The Global Epidemic of Disengaged Employees & Dysfunctional Organizations
Long ago I was a new product development program manager at HP’s analytical products division in the heart of Silicon Valley. My first project was a critical product redesign with a demanding schedule, so I was dismayed to see this sign hanging at the desk of one of my team members: “15 Years ’til Retirement—Pace Yourself.” Rather than being passionately committed to our work together, this person was looking forward to escaping his job so that he could finally start enjoying his life. Gallup would describe him as “not engaged,” but to me he was yet another risk to our imperiled project.
What is employee engagement? It means that people are not merely wage slaves — they feel a positive emotional connection to their organization and will contribute discretionary effort to their work. Globally, nearly 90% of workers are either NOT engaged or are actively disengaged—actually working against their own organizations! In the US, where engagement is highest, it still averages a pathetic ~30%! Even in the world-famous Silicon Valley, the birthplace of chip innovations for which it was named, employee engagement is often “less than sub-optimal,” with people looking forward to their IPO so that they can quit the jobs they’ve been enduring as they “rest and vest.” Disengaged employees are like a huge hidden tax on each and every business.
I live just a short drive from companies like Tesla, eBay, Apple, Google, Cisco Systems, Adobe, and PayPal. Living and working in Silicon Valley has provided me with tremendous opportunities to witness up close how businesses start, grow and flourish, or falter and fail. Interestingly, the old Sun Microsystems sign is still visible on the back of the famous Facebook sign not far from my home, a living reminder of what can happen to companies that were once wildly successful.
SMART PEOPLE & GREAT TECHNOLOGY ARE NOT ENOUGH! Please don’t assume that failures are the result only of challenges like technology, products, markets, or strategy. I’m a physicist by education, and I made that mistake early in my career. To do so is to miss an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. Many threats that businesses face are completely and utterly human.
Coming from a technology background, I’ve relished the innovation feast that we enjoy in the San Francisco Bay Area. Organizations here are composed of smart, talented, diverse, and well-educated people. Nevertheless, they often struggle to achieve results due to what some of my techie friends call “the touchy-feely crap.” Having also worked abroad with people from about 50 different countries, in a wide range of industries including pharmaceuticals, concrete, plastics, and whiskey, I can tell you that the human challenges we face in Silicon Valley are shared globally. While products, technology, and market fit are certainly vital aspects of successful businesses, widespread workplace dysfunctionality strikes me as the greatest missed opportunity, because it’s entirely predictable and largely preventable.
According to one study published in MIT Sloan’s management journal1 a while back, the most common causes for failure in the global teams that they studied (over 80% self-reported as failing!) are:
● Lack of trusting relationships
● Failure to overcome communication barriers (and this is NOT limited to language and culture!)
● Unclear goals
● Misalignment between individual and team priorities
Look at this list. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that teams build strong, trusting relationships and work together effectively towards clear, shared goals upon which all team members are aligned? This is entirely a failure of leadership! (Notice I didn’t say management. I’ve never met anyone who liked being managed!)
TOXIC TALENT & LACKLUSTER LEADERSHIP. Sure, there are other contributing factors, but let’s not be so quick to forgive this tragic absence of effective leadership in the global work environment. Even a brief peek into the inner workings of many organizations reveals that they are not teams, but merely groups of people. Their managers are not leaders, and their organizations are dysfunctional by design thanks to power poisoning and hierarchies that breed what have come to be known as “bossholes.” (Yup, there’s a whole new word for people who suck their employees’ will to live!) Their cynicism-inducing values may be posted on the wall, but unless they’ll fire their best engineer for violating those principles, they’re worthless—even a liability to a healthy organizational culture. The painful consequences of this dysfunction often include high turnover, low productivity, missed opportunities, delayed product launches, and less-than-delighted customers. One company’s customers even made up a tagline for them due to their unhelpful customer support practices, “Deny, Deflect, Defend.”
With only a fraction of workers truly committed to their work, many organizations achieve success through a combination of heroics, diving catches, miracles, and luck. Some of these accidental achievers ask me, “Kimberly, if our company is so screwed up, why are we successful?” Why, indeed! Lucky for them, most of their peers are equally mediocre.
Surely the people responsible for such wasteful misery would recognize their toxic—and sometimes “talk-sick”—impact on their colleagues and change their behavior, right? Unfortunately, often no one feels responsible for this needless suffering. When I work with individual employees they say, “Sure, Kimberly, we want to make the changes you’re suggesting, but it’s our managers who are really the cause of these problems.” And when I challenge managers on these workplace issues they often point to their executives as the real cause of their difficulties. Executives then point to the CEO, who—heartbroken to think that they might be to blame for this tragic loss of opportunity—confides that the chairman, board, investors, shareholders, or other outside influences are at the root of these problems. Or sometimes they blame their people, to which I respond, “OK, suppose I discover that YOU are somehow contributing to the dysfunction. How do you want me to tell you?” Their response determines whether I agree to work with them or light my hair on fire and run screaming for the door.
MANAGE COWS, LEAD PEOPLE! What’s preventing business leaders all over our world from adopting what is clearly common sense, not to mention in the long-term best interests of customers, shareholders, and employees? It’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that companies with higher employee engagement scores also enjoy better customer satisfaction scores, higher quality, lower employee absenteeism and turnover, and increased profitability. Only a cynic—or someone who’s never worked in a dysfunctional organization (which is pretty much someone who’s never worked)—will be asking if this is causation or correlation. And the research is very clear that the biggest contributor to a lack of engagement is a person’s direct manager. So why aren’t effective managers, admired leaders, engaged employees, and healthy organizational cultures as common as blades of grass?! They could be! It’s been known for decades how to do better. There’s nothing standing between us and highly engaged, motivated and productive teams, except perhaps the discipline to spend time on what matters most.
Let’s all get busy doing the real work of management—leading! Could we do something more strategic first thing in the morning other than checking email? Might we find better ways to spend our time besides meaningless meetings where the only thing that we decide is to meet again? If so, we’d have an excellent opportunity to dramatically improve business results and even—dare I say—enjoy our work. Start with a purpose beyond profit and a mission that matters. Implement commonsense people leadership and business management approaches proven to deliver results predictably and repeatedly. These actions have the power to truly engage employees, inviting and inspiring people to be strongly committed to shared goals that would be impossible for any individual, but are inevitable for a true team.
S.T.O.P! But don’t just rush off and start doing things willy-nilly! Replace the all too common, adrenaline-soaked rush to solution with enough planning to optimize your results.
At the very least, this means spending a few minutes considering:
● Big WHY – What’s your purpose?
● Big WHO – Who are the stakeholders involved or impacted? (Often this involves a complex universe of conflicting interests that seem truly impossible to satisfy.)
● Big WHAT – What exactly would “success” look like through the eyes of your key stakeholders?
● MEASURES – What would be the measures of success through the eyes of your stakeholders?
● THEN, and ONLY THEN, create your Big HOW!—a draft plan filed with plenty of experiments, prototypes, and other opportunities to learn, adjust, and pivot.
● Finally, Execute with Excellence – take necessary risks, learn from mistakes, and fail forward.
Unfortunately, given a choice about how much time to spend planning before diving into any challenge, most humans will choose . . . wait for it . . . ZERO! Yup, no time spent planning. Just start doing things! After all, no code is written while planning, no products ship, no revenue is booked. But an optimal amount of planning more than doubles your chances of success in complex tasks, and can improve results for even a seemingly simple one. (Ever go to the grocery store without a list and discover you’ve forgotten a vital item upon returning home?)
CROSSING THE GAPING KNOWING-DOING GAP. Look, I don’t expect reading this to change you. If knowing how to do something were enough we’d all be rich and thin. There’s always some reason why well-intentioned, educated, experienced professionals are doing the opposite of what they know makes sense. Frequently it’s because they are really busy and can’t possibly do what needs to be done until someone ELSE changes first—usually their boss, or someone in a different department. A well-researched book called The Knowing-Doing Gap was written about this by two professors who noticed that their colleagues at the Stanford Graduate School of Business didn’t follow their own teaching when they themselves led companies. What is the source of the gap between knowing and doing?
● Learned Helplessness – “It’s not my fault!” and “They are doing it to me” thinking.
● Fear of Failure – If you’re not allowed to fail you must be very careful what you start.
● Aversion to Planning – As I’ve mentioned, given a choice, people prefer not to plan.
● Instinct for Competition – A win-lose frame is the first assumption many people make in any situation involving another person, even when win-win can yield more benefits to them.
Knowing HOW, by itself, changes NOTHING! Over 70% of business failures have been attributed to an inability to execute. Doing what has been proven effective by decades of experience beats a great theory any day.
TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR BUILDING AN ENGAGING WORKPLACE. Peter Drucker reportedly said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” An organization’s culture is as invisible as the air that we breathe and as inescapable as gravity. But sick, twisted, dysfunctional organizations didn’t spring unbidden from the earth, and they weren’t deposited by alien lifeforms. WE create our workplace cultures. The upside of this scary proposition is that we also have the power to change them for the better. The difference between someone occupying a management position and being a truly effective leader is that real leaders have the discipline to do what’s required, whether they feel like it or not—no excuses! How we feel is a poor guide to what we must do to succeed.
If we acknowledge the dark side of organizations, and our own contributions to it, we can create a future where individuals, teams and organizations generate great results by design rather than by chance. Investors might be happy with a 10% success rate for the companies they invest in, but do you want to accept those odds?
You may be asking yourself, “Could it really be that simple?” Simple, yes. Easy, no. Using these approaches, you can make what seems impossible merely difficult, then possible, and enable your team to achieve together what no one could do alone. (Email me if you’d like a one-page overview of this commonsense methodology.)
WHAT’S AT STAKE? PLANETARY TRANSFORMATION! Businesses were not created to exploit workers and generate fortunes for their owners. They exist to solve problems—and to do so profitably so that they can continue to solve these problems year after year. In the same way, global businesses solve global problems and bring people together across borders and boundaries of every kind to work together in ways that elude governments. With so much at stake, this is no time to pace yourself! With so much to gain, not only for your people but for Our World, we need to KEEP GOING! And when we do fail, let’s fail for new and more exciting reasons!
- Vijay Govindarajan and Anil K. Gupta, “Building an Effective Global Business Team,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2001, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/building-an-effective-global-business-team/.
Author: Kimberly Wiefling
Kimberly Wiefling helps people achieve what seems impossible, but is merely difficult. She’s the founder of Wiefling Consulting, and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances. She wrote a project management book which has been popular globally for over a decade, “Scrappy Project Management – The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces”, which was also published in Japanese by Nikkei Business Press. And she’s the executive editor of a series of Scrappy Guides, most recently Scrappy Women in Business and Scrappy Campaigning. Her expertise includes leadership and team effectiveness, project management, and organizational effectiveness. Kimberly is most enthusiastic about engaging with anyone committed to solving global problems profitably and making a positive difference on Planet Earth.