk around any organisation and see for yourself. People don’t seem to give a damn. So is it the managers themselves who are listless and ill-motivated – have their organisations failed to engage them? Quite possibly. Few organisations can offer even highly placed managers any purpose other than financial reward. They appeal to the lowest form of motivation – lucre – and get mercenary and indifferent behaviour in return.

As Hamel puts it: success in modern business “depends on a company’s ability to unleash the initiative, imagination and passion of employees at all levels—and this can only happen if all those folks are connected heart and soul with their work, their company and its mission.” Now how often does that happen? At an Apple or a Google, many workers do indeed seem imbued with a sense of grand purpose. At most places, however, workers await the paycheck.

Julie Gebauer of Towers Perrin points to three things that are critical to engagement: first, the scope employees have to advance and grow; second, the company’s reputation and its commitment to making a difference in the world—is this a company that deserves the best efforts of its people; and third, the behaviors and values of the organisation’s leaders—are they people employees respect and want to follow?

There you are then: those are all management issues. It is precisely because leaders and managers fail to do the things that matter to staff – involve them, recognise them, enlist them, and set the right example for them – that workers just clock in and clock out. No employee worth his or her salt wants to be an uninspired drone – it’s the leadership that makes them that way.

So look around your place of work. What do you see? Bored and lifeless employees spending all their time on Facebook, feeling disconnected and uninterested? Or do you feel a perpetual buzz in the air, a feeling of ownership and involvement in big issues leading to high energy levels?

If you haven’t got the latter, there is nothing natural about it. It’s the management, stupid.

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