Engagement and Empowerment Programs Are Signs of a Much Deeper Problem

Empowerment and Engagement programs are just distractions from the real issue. People want their brain back at work, but focusing on these two things will ensure that won’t happen.

Former Campbell’s Soup CEO, Doug Conant said, “To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.” He is right. But one recent article misinterpreted that quote to mean, “Employee engagement is the key to activating a high performing workforce.” Conant said nothing about employee engagement.


Empowerment has the same problem as engagement. Chris Matthews, Principal at Sutherlands, quotes his former CEO on empowerment, saying, “Giving the troops the permission and budget to get out there and give that extra mile of service doesn’t work.”

Empowerment and Engagement—Key Indicators?

Yet empowerment and engagement are critical missing pieces in the overwhelming majority of businesses. Gallup says a whopping 70% of people are disengaged from their work. That’s critical because the very few companies with high engagement enjoy much higher net profit margins and five times the shareholder return. And regular research also shows that empowered people make a company a special place to work.
And regular research also shows that empowered people make a company a special place to work.

So both are really important, but neither should be emphasized.

They Are Results—Not Strategies

Semco went from $4 million a year in revenue to over $1billion because they have one of the most empowered and engaged workforces on earth. And yet the CEO of Semco, Ricardo Semler doesn’t emphasize either one. Nor should he, because something else causes empowerment and engagement to spread very easily and organically throughout an organization; a great company culture.

What we miss is that empowered and engaged behavior are both results, not strategies. The driver isn’t an engagement program or emphasizing empowerment, but a Participation Age culture, where everyone has a brain (makes decisions), participates in the building of a great company and shares in the results. And culture isn’t something you create, it is simply the set of beliefs a company lives out in the world around them about the purpose of work, workplaces, people at work, and legacy. It’s so important we understand this—culture is not a program.

You don’t build a culture. You simply live out what you believe.

Live Out What You Believe

Your beliefs determine your decisions, and the long-term decision-making pattern you have as a company IS your culture. That’s it. Be wary of companies with pictures of eagles and golf courses on their walls with motivational sayings, bouncy-balls in their conference rooms instead of chairs, and ping pong tables in their break rooms. By themselves, these are nice, but too often these are signs of a company trying to “change” their culture by external means, when what really needs to change is the internal belief system of the leadership. And always run the other way when a company is working really hard at directly attacking engagement. They have missed the boat altogether.

Besides ignoring what they believe, another mistake most companies make is that they don’t understand that people are naturally empowered. You don’t have to empower them. You simply need to make consistently good decisions that create a culture, within which already-empowered people can function. Engagement is quite different. People are not naturally engaged with you; you have to motivate them to do that. But as with empowerment, culture is what motivates them, or not.

What does a great Participation Age culture look like? Very simply it is a company belief system that values meaningful work over menial jobs, people over things, workplaces that enhance the world around them, and legacy over short-term gain. These are the kinds of things that will motivate empowered people to engage with you. And all of them come from what the leadership of the company believes, not from a poster, motivational meetings or an engagement program.

What Do You Believe? The Rest Will Follow

A focus on empowerment or engagement are both signs of a much deeper issue of negative or ill-defined beliefs (culture) amongst the leadership. The way to empower and engage is not to empower and engage. Just have a very few simple, powerful beliefs on which you make every decision as a company, and your empowered people will be engaged.

What do you believe? It’s the most important question you as a leader will ever answer.

Culture eats strategy for lunch.”—Peter Drucker. Get your few business beliefs clear. Write them down. Make every decision based on them. When you do, empowered people will start showing up and engagement will follow. And you’ll never have to talk about empowerment or engagement again.

Article as seen on Inc.com