Expert Marketer Magazine

The Engaging Guru

by William A. CohenFebruary 2015

Use of the term “engagement” in business is fairly recent. It only dates in business literature from the 1990’s when Frank L. Schmidt, then a senior scientist with the Gallup Organization, began to study the topic. Peter Drucker, “the Father of Modern Management,” saw its need long before, and showed managers how to develop it in their workforce.

There was no doubt that to attain significant goals, you needed a higher level of performance. Otherwise the goal and outcome would be merely average performance or something less. For significant achievement, you needed something more.

The Difference between Performance and Engagement
This is like the difference between participation in a sport and an Olympic athlete. Drucker said that to attain this level of output, the manager must create what he called “a responsible worker.” Drucker expected an awfully lot from the “responsible worker.” The term “engaged worker” is a better description. An engaged worker is one who is committed and is willing to exert extraordinary effort in accomplishing tasks important to the achievement of organizational goals. Every study of employees shows magnitudes of difference in performance between those who are engaged and those who are merely participating.
Satisfaction is Not the Way to Generate an Engaged Worker
Many organizations conduct surveys to determine what has been described as “employee satisfaction”. Are these surveys useful? Maybe. They do represent an opportunity for employees to vent their irritants. They give leaders a feel for the major issues of concern at that particular time. They may provide guidance for management decisions. However, as Drucker noted, that they have their limitations. “Employee satisfaction” is not easily defined and cannot be usefully quantified. For example, one cannot say that the fact that 75% of employees are satisfied is good, bad, or irrelevant. Even if a preponderance of workers agreed that as organization is a good place to work, this doesn’t say much. I have seen satisfaction/dissatisfaction studies misused and worded to result in desired responses which would lead to predetermined courses of action which were desired. However, Drucker’s biggest criticism was simply that “satisfaction” or “dissatisfaction” responses simply weren’t adequate and did not result in engagement in an employee. Drucker noted that even if compensation were an issue, a manager could buy personal responsibility with financial rewards only in a limited way or for a fixed period of time. Therefore satisfaction alone could not have a positive impact on generating either real personal responsibility or by itself create an engaged employee. Drucker concluded that even a worker’s dissatisfaction with some aspect of his work was far more likely to accomplish something useful, if he was empowered to initiate action to improve the situation and it caused him or her to do so. Drucker not only called satisfaction inadequate, he christened it “passive acquiescence.”

Drucker’s Four Paths Leading to an Engaged Worker
If satisfaction wasn’t the key for creating the engaged worker, what was? Although I have seen dozens of ways promising to result in engaged employees, Drucker claimed that there were only four, and he stressed that these weren’t alternative approaches, but that all four must be used simultaneously to achieve the desired results. These were:
1. Careful placement and promotion
2. Demanding high standards of performance
3. Providing workers with information
4. Encouraging workers to acquire managerial vision

Careful Placement and Promotion
Drucker taught that a systematic, serious, and continual effort to put people in the right jobs was a prerequisite for worker engagement. Yet frequently promotions were made with little discussion or any attempt at soliciting the opinion of other managers before making either an assignment to a new job or promotion to a higher level position.

Demand High Standards of Performance
Adequate performance is frequently associated with easy, low demand work. For engagement, workers need to be challenged with much more. They need high standards of performance in work that will challenge their abilities. When I was his student, University of Chicago Professor Thomas Whistler once described what happened to one of his most brilliant and capable doctoral students. His student had taken his first job after receiving his doctorate at a major corporation, but at a relatively low position. This gifted student had apparently failed to perform to expectations and recognizing this himself, he had resigned. His former student then went to another corporation where he had immediately done so well that within six months he had been elevated to the position of vice president. “The problem,” Professor Whistler said, “was not that the job was too big, but that the job was too small. The mistake my former student made was to accept that job in the first place. My student had this amount of ability (Whistler raised his hand far above his head) and that first job required this amount (Whistler lowed his hand to about his knee level).” This runs counter to coming saying that there are no small jobs, just small people.” However, Professor Whistler’s former student did a poor or mediocre job when unchallenged by the job which was too small, but rose to accomplish the most difficult, sometimes even impossible tasks imaginable when properly challenged. Most of us are like this, although some leaders mistakenly demand too little of those they lead.
Dr. Charles Garfield, a psychologist with degrees in both psychology and mathematics found this was particularly true of what he called “peak performance individuals.” In working with NASA during the first launch of astronauts to the moon, Dr. Garfield was amazed to discover that many individuals who previously had done only mediocre work and many considered “deadwood” had suddenly “caught fire” and were doing things that neither they nor anyone else had even thought possible. Yet, immediately after the moon landings had been accomplished and the big challenge was over, it was like they “fell back to earth.” Unchallenged, they returned to performing at their previous, less adequate, levels. They and their superiors treated the whole peak performance and engagement experience as an aberration. Too bad. Properly led, they could have continued to be challenged and to do the impossible far into the future. All it took was a little understanding and leadership. The leaders should have not only insisted on continual high standards for these others, but for themselves as well.

Providing Workers with Information
Workers don’t only need high standards, but to reach these high standards it is essential that the worker be provided with all the information available on the issue. This is necessary whether the worker asks for this information or not. Although Drucker didn’t go into this, if a worker isn’t enthusiastic about acquiring information that the leader feels necessary, or doesn’t know what information he needs, it is the manager’s responsibility to explain its importance as either to provide the information, or guidance as to how to get it. Only with this kind of needed information can the worker control, measure how he is doing, and guide himself to reaching the goal and accepting complete responsibility for the task, assignment, and job. Moreover, as Drucker explained, it is critical that the worker know and understand how what he does contributes to the work of the entire organization, and after that how the work of the organization contributes to society. This category of information is what many call “the big picture.” Information about the “big picture” helps in acquiring managerial vision, the last of the four ways Drucker identified for the firm to motivate the worker to responsibility and peak performance. It is a strange fact that many managers attempt to lead through maintaining the ignorance of their subordinates. They apparently try to maintain control and show their superior knowledge by withholding information, or doling it out in small packages when at strategic times when they can demonstrate their cleverness. Wrong, wrong, wrong!!! Do you want engaged members of your organization or do you want to be thought of as clever?

Encouraging Workers to Acquire Managerial Vision
Only with managerial vision can the worker feel the pride necessary for peak performance and see his work as contributing to the success of the enterprise. However, there are other important reasons which explain why encouraging workers to acquire managerial vision is necessary for engagement. The engaged worker must frequently operate without supervision, or even the possibility of referral to higher authority when the boss is gone. Without managerial vision it is impossible for the worker to operate independently to avoid sub optimization and avoid optimizing what he does at the expense of the whole. Moreover, operating with engagement frequently requires risk. One takes risk only with self confidence. This means that the self-confidence of the worker is also essential for engagement and this is also encouraged through managerial vision.

Drucker taught us not only what we must do to attain high performance in our organizations --- generate engaged workers --- but the four actions we must take to get this result.

*Adapted from The Practical Drucker (AMACOM, 2014)


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