When Organisations Fail to Engage Their People

The real crisis in leadership

Managing Director, Potential Project International

This is an updated version of the article originally published in
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A 2016 Gallup poll found that only 18% of managers demonstrate a high level of talent for managing others – meaning a shocking 82% of managers are not very good at leading people. Considering how much time and effort is put into creating good leaders, how could this be?

Managers rather than leaders

One part of the problem is that the processes that help determine and shape leaders often produce people who behave differently from what most employees desire. Managers are mostly promoted into their roles based on tenure or previous manager roles – with little account for whether they possess the humanistic skills and qualities that lead to great leadership.

In many cases, the qualities that organizations actually select for, and reward, in most workplaces – ambition, perfectionism, competitiveness – are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees or for long-term organizational performance. People on the leadership fast track tend to earn promotions and bonuses by pushing their reports and defeating their inner-organizational competition (other managers).

Leaders that fail to engage their people

The unfortunate paradox in all of this is that a strong sense of self-deception plagues many leaders. In a 2016 McKinsey & Company study of more than 52,000 managers and employees, leaders rated themselves as better and more engaging than their employees did. This included 86% of leaders who believed they model the improvements they want employees to make, while another 77% of leaders believed they “inspire action.”

Compare these self-perceptions to the previously cited Gallup poll which showed that 82% of managers and executives are seen as lacking in leadership skills by their employees. Termed “self-enhancement bias,” these numbers show that a surprising number of leaders suffer from inflated views of their abilities.

50% of employees leave their jobs at some point because their leaders are so bad that they are literally ruining their lives.


Why most leadership training is failing

To be blunt, there is very little evidence that the majority of leadership training has had a positive impact on leadership effectiveness, office environments, or employee engagement. And this is not for a lack of trying. According to a recent report by Deloitte, organizations around the globe invest approximately $46 billion annually on leadership development programs.

Many of these leadership-development efforts, however, have failed to improve the state of leadership and have shown very few tangible results. In a scathing indictment of the leadership industry, Harvard lecturer and founder of the Center for Public Leadership Barbara Kellerman wrote that the leadership industry “has failed over its roughly forty-year history to in any major, meaningful, measurable way improve the human condition.

A study by the Corporate Leadership Council supports Kellerman’s assertion, finding that the billions upon billions of dollars spent on leadership training has improved productivity by only 2%.

Toxic workplaces cannot attract the best talent

Not surprisingly, the result of these factors is toxic workplaces in which both leaders and their reports feel despondent, underappreciated, and mistreated.

In fact, according to data, one in two employees at some point in their career leave their job to get away from their manager – solely in an effort to improve their lives. Think about this fact for a moment: 50% of employees leave their jobs at some point because their leaders are so bad that they are literally ruining their lives.

Instead, focus on what truly drives people

But there is a solution. If we as leaders want to improve engagement and increase productivity, we must look beyond superficial incentives like bonuses and free food. We must break free from regressive management and financial theories. Instead, we must understand what truly drives people – what makes them happy.

We should stop letting endless statistics and the latest leadership gimmick blind us to the most basic human motives such as respect, meaning, and fulfillment. People leaving the office with a sense of fulfillment every day will want to come back, focus on tough projects, and work hard: their intrinsic motivation will drive them to continue doing their best day after day, year after year.

As Javier Pladevall, an automotive executive put it, “Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning being human.


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