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Stuck in the Middle

The state of employee engagement is a severely under-discussed issue IMHO. I've written before (in the context of the importance of bringing people with you through periods of transformation and change) about the stark statistics that show just how poor engagement levels are amongst workers globally. Gallup have famously done some excellent research in this area – for example as recently as late last year finding that only 8% workers in the UK say that they feel engaged or enthusiastic about their work, the rest being either not engaged (73%) or worse, actively disengaged (19%) (figures for other countries are not much better).

My sense is that whilst there are no doubt issues at every level through organisations, it is often middle-managers who face unique challenges that can lead to disengagement and there are some revealing (but slightly depressing) statistics in this article that would seem to support that. One study quoted in the piece sourced data from 320,000 employees from multiple organisations and analysed those that scored in the bottom 5% when it came to engagement and commitment. Rather than being comprised of those employees that were the poorest performers, they found that this group were most commonly educated mid-level managers who had actually had a decent appraisal in their last performance review. 

There's likely multiple reasons for this but in my experience a good part of it is down to the reality how middle-managers spend their time. Juggling pressures and commitments from all sides (bosses, peers, team) can easily lead to a surfeit of meetings, email, and other admin tasks which may feel necessary at the time but actually cumulatively impact time spent leading (or indeed thinking) and individually contribute little meaningful progress in the achievement of key priorities or goals. Teresa Amabile's research in this area has shown just how powerful such progress can be in supporting employee engagement and motivation:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.’

Similarly that treadmill feeling that comes with repetitive tasks or cycles, or the inability to control ones own time as it gets sucked into seemingly low value activities can create huge frustration. The lack of autonomy and continuous learning that characterises most hierarchically-driven environments only adds to this. 

The article suggests that technology is a significant part of the answer but whilst technology can help, I think it's only ever part of the answer. The reality is that much of these frustrations are generated from behavioural and cultural norms that have built up over a long time. And the only way to change habits is to break them one-by-one. Challenge the defaults. Stop compiling that report that you suspect few people read and see if anyone notices. Question whether you need a meeting at all and if you do, have a rule that meetings should be 15 minutes by default. Protect time in your diary for thinking or non-admin tasks. Start saying no.

Creating space is not a luxury – it's essential to not only organisational fitness and sustainability, but the engagement, productivity and dare-I-say-it sanity of those critical people in the middle. 

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