The Art of Disengagement

Any “valuable” manager can appear to be on the side of the angels of engagement while still preventing the chaos of involvement,which is too explosive to fool around with.

I’ve seen many executives and senior managers sincerely seeking to enhance employee involvement. They realize engaged workers are more likely to be more motivated, do higher-quality work, make better suggestions, deliver improved service, be more alert and aware—and show far better Safety results.

But to a high-control-oriented manager, there are clear disadvantages to activating workers:

¦ engaged employees often exceed previous self-restricted limits, then may feel proud, important, or even “uppity”;

¦ involved workers may be more likely to challenge those managerial directions they don’t understand or that are unclear—diminishing tightfisted control over them as they become more sure;

¦ participating people take up more time in suggesting improvements or offering alternative solutions. Some managers view these actions as wasteful (“What happened to the good old days of ‘Shut up and check your brains at the time clock?’”);

¦ they’ll expect to have a say in future decisions or implementations;

¦ and, possibly worst, they might even be successful when participating in active Safety committees, becoming peer trainers and/or change agents, and lobbying for policy or tooling changes. Then where would command-and-control managers be? Unnecessary? Less important? Looking for new work?

Clearly contrary to high executive expectations, strong involvement won’t thrill an I-tell-they-listen type manager. Unfortunately for these kinds of bosses, it’s not enough to just ignore or disregard budding worker participation. Like it or not, many employees are increasingly more educated, bombarded with information from the Internet and other surrounding media. Further complicating this, aging workforces tend to become even more adamant, self-assured, more difficult to control.

No, really clever managers have to go beyond, to actively discourage employee participation that might otherwise upset the power cart. But, of course, few such managers want to be seen torpedoing engagement efforts their executives or employees jointly embrace. Not good for the career.

But help is at hand. Here are seven beneath-the-radar methods for “limiting” employee engagement:

1. Speak in generalities. Remember, ambiguities and platitudes (such as “Think before you act”) don’t communicate anything critical, keep others off balance, and frustrate would-be efforts at change—while still cloaking you in the image of Leadership.

2. Offer only phantom responsibilities —never actual power—and certainly not a budget. Be sure to lid Safety Committees’ and others’ potential pushes by restricting their resources. Don’t let them bring in outside resources; appear to check out their suggestions, making sure these don’t go anywhere (hint: look for faults).

3. Nanomanage. Closely oversee their efforts. Arbitrarily change whatever they come up with you don’t like. Eventually they’ll get the message. Be aware they may try to “get even.” I recall an employee committee that was asked to create its company’s Safety slogan for the year. The committee’s response? “Let’s All Talk Safety—It’s A Lot Cheaper Than Doing Anything About It.” Needless to say, this wasn’t allowed, but it made the rounds and became the grassroots Safety theme and joke beyond that year.

4. Build in lag time. Don’t follow up on employee suggestions too promptly. Plead “other priorities.” This will slow down their desire to generate more ideas that might otherwise take up your time or reduce your control.

5. Screen any training to make sure it doesn’t encourage their sense of personal control. Instead, put most of your efforts into crafting detailed policies and procedures— this can always give you a sword over their heads. No way will they be able to remember or follow all the paper rules you can dream up.

6. Pick the “right” workers to spearhead new efforts. Select a creative mixture of a few retired-on-active-duty, those who don’t have the respect of their peers, and some who will do anything to please . . . you.

7. Create pushback to participation. By forcing involvement—e.g., scheduling meetings at times inconvenient for workers or giving them insufficient advance notice—you can appear interested while actually minimizing potential threat of change. I’ve seen one manager schedule workers for feedback or training sessions on their days off. Another would cancel meetings at the last minute, citing “my busy workload”—after employees jumped through hoops to attend. Other managers set wrong expectations (e.g., telling employees a five-day Instructor training would last only one day).

Any “valuable” manager can appear to be on the side of the angels of engagement while still preventing the chaos of involvement or a platform for the devils of dissent. Be warned! Involvement can be a potent instrument for spreading the leadership load, catalyzing significant change, zooming improvement and organizational enthusiasm.

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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