Take the Blame Out of Responsibility…Accountability May Just Emerge


???????????????????????????????If I’ve heard it once I have heard it a thousand times, a senior manager lamenting over the lack of accountability in his or her workforce. Let’s just stop and think about it for a moment. I like a good challenge, I bet many people do, especially when it involves an opportunity to develop a skill, learn something new, make a contribution or be part of some larger accomplishment. But I am not looking for opportunities to be made to look incompetent, held up as the reason why something failed or in some way have my reputation damaged because I took part in some workplace activity that did not meet expectations or realize projected results.

If you want me to be accountable, give me a choice about my participation, allow me the courtesy to say no. Don’t ask me to do something then leave me feeling like I am on my own once I have made my commitment. I want it to be understood that if I say yes I don’t want the outcome to be viewed as the sum total of my accomplishments. Don’t ask for my accountability and then act like you can’t trust me anymore when I don’t come through.

I want my commitments to any result to be viewed as part of an ongoing relationship that will have its ups and downs but is viewed as something larger than the sum of its parts and no part is large enough to cancel out the rest. I want there to be recognition for simply stepping up to the challenge.

If you ask me to do something let me ask for what I need to produce the result in return, don’t let this be a one-way conversation. Understand that once I say yes you are still responsible too. Understand that my commitment is not a duty, unless we have a previous agreement I owe you nothing until it is negotiated in real time.

I do not want an open-ended job description with the dreaded phrase, “and other duties as assigned” tagged on at the end. How insulting. What the hell! Would you agree to that? I didn’t think so.

And how do you understand accountability by the way? If I were to guess based on observation I’d say that you mean who will get the blame when things don’t go as planned. Not a very attractive game by any means, at least not for a person with any amount of self-respect.

Now if we are speaking of a relationship built on the notion of win/win, you have my attention. If you are saying that I will have a say in how things go it gets even more attractive. Tell me you’ll be there when the going gets tough and I want to know where to sign up. Say it my choice and I am already on it. Let me decide how it gets done and my head starts to swim. If you let me see it as a game I am bound to go above and beyond. When it all falls apart and you ask me what I have learned I know this is the place I never want to leave.

It’s Always the Right Time to Think About Emotional Intelligence

Picture 248

Employees, and their managers will not be unable able to engage with their work at the levels needed today for sustained periods until the issue of Emotional Intelligence is addressed as a key component of competency in almost every occupation today. If you are not sure about this fact see if you can name quickly five occupations today that don’t involve some degree of complex conversation as a matter of business as usual.

In virtually every management development program I have created or delivered in the past 20 years the point has been made that the greatest challenge facing managers today is their own limited interest in developing their own emotional intelligence, acquiring a deeper understanding of this psychological breakthrough, probably now more appropriately defined in a workplace context as Social Intelligence. This is followed closely by their second greatest challenge, understanding the emotional intelligence  or needs among the people who report to them. This fact, born out by years of anecdotal references continues to bedevil managers today and the problems created as well as their consequences continue to grow. (In many instances we simply have the wrong people managing but that is a topic for another day)

It usually goes without saying but bears repeating here that business in general and certainly the experience of being at work must be considered a contact sportAs our economy has evolved over the last 25 years the amount of contact has by necessity increased dramatically and my experience strongly suggests that the majority of people in our American workforce are not adequately prepared to participate in a game that requires significant personal initiative and interpersonal skill. For that matter it is probably safe to say that just as many employers are not ready to participate with a highly socially intelligent workforce.

Evolution may be a catch-all phrase when talking about how the economy has “morphed” over the years but one feature is worth considering; the process generally happens outside of our standard measurements of time and so changes often go unnoticed for extended periods. Management in the American workplace is now standing in front of the outcome of just such an evolutionary outcome, what Peter Senge undoubtedly meant us all to notice when he popularized the term “unintended consequences” in his landmark work, The Fifth Discipline.  Educationally and emotionally many, many people in the workplace today are not prepared to deal successfully with the level of interpersonal complexity they face daily.

A quick look back may serve a purpose here. The previous economies offered the majority of people in the workforce

  • narrowly defined sets of tasks
  • high degrees of supervision and
  • limited individual discretion

Never mind whether this was good or bad, it was what it was and created the foundation for the standard of living we enjoy today. As the economy has proceeded along its path and we have been brought to where we are today certain aspects of that industrial economy were carried over, including some unfortunate ways of thinking about management, meanwhile what we need from employees has changed dramatically. Many managers say they want more initiative, creativity and passion from those reporting to them but are not able to recognize that these additives to the compliance that was the hallmark of a prior time in the workplace are not simple snap on modules. This outcome begs for transformational education and skill building is also required.

Before patting yourself on the back because you don’t fall into the category of the emotionally underdeveloped or see what I am talking about in your immediate reports ask you self and honestly answer these questions:

  • Am I able to participate successfully in every conversational exchange without hesitation or caution?
  • Am I able to have the conversations I really need to have with my reports so I am optimizing their development as well as their productivity?
  • Do I ever see instances where my reports “hold back” with me even though I have repeatedly encouraged them to talk to me about everything?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you were being honest and the question that remains is, “What is the price you are paying in terms of

  1. Your own full engagement at work
  2. Your own productivity
  3. The level of engagement and productivity of those you are charged with developing



As Leadership Emerges…What Will You Give Up?


It must be very complex, leadership that is. It must be or why would Amazon currently carry nearly 382,000 titles containing the word leadership? A quick Google query on the word “leadership” gives a response of over 143,000,000 entries. I smell a rat and I have smelled a rat for several years now. Maybe we should be looking at the conditions that allow leadership to emerge. Maybe leadership is naturally occurring and we hold it back, either consciously or unconsciously in our organizations.

In practice I have had occasion to have more than one senior leader say he or she was interested in seeing more leadership from the people in their organization. A typical response from me might be to ask, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” A provocative question like this better have a good follow up. If I am on my game this exchange can have the desired effect of creating a “teachable moment” or at least one where I have an opportunity to think I am offering something infinitely wise.

Charging into the awkward silence I might say, “I bet you have been taking responsibility for all of the critical decisions – and thus the critical thinking behind them. Your people feel alienated, with no sense of ownership, and you wonder why you can’t get them more engaged.” This exchange often has led to a visible shrug of recognition and a sheepish question from the potential client, “It sounds like you are saying I am the problem?” So here the “teachable moment” presents itself. My response to the potential client will be,  “First, you are not the problem but you are certainly part of the problem and if you are willing to at least be part of the solution we can make some progress.”

It is occasions like these that are also moments of truth for those of us who fancy ourselves organizational catalysts, the conversations that now follow are going to determine whether this potential client becomes a client or we walk out the door hat in hand.

From here the exchange might go something like this, ” To begin with when you have been saying you wanted more leadership I suspect that what you meant was more do as I want you to-ship.” This is always hard because invariably this assertion produces a flash of recognition coupled with awkward silence and the tension of embarrassment. But it passes fairly quickly!

I then ask the by now fully engaged executive or manager another question, “What are you willing to give up?” This question inevitably leads to a conversation that has the potential client see their role in the problem they’ve described…a shortage of leadership. And I continue, “Accountability, the precondition for leadership, is a choice you can offer not a sentence you can hand down. If what you truly want is leadership then you need to be prepared to give up something and generally the give up you are least likely to want to give is the final say in at least some aspect of running the business. So where is leadership most missing in your business and how are you controlling the situation?

This statement often brings up an authentic, ” I am not really comfortable with this!”  My rejoinder to that might echo the words of Sue Tupling, “Feeling uncomfortable? So you should!” Sue said exactly when she described the emotional hurdles many senior leaders face when they first begin to confront the need to let go in order to get what they want.

Personally, I have seen leaders knowingly choose control over business results or staff development on more than one occasion, especially when they knew they could make their numbers without letting go. So when we get to this stage the conversation invariably turns solemn, like something bad is about to happen. Thankfully, at least on some occasions something really productive happens and the executive or manager sees that not letting go is going to constrain them to live with results similar to those they have already achieved. They begin to see that if they are up to anything more the give up of control is the price of admission into a new realm of possibility.

But the potential client does not always see the light and on those occasions the question might become, “If you can make your numbers without letting go what are you whining about? Unless of course your intuition is telling you there is something more to be had than just making the numbers. Or maybe you simply want someone to blame if things don’t work out?” Shortly after this I usually leave their office… with my hat! I am obviously needed elsewhere


Squashing Engagement: The High Cost of Seeing Limitations Instead of Possibilities

“The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant.”

Matthew Lynn, Bloomberg News, 01/14/2007

Few of us have ever missed hitting the mark by as much as Matthew Lynn did in January of 2007 when he wrote the piece entitled ‘Apple iPhone Will Fail in a Late Defensive Move.’ If you have a moment I’ll ask you to take a look at this piece from a number of perspectives.

  • With your 2014 eyes simply enjoy the article for the sense of irony you experience as you read each argument Mr. Lynn outlines.
  • With your 2007 eyes (you must keep them somewhere!) stand alongside Mr. Lynn and imagine the world he was living in at the time he wrote his article. Crazy right, 2007, like it was “back in the day.”

Matthew Lynn was simply a columnist writing for a daily publication that focuses primarily on matters related to business, not technology. As you go through his column you’ll find clear references to the audience he believes he is addressing. Words like these, “…it is too early to start dumping your Nokia shares…” would seem to indicate that he knows the readers of Bloomberg Daily are investment oriented, financially motivated and management savvy. If he had been writing for another type of publication, ‘Wired’ for instance, he may have taken a different approach; actually it doesn’t sound like he is part of the ‘Wired’ readership either so that example may be a bit far fetched. But clearly he was writing for an audience that he thought he understood.

  • Now with an entirely different set of eyes see if you can imagine what the world would be like today if Matthew Lynn had been head of product development at Apple and the idea for the iPhone had been brought to him? Hard huh?
  • Now ask yourself how many improvements, much less paradigm busting ideas, get shot down by managers in your organization each year because when new ideas are  presented they get viewed through eyes that know their audience wants the future to look like the past?

Here’s the rub, Matthew Lynn still writes for Bloomberg Daily, he’s not a bad guy, he just couldn’t see the iPhone for what it was, all he could see was what it wasn’t and he knew nobody wanted that. Oh yes, and one more very important thing, nobody had to listen to what Mr. Lynn had to say, either then or now, Bloomberg News is very clear with their readership about that…

… (Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)


Unlike Mr. Lynn your employees do have to listen to their managers. I am betting in your organization when an employee brings an idea to a manager and he/she doesn’t see the merits they don’t quickly follow up by saying something like, “But hey, I only work here and this is just my opinion, you should feel free to ask my manager what he thinks of your idea.”

Honestly, using Matthew Lynn’s column from 2007 is sort of a cheap trick, there are not that many iPhone ideas floating around any organization. But all good ideas don’t have to be as great as that, maybe it is just as important that all new ideas get a fair hearing by more than one set of eyes and ears. In my experience it is very engaging for employees to know their ideas will be given serious consideration. Grown ups know they will not get everything they want but knowing they were authentically listened to will keep them coming back.

Do your employees feel invited to present new ideas even if they don’t necessarily agree with past practices? How about those reporting to you?


The Last Word on Trust

trustImagine being at work, in any workplace, and not trusting people? I don’t necessarily mean specific people, I mean people in general. Unfortunately, I think many of us are there unconsciously. This reality is covered up with “handy stories” justifying behavior that might otherwise be considered paranoid. I think you know the stories I mean, they usually include some element of “well you can never be too careful,” or “if you want something done right do it yourself.” These and similar “stories” are versions of how to avoid depending on or being vulnerable with others.

“Trust is more an attitude about myself, an estimate of my own capacities, my own ability to handle whatever comes up. If I do not trust someone, … , a more accurate statement might be that I am not happy with the way I act or feel when I am around this person.   It is my sense of being out of control that bothers me…”

                       Peter Block, Author, ‘Community: The Structure of Belonging’

Preparing for this post, it occurred to me that for many thoughtful people there are three truths about trust and no common definition. The three truths are:

  1.  If I trust, I can count on being disappointed.

  2. If I do not trust, my life will likely be safe but it will feel more like surviving than thriving.

  3. If I am up to anything of consequence—anything that will really make any difference—then I will need the involvement of others. Therefore, trusting is a foregone conclusion: I will trust or I will accomplish very little in this lifetime.

With the above three truths in mind, you would do well to establish a tolerance for disappointment. If this sounds paradoxical to you I empathize. It appears that there is always a paradox to be dealt with where trust is involved, especially if you insist on defining trust as having anything to do with someone else’s behavior.

Unfortunately, in my experience most people do create their definition of trust in terms of the behaviors of others. According to them you must “earn their trust” or some other such nonsense!

While it may seem counter intuitive, as in the case of the Peter Block quote above, there is considerable power in defining trust in reference to oneself. This opportunity is too often neglected at great personal loss and is dealt with masterfully in TRUST AGENTS: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust.

Consider this:

A definition of trust that is filled with power is a function of my relationship with myself.

Do I have the confidence in myself to deal with whatever comes my way? Can I interact successfully with various personalities? Can I rely on employees, co-workers or managers who clearly have superior subject knowledge to my own? Can I honor my intentions when interacting with people of differing agendas? And most importantly, can I count on myself to respond and deliver without excuses even when someone has let me down?

This perspective on trust gives reason to think that you can be effective no matter what and no matter who is involved. And make no mistake about it, trust, like we often say about beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…it is a perspective. By adopting this perspective you place the responsibility for trust in your own lap. Your power comes from the fact that there never was anything you could do about anyone else’s behavior except to ask for what you wanted and hold them to account for what they said they would do.

I was blessed to have a manager who operated with me in this fashion early in my career. I made mistakes and each time he dealt with the situation gracefully and responsibly. If he had delegated something to me and it did not get done well he always held himself to account for having allowed me the opportunity to either meet his expectations, or let him down. This is not to say that he did not hold me to account; he did, and from our discussions around my accountabilities I learned from my mistakes. His trusting that he could deal with whatever mistake I might make allowed me the freedom to bring the best I had to offer and rapidly learn what worked and what did not. Of course, like any truly great manager his trust in me cost him in the end; I was promoted and moved on. And of course, he trusted that whoever took my place would eventually be exactly what he needed, until they moved on as well.

Where have you abdicated your responsibility for trust? When will you take it back?

When Employees Think About Engagement…What is Their Focus?


It is frequently my privilege to work with an owner of a smaller sized business, one where the owner is using their own money to make things happen. As someone who did this myself for over twenty years I have a real appreciation for the risk faced by people who undertake business ownership. I am also aware that facing these risks and achieving a certain amount of success can distort a business owner’s sense of what is really going on, especially when it comes to employee engagement.

A short time ago I was addressing a group of owners of smaller and medium sized businesses. The theme of the conversation with my audience that day was the importance of intentionally designing working relationships. Often I have found that employers will settle for relationships with employees grounded in what they need to have done, as though that is all that needs to be accounted for. That may in fact be a true representation of many an employer’s perspective but it certainly doesn’t account for the perspective of the employee.

During my talk one owner in particular was noticeably irritated, a couple of times mumbling something sarcastic to a nearby colleague. Eventually he butted into my conversation with this remark, “I have job openings now and I cannot find good people to fill them much less worry about establishing relationships. What do you have to say about that?” This was one of those comments that was delivered in a tone suggesting a confrontation might be at hand and the room got suddenly still. Not wanting to waste the moment or the anticipation I responded, “Well tell me this…why would any body want to work for you?” It hadn’t seemed possible but the room got even quieter.

After a moment another member of the audience chimed in with a comment directed at me, “It sounds like you are attacking him, he’s creating jobs for people. Shouldn’t we be grateful that someone is creating jobs and help him solve his problem?” So there it was, the time honored practice of coming to the defense of the “job creator.”

Should we be grateful to the job creators? I am not sure gratitude is the proper response. Respect for the “job creator” is probably appropriate, respect for bringing forth talents and abilities that are in limited supply in any population and using them to the economic advantage of themselves as well as others. Certainly not everyone has these talents; fewer still have the willingness to launch into the risk of business ownership and none that I know are doing this from some sense of altruism, they are trying to get something they want and creating jobs is a means to that end.

I find that all employers want their employees to give their best at all times. However, where they get tripped up is in being able to be explicit about needing their employees. As a fallback they adopt the attitude that employees should be grateful for the opportunity they have been provided and therefore engage as a function of this.

What this perspective does not take into account is that many employees, especially the ones you will want to keep are as future oriented as the employer. Any employee who is really valuable is very likely aware that the books are square with the delivery of every paycheck. They don’t get paid for what they will do; they are being paid for what they have done. Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman from The Boston Consulting Group have recently written a book titled, ‘Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated’ and they are very explicit on this point…

 “Engagement, therefore, is prospective, not retrospective. People do not choose to engage as a result of gratitude for how things have gone in the past, but rather as a reflection of what it will bring them.”

This is likely a point of view that highly sought after employees might have. So then, “what’s in it for me now?” is very likely a question on their minds.

Now back to my audience from a few weeks back. Yes Mr. Grumpy was a “job creator” but he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart. There was something he was trying to accomplish, something from which he anticipated a return on his investment greater than what he might get otherwise or from some other source. If, as I suspected, his attitude of begrudgingly offering these good jobs was as apparent to prospective employees as it was to me it was no wonder he was having trouble filling his vacancies. Prospective employees worth having can sniff this type of attitude out quickly and it does not offer them a future worthy of engagement.

The Challenge of Leading the Millennial Generation: Harnessing the Entrepreneurial Spirit

“Rather than answer the knotty questions about whether entrepreneurs are born or made employers need to turn their attention to more practical matter of promoting an environment of innovation.”

Last Friday afternoon I was fortunate enough to make time to attend the Western Big DogsWashington University Business Summit, an annual event hosted by the College of Business and Economics. The topic for the afternoon was entrepreneurism and innovation and focused on a panel that included three local entrepreneurs and one professional manager/former would be entrepreneur. This group was offered the opportunity to respond to a number of questions regarding their passion and vision and of course the question that has yet to be finally answered, are entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Let’s be clear, entrepreneurism and innovation are hot topics, you might even call them trendy. Although the sure fire path to innovation remains a conundrum one thing we do know is that entrepreneurs, when they are in full flight, create opportunities for others to be employed and job creation in America is on everyone’s agenda if not for themselves certainly for their children.

To my satisfaction the three entrepreneurs on the panel agreed with me, entrepreneurs are very likely born and born in limited numbers. Maybe not born like from the womb but as the sum of their life experiences they arrive at the adult stage of life with a burning desire to make something happen, something big. You might recall the quote from Steve Jobs; “I want to put a ding in the universe!”

This idea of entrepreneurs being born versus developed has of course been debated and will continue to be so because as Americans we love the notion that we can be anything we want to be with hard work and blah, blah, blah. OK, knock yourself out with that if you want.

Meanwhile, I am also pretty sure from personal experience that a desire to own your own business or at least not work for anybody else does not make you an entrepreneur. (That would be me) I am just as certain that there is a difference between having an “entrepreneurial spirit” and being an entrepreneur. The case for this last assertion was made by the fourth member of Friday’s panel an admittedly “reformed entrepreneur” who had thought himself to be one early in life only to find that he didn’t have the constitution to deal with the inevitable failures inherent in the entrepreneurial life cycle.

Rather than answer the knotty questions about entrepreneurs being born or made employers need to turn their attention to more practical matter of promoting an environment of innovation. By that I mean encouraging the expression of an entrepreneurial spirit in their businesses and attracting the very talented millennial generation.

In late 2011… William Deresiewicz wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times titled ‘Generation Sell’. In this piece Deresiewicz takes us through his analysis of the millennial generation that seems to be so troubling to work with or even understand for many managers today. His central thesis is that this is a generation of entrepreneurs.

While I do not to agree with Deresiewicz I do see merit in his observation that the Millennials operate with…

“…a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.”

 …so their entrepreneurial inclinations are driven as much from a self-preservation strategy as the previous generation’s were driven by the desire for security.

While entrepreneurial in nature many of the Millennials are really “tweakers” and most continue to work in our mainstream organizations. They literally walk among us, having learned how to play the game by developing an ability to fit in rather than drop out and assume the risks and responsibilities of business ownership.

Given the continued premium many employers still place on compliance it is likely that we have not tapped the entrepreneurial instincts of this generation and likely as not this is why they will eventually leave us, not necessarily to start their own businesses but in hopes of finding an environment that welcomes their creativity. As managers we might do ourselves an enormous favor by asking not how we can get them to be like us but rather how can we give them reason to stay and invest themselves in our future.

In an article titled ‘The Tweaker’ Malcolm Gladwell identifies the difference inventor and “tweaker.” By definition…

“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.”

Turning our Millennial employees loose to “tweak” may seem like an invitation to chaos. However, it also may just be a formula for the engagement and retention of our best and brightest.





Are Your Managers Taking Knives to a Gun Fight? Sean Connery’s Lessons in Leadership

I wrote the following piece about five years ago. Every so often I publish it again because, Sean Connery1) I continue to see managers constrained in their ability to manage effectively by cost control thinking and practices and 2) I love the picture that goes with it!. I hope you find it relevant………

For most of his 50+ year film making career Sean Connery entertained audiences by repeatedly playing one type of character; dashing, unpredictable, unmanageable to be sure, we are not quite sure he is a hero but we are glad he works for our side; great stuff for the silver screen but not much of a leadership model. Ironically, his greatest professional honor, an Oscar for Best Supporting actor came while playing the consummate team player, Officer Jimmy Malone in the 1987 movie version of The Untouchables.

In this film Connery’s character assumed the role of “leadership coach” for the young, passionate but naïve Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner. In what may be Malone’s most memorable scene he delivers a brief soliloquy on how Ness can best deal his arch enemy Al Capone…

“You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”

Officer Jimmy Malone, The Untouchables, 1987

In one instances he delivers his message with the aid of a classic rhetorical question when a gangster draws a knife and attempts to stab Ness and winds up shot dead in the process. “Isn’t that just like a #@&**#? He asks, “Brings a knife to a gun fight!”

Could any message be clearer? If indeed we do need a translation the Urban Dictionary offers this… ‘Bringing a knife to a gun fight- The act of taking an amount of any substance to a gathering which is obviously insufficient.’ Like managing without sufficient empowerment!

Recently I was reminded of this little bit of leadership counsel from Officer Malone in an exchange I was having with officials at my son’s college. A piece of equipment my son borrowed from the school last spring was noted as damaged upon its return. I was made aware of this situation when I went to pay his Fall tuition, a flag in his record indicated that the damage needed to be paid for before he would be allowed to register.

I contacted my son who said he was aware of the damage and noticed it when he originally picked up the piece of equipment. Since it did not affect the functionality of the equipment he didn’t pay any further attention. Unfortunately he should have brought the damage to the attention of the department personnel he was borrowing from, they didn’t see the issue until the equipment was returned; the cost of repair, $120. Based on my son’s explanation I did not see that we should bear the full cost but also recognized that the department had nothing to go on either except one of their employee’s testimony. I proposed to the supervisor who spoke with me that we split the difference equally. It seemed to me that we had on our hands what amounted to a “he said, he said” situation. The supervisor said he was not authorized to make such an arrangement. This is where Officer Jimmy Malone’s words came back to me in a flash of recognition, “Isn’t that just like a #@&**#? He brings a knife to a gun fight!”

Without any forethought I blurted out, “You are kidding right, you cannot make a decision on what amounts to a $60 transaction?” I am afraid my frustration may have unintentionally embarrassed that manager. Two levels of management and two conversations later I was able to conclude the transaction with the department director agreeing to my proposal!

It really doesn’t matter the name of my son’s school, it could be any college anywhere in the country, maybe the world for all I know. It doesn’t even matter that it was a school, it could just as easily have been a manufacturing company’s service department, and the lesson would have been the same.

We ask our managers to lead, to inspire, to direct others in producing results of all kinds and yet we limit their authority in ways that leave them humiliated in front of their charges or the customer. These very same people, who can purchase automobiles worth thousands of dollars, enter into mortgage arrangements for hundreds of thousands of dollars; bring children into the world without asking our permission…need approval for trivial transactions. Why?

Don’t bother to respond. Whatever you are going to say next…that…that right there…is Nonsense!

Engagement and power are inseparable. If our managers are disempowered how can we expect their engagement at anything other than a compliance level? Why would we ever expect them to inspire or be inspired themselves?

  • Where have we unnecessarily constrained our managers and are wondering why they under perform?

Is Employee Engagement a Hoax?


Somebody had to be the first to say it, well maybe not the first to say but say it with at least enough sassy to scrape the skin off and return some sanity to the dialogue around employee engagement.

Sometimes you just need to poke someone in the eye to get them to see clearly and in this case it is an entire industry of coaches, consultants, academics and advisors that needed the poke. Two weeks ago in his article, ‘Engagement Voodoo’ John Sumser, editor-in-chief of the online magazine HRExaminer put truth to the lies around employee engagement in a way that should have been stinging to many employers and practitioners alike.

To be accurate Sumser’s article was not the first, nor will it be the last, in a string of attempts to shake awake employers, HR practitioners, OD professionals and employees who have fallen prey to the siren’s song of the engagement merchants.

In a July 2013 post to Heartofengagement.com titled ‘This is Not the Road to Heart Lake…an Alternative Perspective on Employee Engagement’ I took my own swipe at what had become to me obviously a snipe hunt with projections of significant escalation in investment on the part of employees during the coming years. Yes, that’s right, in spite of virtually no appreciable return on investment for nearly twenty years employers are expected to spend even more in an attempt to tap the elusive discretionary effort that employees hoard so fiercely.

Let’s get straight about something, and in his article Sumser says it well…

“The truth is that most people work to live. They go to work to finance the rest of their lives. They are happy to deliver professional results to the best of their capability if the system will let them. But they will never see the company as the heart of their existence nor will they derive the bulk of their self esteem from their work.”


So just to be clear, these “most people” that Sumser refers to have already given what they are going to give in terms of discretionary effort. They have fulfilled their purpose in being in the workplace.

Further on Sumser says

“They are employees, not owners. And, any program that tries to make them feel ownership without paying them the way that owners are paid is just more snake oil. Owners are owners and employees are not.”


Once again, to be clear, these employees do not see or hear employers saying, “We are prepared to give you more of a say and a bigger piece of the pie, even if it means we will take less ourselves.” They don’t hear that because employers are not saying that, they are investing in recognition programs instead.

If you and I were having this conversation over dinner with some other friends we would easily agree that the notion of something for nothing is absurd. But somehow clever consultants have been able to convince employers that they 1) need more engaged employees and 2) with an investment far less than the benefits that have been heretofore been stripped away 3) employees can be renewed in the commitment to their job and a company that has demonstrated repeatedly that they are expendable.

Over dinner, with friends, we would laugh hysterically about this and marvel that anyone would fall for this notion. Then we’d go back to work and dutifully fill out our engagement surveys. We are all in this together after all.

For the past nearly three decades as organizations have become leaner they have in fact become meaner; but not necessarily meaner in a good way; more competitive, yes, more inviting, not so much. Yes there is Google and Netflix and Zappos that we love to read of but they remain rare, that’s why they get written about.

Engagement remains the choice of the individual, always has, always will. It can be invited, it can be thwarted, but it cannot be induced.



What is the ROI on Employee Engagement?…Consider Flexible Work Schedules


The truth is there is no real return on employee engagement, engagement is the return on doing the right things and higher levels of engagement correspond with higher levels of profitability.

Here’s a test…let’s say you own a business or manage a group of people…some of your employees approach you and ask about the possibility of arranging work schedules that have some flexibility. Do you hear threat or opportunity in the request? If you hear threat you are probably biased towards wanting as much control as possible over your employees. If you hear opportunity you are probably biased towards anything that will make the business more profitable.

Does this sound like a gross over generalization? It probably is but it is with the intention of making a point. As employers our minds are often locked into patterns that suggest control and profitability go hand in hand. Not so.

Last week I was fortunate enough to receive a last minute invitation to attend a luncheon meeting sponsored by the Mount Baker chapter of Society for Human Resource Management. The topic was flexible work schedules, not exactly a brand new idea but the speaker Dianna Gould took an in-depth look at the potential profitability impact of schedules that produced a win/win for both employer and employee. Wait…I thought flex time was an employee benefit?

Are you aware that the replacement cost for replacing an employee that doesn’t work out is on average 1.5 times their annual salary, when you take into consideration the cost of recruiting, training and lost productivity. This fact alone would be enough to have most managers or employers open to considering measures that could encourage good employees to stay if something could be done to accommodate their scheduling needs. That is unless these same managers or employers think of flexible work schedules as a merely a benefit. Benefits of course go on the liability side of the balance sheet, they detract from profitability.

To be fair there is a case to be made for flexible work schedules being a benefit, but it is pretty weak. When you throw in the cost associated with replacing an employee this weakness is exposed. When you throw in the cost associated with replacing a really productive employee it is time to question the motives of that same manager or employer who won’t consider flexible scheduling.

Look, if I am a highly capable person who knows their value in the market place I have no compunction about approaching my employer to request a work schedule that will allow me to respond to some personal need I may have, especially if it will allow me to continue to perform work I enjoy with people I enjoy in an organization I respect. However, as that same highly capable person I know I have options. While it might be temporarily inconvenient to find another employer I will, certainly when I can see there is no business necessity in the work schedule I am being asked to adhere to and I have what I consider to be pressing personal considerations.

As is often the case with my writing it may appear that I am exhibiting favoritism towards employees, sort of an anti-employer stance. No! What I am is anti-stupid and frequently I find that employers or managers are either unwilling to reconsider what they think is the way it must be, or unaware of these beliefs.

So here we go, I am going to send you to a couple of websites that contain way more information that I can possibly squeeze into the space I have available, or that you have time for now anyway.

First… as the manager or employer you need to be able to consider flexible work schedules as a business strategy. Holding it as a benefit significantly undervalues the upside to this approach.

Second…watch this little video, it is about 3 minutes and I know you have that much time http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUz2hH_T1nE,

Third… spend some time after watching the video to consider whether more flexible work schedules might work in your organization as a practical matter. Maybe there are some schedules that need to stay fixed. Remember, I am anti-stupid and that means don’t go jumping just because I suggest you jump.

Fourth…here are a couple of websites where you should spend some time, the When Work Works Toolkit developed by SHRM in conjunction with the Families and Work Institute and also Life Meets Work. LMW is a consulting company but they have lots of free stuff on their site that you can use to create an educational foundation for yourself.

Finally, don’t go crazy and turn your workplace upside down, start slow and most importantly convince yourself of the benefits.