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Paternalistic Cultures and Employee Engagement

Organizations need employees to be more engaged to reap the benefits of their full potential. Even employees who work hard can leave their brains at home, thus not contributing much in the way of new ideas.

Businesses can't afford robotic employees just going through the motions. There are also losses associated with poor performance and turnover.

Surely the problem is a felt lack of ownership. Frederick Herzberg got it right when he showed that the same employees who complain about working in a dark, dirty factory have no trouble enduring the same conditions when they work on their cars in their garage. Herzberg explained the difference by pointing to the lack of "motivational factors" in the workplace. What these factors really amount to is ownership. People are more motivated to work for something they own than for something they are merely paid to do.

Employees may feel a sense of ownership for their own job, but how many feel the same ownership for the business as a whole and its future? Empowering employees, giving them interesting challenges and recognizing their efforts fosters ownership over their own work and, to some extent, the broader organization. But having little say in running the business, not being consulted on its future direction and having difficulty answering the "What's in it for me?" question can leave them disengaged.

Paternalism and Engagement

Employee engagement would be easier to achieve if organizations were less paternalistic. Suppose a self-employed consultant sold you a service. You wouldn't worry whether your consultant was engaged; such people engage themselves. Consultants approach you; they are proactive in striving to identify your needs. The fact that managers see it as their responsibility to engage, motivate or inspire employees suggests a paternalistic mindset that may be causing the very problem managers are struggling to solve.

The Paternalistic Language of Leadership

When we ask what traits people want in a leader we get a portrait of the ideal parent. Transactional analysis helps us compare parent-child with adult-adult relationships and distinguish between the nurturing and critical parent. The former is empathetic, considerate and developmental while the latter disciplines and controls us. It is surely no accident that our definitions of leadership and management closely parallel the description of these two parenting styles. We define leadership as inspiring, considerate, empowering and developmental, thus nurturing, while managers are viewed as mechanistic, controlling, unsympathetic and punitive.

Thus, the whole language of leadership is riddled with paternalism. It's up to leaders to motivate people, not up to employees to motivate themselves. Even empowerment means giving employees permission to make decisions they couldn't make previously. Giving permission is paternalistic. Employees with the mindset of entrepreneurial, self-employed business people would try to convince their managers to let them take on more responsibilities. They wouldn't sit back waiting for the manager to invite them. Ironically, the more disengaged employees become, the harder management works to engage them, not realizing that they are digging themselves into a deeper hole because it is the culture that is at fault.

Heroic Leadership and Paternalism

We show our dependency on leaders when we complain that they aren't as competent as they used to be. Another explanation of our dissatisfaction is that our need for them is too strong. As a child you turned to a nurturing parent for comfort and safety when you felt frightened or anxious. Today's rapid pace, pressure to deliver and greater complexity combine to make us more anxious. Because today's leaders, being only human, cannot fully calm our fears, we feel let down by them. Our rising anxieties drive us to want more dependent relationships with leaders to soothe our fears, just when we need to be more empowered. Thus employees collude to drive leaders to be heroic. But the more heroic the leader the more dependent the employee and this gets in the way of engagement. The greater the power gap the more powerless are those at the bottom of the pile.

Leadership is often compared to a journey that takes a group from A to B. It's like going on a bus tour with the leader driving the bus. Without intending it, this perspective can make employees feel like passengers, hence passive when it comes to driving the bus. Attempting to counter these feelings by expecting the leader to do the engaging, developing, cultivating and empowering can compound the problem of employee passivity instead of overcoming it.

Practical Steps for Culture Change

Employees need to be trained to think like business people, self-employed suppliers of services. They need to reframe career management as business development. Everyone has been in a role that has evolved into something else. Employees need to be more proactive in dissecting the needs of their internal customers, especially their boss's, to take on new responsibilities while shedding older ones over time and re-negotiating their pay. As it is, they have the employee mindset that there is nothing they can do to advance their careers other than do a good job as it is totally up to the boss to promote them. Managers at all levels need to develop a more engaging style of interacting with employees, devoting much more time to drawing solutions out of them, even for strategic decisions. This is what level 5 leaders do to foster shared ownership. It is only by cultivating higher levels of ownership that employees will feel fully engaged.

This article was first published in Human Resources IQ, March 1, 2010.   

See alsoCultures of Disengagement, How To Be An Engaging Manager, and Four Levels of Employee Engagement.

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