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Want Higher Engagement? It’s Not Just About Hiring Better Managers

What if we set up policies and processes so it’s easy for people to grow in their jobs?

A recent article by Sam Walker in the Wall Street Journal argues that better managers are the key to delivering better results.

Walker cites research by Gallup showing that the quality of middle managers determines 70% of the variance between high-performing and low-performing companies. Because managers can instill (or at least heighten) a sense of purpose and meaning in employees’ work, they drive the critical measure of employee engagement, which Gallup defines as a belief among employees that they’re doing meaningful work in a climate that supports personal growth. And that in turn leads to lower turnover, higher productivity and better profits.

This isn’t really an earth-shattering insight (even if the high level of correlation is eye-opening). We’ve all heard the maxim that workers don’t leave companies; they leave their managers. So this makes sense.

Now, it’s not always easy to connect an organization’s product or service to something “meaningful.” Not everyone works in an organization singularly focused on eradicating river blindness or rescuing otters. It’s a lot harder to talk about meaning when you work in a quarry or a factory making low-density polyethylene squeeze bottles for ketchup. And there are plenty of days when the work you’re doing—no matter where you're employed—isn’t going to feel particularly meaningful (notwithstanding the apocryphal story about JFK and the janitor at NASA who proudly explained that he was helping put a man on the moon).

But what’s most dangerous in Walker’s prescription is that companies simply need to hire (or train) better managers, and everything will be right with the world. He places the burden for increasing engagement on the individual manager.

That seems risky to me. There’s so much variability in people and environments that a “good” manager in one situation might not be a good manager in another.

What if instead we created mechanisms to increase employee engagement? What if we set up policies and processes so that it’s easy for people to grow in their jobs?

That’s the beauty of focusing on improvement. Every job does provide an opportunity to grow. Challenging people to improve the process by which they do their jobs harnesses their creativity and their innate desire to succeed, leading to higher engagement.

Unfortunately, too many organizations pay lip service to the notion of improvement without creating mechanisms to make it happen. They won’t spend the money to give workers enough training: A woman I know in the OpEx department of a $30 billion company needed three weeks to get approval for the $900 to attend a recent conference. Or they rely on suggestion boxes (“Where good ideas go to die”) rather than openly posted improvement boards. Or they don’t provide workers with the slack time they need to do improvement work—workers are paid for a 40-hour week, and it requires the papal seal of approval to get overtime pay for improvement work.

Cambridge Engineering in St. Louis is an example of a company that has created these mechanisms. Workers get training in lean and problem solving, of course, but even more importantly, they have 30 minutes every day to do “lean and clean”—work on improvement projects, or just clean/maintain/5S their areas. During their busy season, the company unquestioningly pays overtime to ensure that everyone has the ability to do their half hour of daily improvement.

Of course, these mechanisms don’t guarantee a high level of employee engagement. But they reduce the reliance on the talents of individual managers and increase the likelihood that employees will feel their jobs provide them with the opportunity for personal growth.

Toyota says that there are two aspects to every job: doing the work, and improving the work. Instead of relying on individual managers for employee engagement, let’s rely on this second component for higher employee engagement—and higher company profits.

Dan Markovitz is a Shingo prize-winning author, speaker, and consultant who helps companies accelerate their lean journeys. You can reach him at or @danmarkovitz.

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