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 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,

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.


My History of Being “the boss”, What I Regret

The Boss

I write a lot about what it takes to be the type of boss or manager that can engender a working environment that calls forth engagement in employees. Actually I think I was pretty good at bringing highly engaged people into our organization and then letting them make the contribution they wanted to make; but not always.

  • In some cases it was giving them the freedom to make certain types of decisions.

One time we had occasion to need to replace our ailing copy machine. When our office administrator most familiar with our duplication process told me it was time for a replacement I asked her to make a recommendation. I also asked her what might be the cost of the type of machine we needed. She said she thought maybe $5000. I said, “OK, that’s your budget, let me know how it goes.” That was our only conversation about the purchase and when she reported back with her choice she proudly announced we could get what we needed with minimal financing and a service and warranty plan that would provide plenty of backup. I really cannot tell you what brand she bought, it worked, she was thrilled and that was all that mattered to me.

  • In some cases they needed to be listened to.

We seriously considered a merger with another local company. We went through several weeks of due diligence and getting to know the operations of the other company and were close on a deal when two of my office staff asked for a meeting. Shortly after we sat down to talk it became very clear that they had strong opinions about our potential new partner and they were not positive. We had always placed a premium on treating each other with respect and made a point of listening to whoever had something to say. They reported that on the several occasions when the potential partner was in our offices they had felt dismissed and talked down to and on balance felt that the merger would have a significantly negative impact on our environment. When I spoke with my partner after the meeting we agreed that both of us had been harboring an uneasy feeling but neither of us had voiced the fact since there were so many positives we were focused on. We called the merger off and never looked back after this decision and reaffirmed our commitment to an environment where everyone’s voice could be heard.

  • Sometimes it was backing an employee on a tough decision.

At one point I received a call from our largest client, the local telephone company, telling me that they were miffed that we had switched our service to one of their competitors. The news caught me by surprise since I usually allowed the folks running our office to make such decision based on their best judgment. Sure enough, our finance person had received a competitive bid for service from the local competitor. She decided to check it out with our provider and made several calls in an attempt to see whether they would match what she’d been offered by the competitor. When she didn’t hear back after two weeks of un-returned phone calls she decided that maybe our account was too small to warrant immediate attention. Based on the offer the competitor made she felt the savings was significant so she changed the service. Then we did get a phone call but to me as the business owner from a senior manager at the phone company wanting to know how I could justify such a decision when they paid us so much for services. When I looked into it I saw that my finance person had made a decision in our best interest unless you considered the politics. That wasn’t her concern. I took the issue to the senior manager at the phone company and rather than apologize I asked him how he could justify such inconsiderate customer service. It all ended well.

It is so rewarding to recall these instances, which I do only infrequently. But you know which situations I recall more frequently; the times when I let my ego override my values. On balance there are fewer of these times than those similar to the ones I have shared here. But honestly I can say that when I used my position power to force an issue or when I refused to listen to an objection to one of my bright ideas, those are the times that haunt me even now. I’d really like to have an opportunity for a do-over there but those memories go with the privilege or being “the boss.”

  • Treat your employees like precious cargo, hire the best you can and let them be their best.

“Put Me in Coach!”: Creating a Game at Work Invites Engagement


Sometimes when I have used the term “game” in the same sentence with business the response I have gotten from my audience goes something like this, “ You can’t make a game out of business; business is serious.” After we talk about it for a while many in the audience usually recognize that my idea of business being a game does make some sense. Business is a game grown ups play for real money, there’s winning, losing, prizes and surprises just like any good game would have.

So if business is a game, albeit a serious one, why don’t we do more to bring out the game-like qualities in the workplace? After all most of us do enjoy playing games of many types and we can get pretty invested while we are playing.

Keep that question in mind while you ponder the reality that the average North American workplace is currently operating with somewhere around 30% of the workforce reporting being fully engaged; hardly what you’d expect from a great game.

Last week I had an opportunity to visit a medical device manufacturing facility located in my area. A good friend has recently taken on the position of Chief Operating Officer there and he wanted me to see the work he had been doing with the workforce to reduce the errors being made in the production of the custom devices this installation make and sells. He’d sort of been bugging me about it and even though my primary interest lie more with employee engagement I decided that maybe I had something to learn from his quality initiatives.

I have to admit, I had not made a connection between quality initiatives and employee engagement. As it turned out…silly me! When I arrived he took me out on the production floor to watch the process had been using for about four months. I mentioned earlier that this company produces custom products and they are complex and expensive for both manufacturer and end users. Because of the complexity, much of which arises in the customization process, the opportunities for error are many. Errors are costly both in terms of costs and time to delivery and historically errors at this company had taken a toll on their competitiveness in an industry that like many others that has become global.

Out on the production floor I saw charts indicating that significant progress had been made in error reduction even in the short time my friend had been there. The statistics were certainly impressive but my educational experience began with the next step.

A few years back Mike Rother, working out of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor translated the legendary Toyota manufacturing process into language and concepts that can be applied to virtually any industry and any type of workforce. Rother has a book of course but he also operates the Toyota Kata Website, which I would encourage you to visit. My friend has become well acquainted with the methods developed by Rother and his primary attraction to the approach is the impact it has on employee engagement.

After our review of the charts we next visited the actual Kata process. As you probably have guessed the term Kata is Japanese and means “form.” In practice then it is the study of the movements, or form of producing anything.  From what I witnessed I’d say the real meaning is Eureka!

What I got to see was production workers from a variety of backgrounds, Vietnamese, South American, Russian as well as American working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to bring about improvements in the various stages of the production process. To say the least it was exciting. These were folks with a variety of educational, language and cultural differences who were coming together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to work collaboratively on what they had in common, the day to day working experience.

Within moments of the Kata process getting underway it was obvious, these people were playing a game! They were involved, they were passionate; they exhibited initiative and creativity, all why listening intently to what their colleagues had to share. What I found so attractive about the process was that it gave these production workers the chance to solve their own problems. This aspect of the work has historically been reserved for engineers and supervisors and the workers merely reported the problems and then stood back. Beyond the involvement the people in the Kata process were encouraged to experiment and when there experiments didn’t work out they were applauded for what they had learned. Imagine, employees encouraged to take risks?

Of course after such a short period the process is not without flaws. There is still a lot of learning going on but the level of enthusiasm for playing the game was undeniable. Was there 100% engagement, no, but there was a heck of a lot more than 30%.




What is the Sound of Engagement? A Manager Needs to Know

Engagement-Inside-Job* If you are not a manager just read this with any situation in mind where you are counting on the collaboration of others.

Probably the most common mistake I watch managers make daily in the workplace is addressing their direct reports as though they are both fully engaged and ready to go. Maybe yes, maybe no and not knowing is a risky proposition. Just because you have one of your employees nodding their head doesn’t mean anything except they are nodding their heads!

A worse mistake of course is not being aware that an employee’s state of engagement even matters!

You may have never thought about it but as a manager you need to be aware that engagement has its’ own “Voice”, as does compliance and resistance, which are other frames of mind your employees can be in

  • depending on the day
  • the conversation topic
  • what happened to them last night at home or this morning
  • what they were doing or
  • who they were talking to just before they came to your meeting
  • and, and, and …or, or, or…life will not leave us alone.

So now, what do I mean when I refer to “frames of mind?”  Frame, like window frame, the place we are looking at the world from at any moment is more kaleidoscopic than fixed. (“What you said to me yesterday was fine and welcome, say the same thing today after I have just had a tough conversation with a peer in another department and I may ‘jump down your throat.”) … much to your surprise and dismay! We are always giving “voice” to our frame of mind if others would just listen and watch.

Engaged, associated by choice, is a condition of being, and there are both ultimate and interim conditions of being engaged to consider.

  • Ultimate engagement arises from the choice to honor your commitments.
  • Interim engagement is subject to the slings and arrows of everyday/every moment life and is constantly in flux.

Ultimately, I am completely committed to the success of my marriage; in the interim, my wife has asked me to check under the house for a water leak! Given my aversion to both maintenance and the underside of the house about the best I can muster up for this one is an “Okey Doke honey!” and grudgingly crawl under after just about anything else I can think of that just “has to be done” before checking for the leak. As it turns out my wife knows that my ultimate commitment to the marriage always wins out over my weasel mind and she will get her report on the alleged leak sooner rather than later, so she doesn’t try to handle my dawdling.

What is this “Voice” thing?

Voice of Engagement- “I am on it honey thanks for letting me know there may be a problem”, followed by action.

Voice of Compliance- As above, “Okey Doke honey”, followed by going to the refrigerator, making a sandwich, watching some of the ballgame and then crawling under the house.

Voice of Resistance- “It rained last week and I don’t want to get muddy so I’ll get to it next week, its probably nothing.”, followed by no action until asked again.

I hope that you can translate these personal examples into your own when addressing your team or another co-worker while setting the stage to get something done.

If you don’t check in with people you run the risk of talking to employees and assuming that head nods, Okey Dokes and even “You got it boss” means that something is going to happen and you can count on it. Maybe you’ve just been talking to yourself!

So, do you know your reports as well as my wife knows me?

  • How many times have you been burned by talking with your folks as though they are right there with you?
  • How many times have you known they were not right there with you and you went right on talking as though you could talk them into it?
  • How many times have you taken their silence to mean assent and walked away hoping you were going to get what you asked for?

Is this too basic? I wish it were and I don’t by any means want to insult anyone, unless it will help get this clear, when you are not winning as a manager start with where people are at. Address them where they are, not where you wish they were. Be curious, find out why they may not be engaged, ask what you can offer to address misunderstandings or fears directly. In the interim getting in communication is the result to be produced; ultimately it will get you where you want to go.







Want Higher Profits…Reduce Management, Not Employees


OverheadDid you ever wonder, when you hear stories about workforce reductions followed shortly thereafter by record earnings and generous management bonuses why some people get rewarded for failing and stay employed and others seemingly get penalized for doing exactly what was expected of them? Me too!

Did you ever wonder why you couldn’t make a decision to spend $500 of company money without getting a manager’s approval but you can apply for a mortgage without asking anybody? Me Too!

Did you ever wonder why we give managers an office with a door, maybe even a window and everyone reporting to them sits in an eight by eight sound muffling half-walled enclosure? Me too!

Did you ever wonder whether management necessarily means managers? Me Too!

I was once again reminded of all these questions, and more, when I made a visit to a small business in Bellingham where one of my friends is helping the owners establish work practices…that don’t require managers!

Fortunately for me when I was a business owner, and our other employees, I was able to arrange to bring a top-notch manager in as a partner and he took care of all our management needs. One thing I had been clear about from my time as an employee was that I preferred as much autonomy as possible while pursuing my objectives so I sought to attract employees who liked operating in the same fashion. In fact I told several of them on more than one occasion that if they needed to be managed they were not the kind of people we were looking for. I would much prefer paying them more to manage themselves.

As for my friend and her employers, since her arrival she has reduced labor costs by around $20,000 per month. That’s a tidy sum that drops right to the bottom line for the owners and it has been achieved while improving service overall and reducing errors. Her first recommendation, eliminate one of the management positions and begin to allow the employees to step up to greater levels of freedom and responsibility. What quickly followed was the recognition that there we too many employees for the work that needed to be done. Too many employees meant people with time on their hands; idle hands are the devil’s workshop, etc., etc. Within a short time after eliminating the manager the “keepers” made themselves known and those who needed to be managed moved on.

Over the years a great deal has been written about the need for more leadership, engagement and innovation in the workplace. Only recently have management experts begun to recognize that some of the greatest barriers to these capabilities developing naturally are manager’s needs to have something or somebody to manage. The purpose of the business is to create a customer and generate a profit. While that may seem obvious to the casual observer of many businesses what is often found in practice are managers who work hard to create a reason to be part of the business. Keep in mind, these are not bad folks just folks who recognize that without something of value to do they show up as excess baggage and become expendable.

In the mind of at least one prominent management thinker, Gary Hamel, too many managers is emblematic of too much bureaucracy and too much bureaucracy creates a tax on the future of an organization.

In an article earlier this year Hamel cited the following examples of bureaucratic taxation…

  • Adds overhead—by creating multi-tiered structures where hundreds of managers spend their time managing other managers.
  • Creates friction—by forcing new ideas to run a multi-level gauntlet of approval that creates significant lag between “sense” and “respond.”
  • Distorts decisions—by giving too much power to managers who often have much of their emotional equity invested in the past.
  • Misallocates power—by rewarding those who are the most politically adept rather than those who are the most capable leaders.
  • Discourages dissent—by creating asymmetric power relationships that make it difficult for subordinates to speak up.
  • Misdirects competition—by encouraging individuals to compete for promotion and political advantage.
  • Thwarts innovation—by over-weighting experience and under-weighting unconventional thinking.
  • Hobbles initiative—by throwing up barriers to risk-taking.
  • Obliterates nuance—by centralizing too many decisions and demanding compliance with uniform rules and procedures.

It isn’t that Hamel believes that all management is bad; he’s out to reduce the “management for the sake of management” that has characterized bureaucracies for many years.

Don’t think you have any bureaucracy? How much company money can an employee spend before coming to you? If an expenditure of any amount must be approved you are paying a pretty high management tax.




Some Managers Get it …and Many Don’t

Scratching Head“My strong belief, after a couple decades of effort in this arena, is that by and large, people don’t hate their work at all. In fact, most of us rather like our work. Some of us even love it. What we dislike, and what we have difficulty ‘engaging’ with is our jobs, that broader context within which our work resides…”

Bill Catlette, Contented Cows Partners

Bill Catlette is one of the wisest men I know when it comes to creating working environments that encourage both engagement and high levels of performance. He and his partner, Richard Hadden have built a thriving practice over the past two decades, writing three books, delivering keynote speeches and workshops, providing engagement analysis and making recommendations to leaders in a variety of businesses about how they can go about improving the quality of their workplace and thereby their profitability.

When I read the monthly “Fresh Milk” newsletter last week I was struck by two things; the first, Bill referenced the by now almost universally recognized, measured, validated, quoted, re-quoted, cross referenced and beaten like a dead horse statistic for employee engagement across the economy. According to every possible source available this number, appalling as it is, was about 30% when it was first measured twenty-five years ago and remains at 30% today. This despite years of consultant interventions, surveys, recognition systems, books, videos, audios and even TED talks for goodness sakes. (In 2012 employers spent just north of $750M on employee engagement, projections indicate a spend of $1.5B within five years)

The second thing I noticed is that Bill and I presume Richard as well are not sucked into the traditional mode of writing like employee engagement is 100% the responsibility of management or the employer. Quite honestly it seems that this attitude may well have been developed by consultants who clearly recognize where the money is!

Bill in his newsletter sticks to somewhat safe suggestions like …

  • Becoming more intentional and selective in hiring…always a good idea and frequently violated by hiring managers who offer that it is just too hard to find good people ß While true at times this does not justify a subpar employment decision.
  • Getting serious about learning and development…you’d probably think it was not even necessary to mention this but it is since lazy management approves development like it is a discretionary expense then cuts the same expense when push comes to shove with the numbers. Consider this, rather than cut the training and development budget of people who are getting the work done cut the salary of managers who don’t perform on their objectives. That would very likely boost engagement numbers and save money and reduce turnover.
  • Don’t mess with what’s working…again, at the risk of offending some newly promoted manager or some “know it all” employer…it is not necessary to put your personal mark on your territory like you are some dog who has just moved into a new neighborhood. Respect the contribution of your employees; allow them to solve problems as often as possible. If things are working leave them be.

What I’d like to see, along with these fairly traditional ideas,and what seems to not be in fashion, is to look to employees to be more responsible for their own engagement. That’s right, I said it! Employees need to be responsible, at least in equal measure with the employer for their own level of engagement.

It may well be asked why this is not a more frequent topic since in virtually any other type of relationship we’d be quick to hold both parties responsible. As I said earlier, follow the money. Consultants know it is far more likely they will be able to collect significant fees from employers than it is to address individual employees and ask for by comparison, small change.

Some managers already get this; it is time for many more to do the same. And this is not an either or conversation or a “who is to blame” issue either. Employee engagement levels, if they are meaningful, and that is a legitimate question, indicate that whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working.

The time has arrived, actually well passed, when it is necessary to approach the topic of employee engagement from the standpoint that employees have a responsibility to advocate for themselves around issues that they feel adversely affect their mood in the workplace. No one ever gets everything their way in life but certainly grown ups know this. And…maybe this is the real issue, if managers/employers begin to treat employees as grown ups, who knows what havoc may be unleashed in the workplace?

But as was said earlier, many managers get this, many still are fearful of treating employees as grown ups.

Leading for Engagement: Tickle Their Fancy

TicklishA short time ago while leading a workshop I was asked the following question by someone who sounded like an experienced manager. “What do I do with an obviously talented report who just doesn’t seem committed to the work he has been assigned?” Following the question the manager and I engaged in a brief dialogue to establish the “signs” that the employee was not committed. What we rapidly determined was both enlightening yet not all that surprising; the manager was not necessarily reporting on the results the employee produced, she was reporting on her observations of the mannerisms of the employee. (She didn’t like his attitude!) The results were fine, though not exceptional and the employee was often overheard discussing matters related to Fantasy Football with colleagues in the break room or when time could be used for additional production.

I am in and around a lot of managers and supervisors in any given year. It is not uncommon for me to hear similar concerns expressed by many who have management responsibility about what they perceive as the insufficient level of engagement on the part of their employees. And of course all the relevant studies would agree with them, employees across occupations and positions are not engaged at high levels. What the studies don’t tell you is why the engagement level is low.

For my part, I’ll be the first one to say that I believe employee engagement is the responsibility of the employee…when I am talking to employees…and when talking with managers I’ll be the first one to tell them that employee’s engagement is their responsibility. From my perspective the conversation depends on where you are in the relationship and make no mistake about it, engagement is a matter of relationship. Like any other relationship worth being involved with, there is no simply doing your part; you are either in for the whole thing or not at all.

As the conversation continued with this particular manager I asked an intentionally provocative question. “Have you ever asked this employee what he finds so engaging about Fantasy Football?” The manager came back quickly with, “Why should I have to do that?” The point of the question was to establish where the manager stood with regards any responsibility for this employee’s level of engagement. I inferred from her quick response that she felt her responsibility was limited.

I went on to ask whether she understood that Fantasy Football was a fairly complex topic requiring considerable research and attention to detail and nuance. Yes, it was a game that concerned a sport but the skills involved in gaining proficiency called for dedication and study to statistics and a commitment to keeping up to date with an ever-changing landscape of information. What if she sat down with this employee and explored his interest in depth, strictly for the purpose of understanding what it was about this game that the employee was so passionate about? Might an exploration like this allow her to understand what it was about the game that captured this employee’s interest and warranted such freely given dedication? Perhaps then she might be able to consider structuring the employee’s work to take advantage of his natural interests and get more of the “attitude” she was looking for as well as more productivity.

FrownShe didn’t buy it! And so it goes.

By now you are probably thinking that this encounter I have described is an exception and managers who follow a compliance-based approach to managing productivity and overall performance are the exception. I beg to differ and I beg you to consider that to the degree you don’t recognize your own or know your manager’s basic attitudes about employee engagement your employee base, your organization’s working capital, is at risk.

Intuitively I have suspected that engagement, productivity, retention and profitability are intertwined like the links of the DNA helix. Mainly I came to this belief this by observing myself in relationship to whatever work was required of me. But now, with all the research, we can go beyond just belief or intuition and I think we owe it to ourselves as business owners and managers to do just that. Thanks to a timely tweet from an associate a while back I received a “heads up” on a posting from Bret Simmons titled appropriately enough, Employee Engagement and Performance: Finally some Credible Evidence. You might well heed Bret’s closing words to his post, “If you find yourself lamenting that your employees don’t appear engaged, you are going to have to do something different.”

The corollary to this is of course is that if you are not willing to do anything different you can reduce your suffering by not expecting anything to change!




Responsibility and Compliance: Two Sides of Different Coins


For many years I have begun all my management development initiatives with the admonition to anyone in the room that their success as a manager would have an upper limit. That limit would be determined by the cumulative emotional intelligence of whatever group of employees they were charged with leading.

But I am not writing about emotional intelligence today, I want to talk about responsibility. But… responsibility is much harder to practice than it is to talk about; especially without setting up the right conditions, and this is where emotional intelligence does come in. If you cannot handle a grown up relationship with your employees or they with you… you’ve got very big problems.

When attempting to establish working relationships grounded in responsibility it is best to step back and determine whether the group involved in the conversation has a shared understanding of the concept. Historically employers have assumed compliance from employees and called it responsibility. Moreover, and as an extension of the desirability of compliance we have after all done a pretty good job of tying the concept directly to character and thereby locked it into the good/bad context that surrounds many of the ideas that have been turned into commodities.

What is needed now, when many of the workplace problems are complex and do not yield to simple compliant behavior, is a new way of being related, a new way for employers to relate to employees and a new way for employers to determine whether the people they employ are sufficiently grown up to provide the performance they require.

If, from the employee’s perspective, we consider responsibility as more a matter of individual initiative, they are or are not responsible as a matter of choice rather than history or upbringing, we get into the arena of gifts and gifts cannot be assumed. If, from the employer’s perspective we consider responsibility to be more of an offer than a right, we get into the arena of tools and tools have their uses, in the proper circumstances.

Try this on; you are responsible if you say so and not if you don’t. Now of course I am speaking in terms of the workplace. Society at large has this “in the eyes of the law” notion, where responsibility is assigned. In the workplace this concept has been interpreted as “in the eyes of the employer” and most often looked upon as the right of employers to assign responsibility. From the employer’s perspective employees are responsible if the employer says so. OK, but is there any power in that?

Consider this, if the game is rigged so the employer always wins, so the employer has the say so and employees get only to respond Okey Dokey to all demands, then where is there any responsibility; if by responsibility we mean a willingness to respond when the going gets tough, or even simply when the boss is not around? Seems to me that there is mainly duty in this condition. And therein lies the problem. Where is the room for initiative, passion or creativity in that sort of relationship? Can all parties involved be counted on to stand for what was agreed to when the poop hits the cowcatcher? This is a very different relationship from the one that many still assume, whether employer or employee.

A manager somewhat long in the tooth recently approached me a question. He asked, “Can you tell me what to do about these younger employees, they don’t always do what I tell them to ?” I asked in response, “Do they say they are going to do what you told them to?” He was at first silent then spoke, “Do they need to? I always just did whatever my boss asked me to do.” So I went on, “ This is not your father’s workforce or workplace any longer. The newer generation of workers is no less energetic than you were they just have different conditions under which they are willing to work. You need to get to know them at a more intimate level. They do not want their responsibility to be assumed, they want to be asked, they want to be given a choice, at least much of the time. If you don’t do that for them I bet you will continue to be disappointed in the sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t performance.” This was a shocking shift in reality for this manager, but he made the change and later reported that his employees had “gotten a lot better” once he began the practice of letting them know what he wanted them to do and then confirming their willingness to do it. In my view what happened was he brought his management style up to speed with the people he had reporting to him.