The Cost of Disengaged Managers

According to Gallup’s most recent poll, approximately 36% of all employees are what you would call very engaged. Very engaged employees are stoked about their work. They are passionate and they take ownership of their results. They are wholly willing to go above and beyond the basic demands of their job.

The Engagement Gap

Those 36% are your star employees. They are proactive, self-starters. Unfortunately, those are mostly your senior executives. When we look outside of the 36%, there is a much bigger group who are not engaged. 51%. Employees who are disengaged may not be troublemakers, but they are a significant problem. They are often bored, listless, or burnt out. They do just enough to get by and avoid losing the job – but not more. In many cases, they are open to job offers, or worse yet, looking for a new job.

51% is just over half of the entire workforce!  And here’s the most shocking fact about those disengaged employees; 70% of them are managers.


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Managers Live in the Gap

Managers don’t get much respect. That’s a shame because they are critical. They are translators. Managers are the conduit between the visioneering C-suite and the executing front line. We overlook them because of that. They are neither fish nor fowl in the mental map we have of organizational success. But, without managers, most strategies would never be fulfilled.

In an organization larger than 100 people, it simply is not possible for every individual to interact with a member of the executive team. Instead, managers must ensure that the vision of the future gets translated into action and results. So, when managers are not fully engaged, there’s a gap. The gap between engagement and disengagement shows up in lost velocity, passion, acceleration and eventually, outcomes.

Who Owns Engagement?

Unfortunately, employee engagement is thought of as a “soft” issue –something that can be fixed with greater appreciation, more team building off-sites and better virtual happy hours.  But none of those gets at the most fundamental reason that employees –and especially managers –tend not to be engaged. Engagement begins with knowledge – knowledge of the why and how of the strategy. Managers feel left out because they are left out; Left out of the planning, conception, and fulfillment of the strategy.

Including managers in the development of strategy is what will ultimately pull them in – infecting them with the passion and understanding that your executive team has. Executives are fully engaged because they had a hand in the creation of the game plan and, as they monitor key metrics, they have the profound experience of seeing that creation come to life.  Managers need that too!

Strategy Logic

So how do you do that? The process begins with developing a clear, logical articulation of the strategy. It might surprise you to hear this, but most organizations have not done. Instead, they’re thinking tactically; making decisions in the short or medium term, to deal with reacting to what the marketplace, their customer base or their financial runway is demanding of them. Those kinds of reactive decisions are necessary, but they are rarely strategic. They don’t evoke passion or innovation, because they are just problem-fixing, not bringing a new possibility into reality.

A strategy requires a hypothesis and a game plan for what you’re doing over the next six months, a year, two years or five years. It has a narrative arc that starts with explicit assumptions and proposed causes and effects that are compelling. In that form, it can be tested, measured, and articulated. It is ultimately a story of the future that can be shared with everybody in the organization. And of course, the very first line of sharing would be your managers.

The Dearth of a Story

Many organizations have a document they call a strategy, but it is very often little more than a series of projects to hit goals. The prototypical strategy session is a presentation of a SWOT analysis, and then a list of projects designed to hit goals. Neither one is a strategy.

The projects are disconnected from any real cause and effect structure or testable theory. It’s impossible to do more than measure the projects. Instead of a strategy there are two distinct domains of measurement –projects and top financial measurements. The missing pieces– the causal connections that would connect those domains– largely reside in the manager’s purview. Without those logical links, managers are little more than task masters for projects.

Managing Metrics and Not More

Unfortunately, that’s how managers experience their jobs – as unthinking placeholders charged with generating some pre-formulated set of project goals. Since the project goals are divorced from a plan or a theory, there is no context for them to contribute the thinking, excitement or creativity that resides within them.

Imagine a football game in which the coach tells the team simply to score touchdowns, without an actual call. It wouldn’t work because the team wouldn’t be coordinated and the quarterback wouldn’t have a receiver in place, or a path to run the ball. That’s how managers feel when they are tasked simply with hitting goals but have no strategic context.

This is true whether the goals come in the form of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) or as KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Both can emerge from a well-formulated strategy –but instead, they are often divorced from anything but a bigger set of goals –with no underlying theory.  If you want to have engaged managers, bring them into the strategic fold. Educate them on your theory and the logic of it, as well as the ways in which the indicators fit into the strategy. By doing that, you make them full partners in fulfilling the organization’s vision. They will have the perspective to be leaders.

Managers can make or break your organization. Give them the best at that engagement and value to your organization by arming them with knowledge about what game you are playing and how you plan to win it.

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