By Fred Nickols
One of the major issues in today’s world of work is often referred to as “engagement,” which refers to a supposed characteristic or quality of certain employees that accounts for why they go the extra mile, why they contribute more of their discretionary effort. We are told engaged employees work harder and they work smarter. Most important, and usually unmentioned, they exercise a great deal of discretion. To use Peter Drucker’s term, they are “knowledge workers”; they do work that requires them to configure their responses to the situation at hand instead of simply carrying out prefigured routines. They exercise discretion in what they do, how they do it, how often, how hard, and, ultimately, to what ends. When it comes to knowledge work, the locus of control over working activities has shifted from management to the worker, creating what I have come to call “the control problem.” This is perhaps the major and typically unstated reason so much attention and energy is devoted to efforts aimed at engaging employees.
As is the case with many “hot” issues, employee engagement has spawned numerous endeavors and enterprises promising to increase or improve the level of employee engagement, to deliver engaged employees. As is the case with many such endeavors, they often fail to deliver. They fail because they are wide of the mark; they aim at the wrong thing. In this case they aim at a supposed, imagined, and, at best, inferred quality or characteristic of employees. Management should be aiming at its own practices. Any lack of employee engagement owes to management’s practices, not the employees.
Consider the table below. It contrasts the old, industrial era world of work with the new world of work. Each and every item listed is rife with implications for management practices.
Factors Related to the Control Problem
|Factor||Industrial Era||Modern Times|
|Focus of Controls||Actions||Outcomes|
|Locus of Control||Supervisor||Worker|
|Basis of Authority||Position||Knowledge|
|Management Philosophy||Command and Control||Communication and Collaboration|
|Basic Management Task||Supervising||Supporting|
|Basis of Work||Materials||Information|
|Locus of Interactions||People > Materials||People <> People|
|Results and Feedback||Direct and Immediate||Indirect and Delayed|
|Behaviors of Interest||Overt, Physical||Covert, Verbal|
|Visibility of Working||High||Low|
|Working Conditions||Highly Standardized||Highly Variable|
|Standards||Fixed, External||Variable, Internal|
|Nature of Demand||Concentrated||Dispersed|
|Nature of the Economy||Local/National||International/Global|
|Economic Leverage||Deploying Capital||Employing Knowledge|
|Competitive Edge||Cost||Cost, Quality, Speed|
|Rate of Change||Low||High|
|Degree of Regulation||High||Low|
© Fred Nickols 2015
When I first compiled the above table, I sent it to Peter Drucker for comment. He responded in a handwritten note saying, “You are on exactly the right track” and asking that I keep him informed. Sadly, he passed away before I could honor his request.
Current management practices have their roots in the industrial era, when work and working were of a very different nature. Even a cursory review and comparison of the items in the Industrial Era and Modern Times columns in the table above suggests a need for new and different management practices (e.g., providing support instead of supervision, obtaining commitment instead of ensuring compliance, practices based on communication and collaboration instead of command and control, and viewing workers as autonomous agents instead of obedient instrument). There are, then, gaps in management practices and it is these gaps that account for any lack of employee engagement. Getting employees to be more engaged can be achieved only by closing those gaps and it will take new management practices to close those gaps. To again borrow from Peter Drucker, we must set our sights on a new practice of management, one more suited to modern times.
About the Author
Fred Nickols, CPT, is a performance improvement professional and the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. He is a longtime member of ISPI and a frequent contributor to its various publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his website at www.nickols.us. Connect with Fred and read his posts on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/fwn2015. Follow Fred on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/@fnickols.