Disengaged Employees? Blame the Consultant!

Disengaged Employees? Blame the Consultant!

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Diving into the world of organizational development, leadership and culture has been a real eye-opener for me. One might think that my past life of influencing change in surgeon clinical practice, while navigating the economic and regulatory conundrum that is the U.S. healthcare system, was challenging. Trying to show people that they’re taking themselves awfully seriously – way harder! I should have gone into the cat obedience business. (Not that I know anything about cat obedience, but not knowing stuff clearly doesn’t stop me from trying. Just ask my exasperated and, thankfully, patient wife.)

Rarely a day goes by when I don’t hear “I hate my job”, “My boss is such a jerk “(euphemism for the more typically colorful descriptors), “I can’t sleep Sunday nights”, “HELP”, or “I’m going to start driving Uber.” Seeing the scope and magnitude of the work to be done out there, I’m feeling very validated that I have identified a market in need of some help. And powerful antidepressants.

not only are the very people we’ve hired to help fix our disengagement problem not yet adequately effective, they may actually be complicit in perpetuating it!

Now I’m wondering if my fellow organizational development (OD) colleagues, consultants and dedicated organizations are getting the solutions right enough. The data show that the bar on employee engagement has barely moved in decades throughout the business world, and if you want evidence, visit the websites of organizations like Gallup and Modern Survey. I’m thinking that, not only are the very people we’ve hired to help fix our disengagement problem not yet adequately effective, they may actually be complicit in perpetuating it! GASP!

Yes, by now you are well aware that I’ve been pointing the finger directly at managers and leaders to lighten up their leadership style as a means of fostering trust and, ultimately, engagement. Now I have the OD professionals squarely in my sights. A moment of epiphany arrived while my unlucky friend Hillary was sitting opposite me at lunch. Hillary is the consummate professional in the engagement space, consulting and weighing in heavily on the need for appropriate recognition. It would have been very easy for her to take my ranting as a stinging criticism, but she took it like a champ and compassionately resisted the temptation to hurl lemon seeds at my head (from her rare herbal tea – she’s pretty classy).

Here’s my theory: as incompletely evolved beings, we are all driven by fear. Often, leaders don’t muster the courage to lead with vulnerability, warmth and compassion. Perhaps through fear of breaking certain “rules” of leadership (in fact, very old dysfunctional paradigms), being perceived as weak, or upsetting their boss or board of directors, they default to dictatorial, command-and-control, and my way or the highway styles.

To save people from embarrassment or ridicule, it is an act of humanity to point out ways that people can get through life with their dignity a bit more intact.

First, it’s downright frightening to provide brutally honest feedback to people, including friends, family, coworkers and scary members of congress. To wit, “Honey, your professed ‘famous’ chicken dish continues to be the cause of great gastric distress and probably shouldn’t be foisted on innocent guests.” While true and perhaps compassionate, the possibility of a 2-3 day silent treatment lurks. To save people from embarrassment or ridicule, it is an act of humanity to point out ways that people can get through life with their dignity a bit more intact.

It is incumbent upon OD experts to help their clients keep their businesses intact. As normal human beings, consultants and coaches have their own fears in play. Might the following be feared consequences of suggesting that managers and leaders are jerks in the eyes of their employees: upsetting the client to the point of losing them as a PAYING client? When we’re in the business of providing constructive feedback, the most honest thing we can do is manage the fear and do the right thing for the client. That is, help them attain adequate self-awareness. Granted, this takes tact, diplomacy and gobs of trust, but that’s the work that needs to be done.

How might this play out in real life?

Here’s a story I heard over coffee recently. Having left a job for sanity preservation reasons, my storyteller related a very telling moment when, after once proposing to her manager what she thought was a splendid idea, was told “I don’t care what you think.” I guess this stuff still happens, which is a positive indicator of job security for OD consultants. Apparently this was the beginning of the end for the employee, as this exchange foretold many subsequent incidents that consistently categorized this boss as nothing short of nasty, unable to listen, care and connect.

Somebody has to call the managers out on the fact that their team members probably think they’re dicks.

My coffee companion’s department had eight people (including the boss) and in a 24-month stretch had experienced 14 staff turnovers. Huh? We got problems in River City and they run deep! That manager reported to the CEO who presumably liked to amass red flags. And this CEO reported to a board of directors with a narrow purview of business, either unaware or unconcerned about leadership dynamics that were the root of cultural strife – and big time talent loss.

If this organization cared to fix this endemic environment of fear, they may choose to enlist the services of a highly-credentialed consultant or firm. Typically consultants would guide them on a strategy that could include a cultural audit, 360 reviews, formation of committees, individual coaching, inspirational workshops and other sorts of training. All of this is good stuff and potentially valuable. Here’s what’s missing:

Somebody has to call the managers out on the fact that their team members probably think they’re dicks. (This is a term people often use in real life.)

Okay, maybe I’d communicate that a bit more delicately, but not much more. The road to more innovation, passion, retention, customer loyalty and market dominance – all manifestations of high employee engagement – include the satisfaction of a number of conditions on both the client and consultant sides:

Client Side
  • An all-in commitment to lead better
  • A knowledge and acceptance of the discomfort that comes with heightening self-awareness
  • The patience to take the weeks, months and even years to make positive changes stick
Consultant Side
  • The courage to provide complete and honest feedback
  • The commitment to seize conscious control of their own fears, enabling the previous point
  • Maintaining the perspective that the client’s business supersedes our own

Of course, none of this is easy, tapping into all sorts of fears conjured by our sub-conscious brains. But it is all ENTIRELY possible, and will provide a solid basis for a culture rife with passionate engagement. If we all just stop taking ourselves so seriously, there’s no reason that this work, and many other business initiatives, can’t be at least a little –if not a lot – of fun.

Howie Milstein
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor

One Response

  1. gailmilstein
    | Reply

    Another bold and insightful post. And I will never make my “famous” chicken dish, again.

Spill your guts.