Relationships matter for Engagement (2/3)

This is the second of three blogs under the title
Individual Difference in Leadership and Engagement: Why Relationships matter.
You can find the first blog here.


Conflicting Targets

The leader’s main objective is to establish and maintain performance criteria focused on the needs of the organization and its success. This objective supersedes that of providing an environment that focuses on safety and protection and that makes others engaged and successful. It’s not surprising that engagement in organizations has remained at such low levels. In 2012, for example, Gallup reported engagement levels worldwide at a mere 13% and in the US, the cost to organizations for failed engagement and increased stress is estimated at between $300 and $500 billion dollars annually.
Today, the common form of leadership is hierarchical, top to bottom. Leaders expect trust and cooperation based on authority and power, and not based on a reciprocal need for help or feeling safe. Given these forms of leadership, you will do what is asked, but you will not support or engage with them. Given these forms of leadership, employees will lack motivation. They are less likely to provide discretionary effort. They are unproductive, and are likely to spread their negativity to others. Further,

“…the risk of employees not finding the safety and protection necessary to engagement [word added] is that people will sabotage the organization. These people will chant the corporate song, but will criticize and resist top management efforts at growth and success…” (Author unknown).

Is this the kind of leadership that inspires you? Is this the kind of leadership and engagement that you inspire in others?

The new CEO

I was witness to the following example: At a meeting with the entire staff, a newly appointed CEO announced that the organization had suffered massive financial losses due to possible criminal actions by former executives. Further, the financial difficulties meant government regulators were considering closing down the organization. Changes were going to be necessary. As you can imagine, the assembled staff was visibly shocked by this turn of events. Upon hearing the reassuring words from the CEO, the staff responded by saying, “what can we do to help?” “What do you need from us?” Almost to a person, the staff was willing to do whatever it took for the organization to survive, they were willing to give of themselves and go above and beyond their specific role and duties, to trust and cooperate with the CEO. The CEO’s announcement and the plan to save the organization made them feel safe and their engagement level was higher than it had ever been. But simply having a plan was not enough.   Five years later after unfulfilled promises by the CEO, massive restructuring and layoffs, and continued failing of technology and resources, a competitor acquired the organization. In addition, during this 5-year stretch, the CEO continued to receive yearly raises and bonuses (amounting to a 40% increase), while the staff received nothing. At the staff meeting to announce the acquisition, those same employees, those that still remained, responded to this news by saying, “What does this mean for me?” “What about a raise?” “Is my job secure?”
All that the staff members who spoke out were telling me was, they were feeling unsafe; all they were saying is they could not trust their leader. The staff’s lost and disrupted relationships caused by the layoffs and reorganization, and their experience with the CEO made them more sensitive to risks of engagement and less inclined to simply trust and cooperate with the CEO to protect their interests (i.e. make them feel safe). The CEO had sacrificed others for his/her own gain. For the staff, it was not the disparity of salary and bonuses, rather it was that leadership violated the single most important tenet leading to engagement—the essence of a social contract or a supportive relationship that says, “I will keep you safe, and I will protect you.” If the conditions are wrong, or our relationships become compromised, we are forced to protect ourselves, and that is inherently bad for the organization—leadership has failed—we feel and become disengaged.
Here is another example: Upon beginning her shift, the assistant manager of a national retail chain took photos of merchandise returned to the back storeroom that had been thrown around and piled up in a haphazard manner. She said, “I am taking this photo just in case my manager asks.” What she is really saying is that she feels unsafe and is protecting her own interests against those of the organization (determining the cause and solution to the mishandling of the merchandise). When leadership fails, we are forced to protect ourselves.

Relationships matter

We learn, we trust and cooperate, and we are inspired best from people who we are connected with in positive ways. And, at no other time is that trust and cooperation tested than when one party is feeling threatened. Indeed, evidence suggests that trust between parties, employees and leaders, is almost by definition an outcome of the quality of their relationship.
It takes considerable time, energy, and attention to maintain relationships that promote active engagement in the organization and that inspires everyone to perform at their best. It is not a quick fix, and most often, when things go awry, leaders will default to “performance” mode or:

  • Are overly concerned about how productive the group is;
  • Focus on the size of their bonus or;
  • How quickly they can be promoted.

We default to what we know, what has worked in the past, and what makes us feel safe even if it is now inappropriate or no longer works.
Here is a personal example: I was stocking merchandise on shelves for an international retail organization and the shift manager came by to ask why my task had not been finished in the allotted time. As I began to respond, I could see the shift manager was not at all concerned with the explanation, but had already formulated the response to the store manager about the unfinished work—after all, it had worked successfully in the past? The focus on looking good to the store manager took precedent over any explanations of what might fix my ability to finish this task on time, now or anyone’s ability to finish in the future. If employees are not being heard or listened to, then why should they listen or respond to their leaders or supervisors? If leadership is going to ask for an engaged workforce or spend resources on programs to increase engagement, what is the likelihood of employees following or doing what leadership is requesting? Leadership is a choice, and when leadership chooses to protect their own interests above those of others, engagement suffers and performance declines.
So, what is it about relationships that makes some successful and others not so? What is it about trust and cooperation that makes some people able to trust and others to distrust. What is it that given the same set of circumstances, some people can engage with their work, while others struggle and resist?
We all know people who are in a position of leadership but are not a leader, and we all know people who are not in a leadership position, but are absolutely leaders and that we can absolutely trust to help us—“I will watch out for you as you sleep, as you will watch out for me when I sleep.”
Leaders are constantly confronted with how important relationships are—how an employees attention and performance can be high jacked when a conflict in the relationship occurs, and how strong emotional reactions to situations at work can destabilize them for long periods of time. You see this everyday in your groups but you may not be aware of the origins of these individual characteristics that shape workplace engagement and performance.
Note: This post is based, and has been expanded, on a talk given by Simon Sinek that is available on It is also based on a presentation I made at a leadership conference, May 2015, hosted by the Midwest Division of Quest Diagnostics in Denver, CO. Slides and complete citations for the presentation are available upon request.

One thought on “Relationships matter for Engagement (2/3)”

  1. I believe that we all faced that unfortunate situation when a manager heard what we were saying but did not listen. This need to protect ourselves tends to get leaders in unfortunate situations, especially if they lose their credibility. This is a very interesting article and the lesson is priceless.

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