Fact: Most employees are not nearly as engaged as you want. That's a statistical likelihood. And that hurts your income.
"Employee engagement" can be described in a number of different ways. For example:
Gallup: [Engaged employees] work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They [not just executives] drive innovation and move the organization forward.
Hay Group: [Engaged employees offer] discretionary effort – their willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty or go the extra mile for the organization.
Dan Pontefract in his book Flat Army: [Employee engagement is] the state in which there is reciprocal trust between the employee and leadership to do what’s right however, whenever and with whomever.
Unfortunately, many companies don’t respond well to employee disengagement. Blame can get tossed about, sometimes followed by flailing or shallow HR solutions and knee-jerk “don’t worry, be happy” bromide-laden communications from leaders. When you stare deep into the eyes of statistics, however, you’ll find there is almost always a cultural issue at the center that takes patience to work through.
Could horizontal management help with company culture and employee engagement? I thought that question would be fun to explore after my last post. So I’ll start where Simon Sinek so deftly suggests – with "why.
Why might a leader want to think and act in ways that promote team interdependence, adaptability, and resiliency through horizontal management?
More directly, WHY might a leader eschew traditional hierarchies and cultures that have been in place in business for over a century to try something: where you 'lose earned command'; that doesn’t follow the cozy organizational chart blueprint; and that is likely to fail the first time you try it?
Top-down hierarchy is the most widely used of all organizational management structures and styles. This rigid style of setting goals, managing people and controlling work responsibilities has changed little over time and is documented to lead to any number of workplace woes:
Lack of ownership
Ineffectual hub-and-spoke communication
Leadership & staff disconnects
Just one of these general outcomes might be deemed unsavory. But get ensnared in a few at once, and it’s no wonder why old-fashioned organizational management structures experience more challenged bottom-lines.
Research shows lack of employee engagement and the resulting loss of potential income is a global issue. For instance, the Towers-Perrin ISR Employee Engagement Report reports that "companies with low engagement results see operating income decline by 32%."
I’ve heard leaders say they want to achieve 80% employee engagement. That's a super BHAG (big hairy audacious goal). But many don’t do anything remarkably different to get there, such as one of the following:
Restructuring the organization once or twice (or three or four times)
Holding CEO town halls, fireside chats, or videos
Creating HR programs postured for info-exchange and/or "fun times"
Attempts like these fall short of what must be done to authentically and intellectually engage human beings.
It’s time for more profound action
Contemporary horizontal approaches to management purposefully design flexible structures and cultural attachments that emphasize interdependent teams, cohesion, conversation, participatory workflows and decisions, entrepreneurialism, focus, alignment, and respect for diversity over the stiffness of our top-down past. The intent is to generate a positive, long-lasting impact with employees and move the needle forward on trust.
Companies that demonstrate the patience (which includes a sincere allegiance to learning through failure) to embrace just a few basics of horizontal leadership have proven to become more innovative, adaptable and resilient.
Take Pixar. Their top two operating principles are exceedingly horizontal:
everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone, and
it must be safe for anyone to offer ideas.
Pixar's staff is highly engaged because the principles' elegant simplicity:
encourage lateral conversation,
help people solve problems without going through "proper" vertical channels, and
build trust by making it safe to offer professional critique. (see this paraphrased HBR article by Ed Catmull for more)
The emphasis on culture and engagement is at Pixar's core:
It’s the heart of our model, giving people opportunities to fail together and to recover from mistakes together. You can try to out-spend the competition or...out-culture them. Create a place that makes employees...feel like they’re part of a bigger whole ...where they continually get to learn and evolve...If you create a culture like that, who would want to leave? Plus, you’ll get the best minds...knocking on your door to get in. - Randy Nelson
Just watch one of Pixar's brilliant movies. Based on their product, I'd say it works.
Furthermore, an engaged workforce leads to improved productivity and higher revenue, along with a host of other benefits. Findings by researcher Psychometrics Canada, Ltd., reveal that an engaged employee:
Is willing to do more than expected (+39%)
Has higher level of productivity (+27%)
Has more satisfied customers (+10%)
And critically, as Towers-Perrin engagement study further reveals: "Companies with an engaged workforce improve operating incomes by 19%."
Every book, research article, and practitioner of horizontal management that I’ve encountered strives first and foremost to orchestrate principles, values and structures that drive engagement, whereas, like it or not, top-down structures were built for control - the antithesis of engagement.
Original purpose is important
Let's take a super-brief look at where vertical hierarchy and command-and-control came from and the original intent.
Frederick Winslow Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management for the needs of the Industrial Age, birthing our omnipresent drive for efficiency. From Taylor's methods, our box-over-box organization structures neatly emanated. According to General Stanley McChrystal, in his book Team of Teams, "At each level, managers would examine objectives, break them apart into separate tasks, and farm these out in discrete packages." To be even more brutish, Taylor's management science was summarized 100 years ago by the reductionist mantra:
"We have other men paid for thinking."
Wow. How engaging.
Our leadership challenge
Why do we continue to work under a model, (a) so clearly designed for the purpose of control and, (b) that results in the disengagement of so many people?
Professionals in healthcare, sports and IT, to name a few, are not afraid to regularly shed "old ways" in order to adopt the latest technology and training advances in their disciplines to continuously improve. I believe business leaders should follow suit in the application of management practices.
Horizontal management is by nature employee-centric. Its heart is about valuing trust and input - quite the opposite of our old buddy Taylor's mantra. It endeavors for everyone to reach his or her full potential through:
creating and orchestrating structures that foster the right amount of cohesion, separation and alignment in human teams;
letting go of command-and-control hierarchies and actions;
involving broader constituencies in the strategic process;
a genuine interest in creating team-based interdependence;
a pure dedication to acquiring and using the richly diverse inputs from your workforce; and
enabling staff talents to thrive by letting loose on their ability to identify and seize new opportunities.
The strategy is about teams and employees – not products, slick campaigns, or a leader's persona. It runs deep and takes time. And, bluntly, if the human-centric qualities of horizontal management alone aren’t convincing enough to make us think about changing our ways, then the fact that the money follows should make the remainder of us converts.
All that said, I’ve chosen a new personal leadership WHY…I hope you like it:
I believe in unlocking revenue and driving innovation through horizontal leadership that's focused on absolute employee engagement.
It's time to rev-up revenue and employee engagement through horizontal leadership. To all you leaders out there, I ask that you give it a shot - if only on a small scale. Failure to continuously try, fail, learn, and improve upon leadership is not leadership.
Be bold. But be patient. We need to smash and redesign a century's worth of management practices. It will take time for all of us to learn to thrive together.