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
Input Variability Low High
Process Variability Low High
Output Variability Low High
Workflow Linear Nonlinear
Control Principle Compliance Commitment
Focus of Controls Actions Outcomes
Locus of Control Supervisor Worker
Basis of Authority Position Knowledge
Management Style Directive Collaborative
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 Activities Prefigured Configured
Working Conditions Highly Standardized Highly Variable
Standards Fixed, External Variable, Internal
Worker’s Role Instrument Agent
Markets Served Mass Niches
Nature of Demand Concentrated Dispersed
Nature of the Economy Local/National International/Global
Economic Leverage Deploying Capital Employing Knowledge
Knowledge Concentrated Distributed
Competitive Edge Cost Cost, Quality, Speed
Rate of Change Low High
Degree of Regulation High Low
Skill Level Low High
Judgment Required Low High
Risk Tolerance Low High
Worker Discretion Low High
Worker Engagement Low High
Worker Commitment Low High

© 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 or on his website at Connect with Fred and read his posts on LinkedIn at Follow Fred on Twitter at