Some managers get it and many don't | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to the Bellingham Business Journal

“My strong belief, after a couple decades of effort in this arena, is that by and large, people don’t hate their work at all. In fact, most of us rather like our work. Some of us even love it. What we dislike, and what we have difficulty ‘engaging’ with is our jobs, that broader context within which our work resides…” 

– Bill Catlette

Bill Catlette is one of the wisest men I know when it comes to creating working environments that encourage both engagement and high levels of performance. He and Richard Hadden, his partner at, have built a thriving practice over the past two decades, writing three books, delivering keynote speeches and workshops, providing engagement analysis, and making recommendations to leaders in a variety of businesses about how they can go about improving the quality of their workplace and thereby their profitability.

When I read their monthly “Fresh Milk” newsletter last week I was struck by two things; the first, Bill referenced the by now almost universally recognized, measured, validated, quoted, re-quoted, cross referenced and beaten-like-a-dead-horse statistic for employee engagement across the economy.

According to every possible source available this, number, appalling as it is, was about 30 percent when it was first measured 25 years ago. It remains at 30 percent today, despite years of consultant interventions, surveys, recognition systems, books, videos, audios and even TED talks. In 2012 employers spent just north of $740 million on employee engagement.

The second thing I noticed is that Bill is not sucked into the traditional mode of writing like employee engagement is entirely the responsibility of management or employer. Quite honestly it seems that this attitude may well have been developed by engagement consultants who clearly recognize where the money is!

Bill in his newsletter sticks to somewhat safe suggestions for employee engagement:

  • Becoming more intentional and selective in hiring – Always a good idea,  and advice that’s frequently ignored by hiring managers who say it is just too hard to find good people. While true at times this does not justify a subpar employment decision.
  • Getting serious about learning and development – You’d probably think it’s unnecessary to mention this, but it is since lazy management approves development like it is a discretionary expense then cuts the same expense when push comes to shove with the numbers. Consider this: Rather than cut the training and development budget of people who are getting the work done, cut the salary of managers who don’t perform on their objectives. That would very likely boost engagement numbers, save money, and reduce turnover.
  • Don’t mess with what’s working – Again, at the risk of offending some newly promoted manager or some “know it all” employer, it is not necessary to put your personal mark on your territory like you are a dog who has just moved into a new neighborhood. Respect the contribution of your employees; allow them to solve problems as often as possible. If things are working leave them be.

What I’d like to see from Bill and others of equal wisdom, and what seems to not be in fashion, is to look to employees to be more responsible for their own engagement. That’s right, I said it! Employees need to be responsible, at least in equal measure with the employer, for their own level of engagement.

It may well be asked why this is not a more frequent topic since in virtually any other type of relationship we’d be quick to hold both parties responsible. As I said earlier, follow the money. Consultants know they’re far more likely  to collect significant fees from employers than from individual employees.

Some managers already get this; it is time for many more to catch on. And this is not an either or conversation or a “who is to blame” issue either. Employee engagement levels, if they are meaningful – and that is a legitimate question – indicate that whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working. Well, it isn’t working for anyone but the consultants!

The time has arrived (actually well passed) to approach the topic of employee engagement from the standpoint that employees have a responsibility to advocate for themselves around issues they feel adversely affect their mood in the workplace. No one ever gets everything their way in life but grown-ups know this. And – maybe this is the real issue – if managers and employers begin to treat employees as adults, who knows what havoc may be unleashed in the workplace.

But as was said earlier, many managers get this, and many still are fearful of treating employees as grown-ups.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

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