All Articles Leadership Communication The employee engagement puzzle: Understanding conflicting messages from the corner office

The employee engagement puzzle: Understanding conflicting messages from the corner office

Do companies want real employee engagement? Or do they want to maintain command and control? Corner offices need to figure it out.

5 min read


Image illustrating a corner office


When I e-mailed my great idea to the CEO, I was pleasantly surprised by the fast response. He loved it and wanted me to discuss it further with one of his deputies.

While he might have preferred that I submit the idea using our corporate crowdsourcing platform, he was pleased with my initiative and my interest in improving our firm. I was tickled pink. Never had I felt so connected to my employer.

This was textbook employee engagement — a buzzword that has recently moved up the chain of priorities with executive management in large corporations. Why? Because large firms are seeing not only the dire need for innovation in order to stay relevant in a startup-fueled economy, but also because new social media channels have made it incredibly easy to collaborate both inside and outside corporate walls.

In a day and age where anyone can reach out to the world to share ideas, corporate officers are greedily trying to tap this font of inspiration and funnel the goodwill and ideas into the company coffers.

One way they are doing this is by making employees “brand ambassadors” on their personal social channels. Big money is being spent equipping the workforce with positive ways of publicly promoting not only the company’s products, but also how wonderful it is to work there.

Employee engagement is also being used to actively look for ideas on how to improve the way the company does business. By making it easier to convert employee ideas into new corporate intellectual capital and products, employee engagement has a huge potential to propel a company forward.

The consequence of not getting employee engagement right is the risk of falling behind the competition.

Back at my office, it didn’t go so well for me. Once my idea was vetted by the top deck, the walls closed in. No one in my group was happy that I shared my game-changing idea. Why hadn’t I shared my idea with my division first? I was given a stern warning form the divisional VP that I should not be sharing my ideas with the CEO ever again. This included reaching out to any executive of our company via social media channels. I wondered if it would be OK to send a birthday greeting.

My meeting with the CEO’s deputy went even worse. He listened intently and praised my thought leadership. However, he didn’t offer any next steps toward testing the idea. When I pushed him for follow up and suggested a path forward, he vaguely agreed but never followed through.

So what is going on here? Does corporate America want employee engagement or not?

Certainly not, if employee engagement means a loss of command and control for midlevel management. Digital tools are being used by corporate America to control the masses and keep their social messages consistent. Whether brand-advocacy tools that patrol and homogenize employee’s social interactions, or platforms that give employees a place to offer suggestions, these tools deliver a nod toward employee engagement while maintaining status quo bureaucracy and control over actual changes.

This is no way to create real change. In short, the message is unclear. What is more important in the long run to any organization — maintaining command and control or encouraging innovation?

CEOs are painfully aware that, without innovation, there may be no company to maintain control over. But this argument tends to fall flat with divisional heads. The reason is that divisional and functional leaders are evaluated and judged largely on their ability to predict results and manage the present. They are rarely graded on their ability to create the future.

While plenty has been written about employee engagement in front-line managers, a deeper look at middle management is the key to producing the desired end state so many CEOs are looking for.

Any smart manager is always on the lookout for innovation, but organizational needs and problems have a way of blinding midlevel bosses. Many of them feel a sense of job security while churning out the day-to-day results needed to make the business succeed. They are on unsteady ground when it comes to looking at new ways to do things.

Ironically, by not taking on new ideas, they are undermining the job security of everyone at the firm, all the while stifling employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Clearly, the goals and expectations of middle management need to be rewritten in order to drive change. For example, middle managers need to be measured on creation of new ideas and improvements to the greater organization. When measured at the divisional level, it will become quickly clear which organizations are blocking engagement and which are encouraging new ideas.

Finally, CEOs need to be more vocal about just what is at stake here with all employees. Using the power of social tools, CEOs need to be beating the drum of change and acceptance of new ideas. By remaining sequestered digitally and physically in an oak paneled office, the message to employees is not supportive of engagement.

Why should any employee care about a company whose titular head is absent from industry and internal company debate?

Employee engagement has come a long way from the annual survey to the age of social media. Everyone now owns a piece of making engagement work. But it needs to start with leadership in middle and executive management in order to flourish at all levels.

The businesses that figure this out first will reap the rewards of an engaged workplace and will harness the power of hundreds — or thousands — of minds at work on big problems.

Sander Biehn recently published “The 30 Year Paycheck: Destruction and redemption in corporate America.” He consults on organizational change in corporations.

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