The Decay of Employee Engagement: More Managers vs. More Autonomy

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Bosses play a key role in keeping workers engaged. But could flatter organizational models be keeping managers from spending the right amount of quality time with employees? Or if these flatter structures are the right choice, should employees be given greater authority?

We all know the cost of disengaged workers — lost time, lost customers, lost innovation, lost revenues.

But you can’t have a discussion about how to reengage the millions of disengaged workers around the world (or the 3 or 14 or 45 in your own office) without first talking about the causes of disengagement.

BusinessmanPicture Dylan …. He works in the marketing department of his company, handling social media and various other promotions. He produces content, responds to customers’ comments, and handles a multitude of other responsibilities. He offers idea after idea to his busy and overwhelmed supervisor, who doesn’t find much time to respond … and who admits to having only a basic understanding of what works on social media …. Dylan is powerless to make decisions on his own.

headacheMatilda works for a health-care information company …. She works closely with customers as they submit information. The system that’s currently in place has flaws — customers often have trouble submitting files, sometimes they don’t follow the directions, they often wait until the last minute, and they complain steadily. After one especially difficult weekend handling customer needs, she comes in to talk with her boss only to find he’s gone on vacation to St. Moritz …. Matilda is trapped with an ineffective system where she’s constantly redoing work and dealing with a load of angry customers.

Employee engagement experts Irit Oz and Ron Hirshfeld point out some of the leading culprits — the things that cause employees to feel their long hours, effort, and ideas are unnoticed and wasted:

  • Inefficiencies
  • Rework
  • Poor leadership
  • Bureaucracy
  • Lack of agreed-on employee goals, challenges, and variety

Most of these things point the finger at middle managers and leaders … and to a lesser extent the rapid pace of change. But hold on a minute… there’s more to that story.

ThinkstockPhotos-57436295Leadership/management has grown steadily leaner beginning in “the late 1980s and early 1990s, when flatter organizational models took hold,” observes The Wall Street Journal  in a 2008 article. The recession of 2008–2012 saw continued drops in middle management numbers as companies scrambled to keep salary budgets in check and stay afloat. This tightening has also seen many bosses holding both managerial and individual responsibilities — a load that can lead to competing uses of time.

Leadership coach Michael Hammer (mentioned in the same WS Journal article) believes these flattened corporations work … if front-line workers are given more responsibility. “If you’re stuck with the traditional emphasis on checking, controlling and intervening, it takes real heroics to push as far as 12 direct reports,” says Hammer.  But there’s no one right ratio of subordinates to managers — “a boss supervising people with sharply different duties may reach capacity faster” than a manager overseeing workers doing similar jobs. A fastcompany.com article suggests the ideal amount of time managers spend with employees at 6 hour per week — the sweet spot between disengagement and micromanaging.  Leading us to add one more bullet:

  • Quality time spent with leader/manager

Employee engagement — could it be that our flattened organizations have crossed the line? Could the problem be solved by pulling back a bit? Or should employees just be given more responsibility so they can tackle and solve challenges with more autonomy?

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