The New York Times ran a troubling story, "Why You Hate Work," in last week's "Sunday Review." The article indicated that employees work too hard and find little meaning from their work. The anecdotes we all hear about this topic are reinforced by the Gallup Poll, which shows that only 30 percent of employees are engaged in their work.
The issues raised are ones I have worked on for many years. With the drive for higher productivity in the workplace, there is little doubt that people are putting in longer hours than they did two or three decades ago. In part, this drive comes from never-ending, short-term pressures of the stock market. An even greater factor is the global nature of competition today, which pits American organizations directly against counterparts in Asia, where work days are long and onerous.
The much greater issue raised, however, is that many workers do not find meaning in their work. A shockingly low 25 percent of employees feel connection to their company's mission. (Contrast that to the 84 percent of Medtronic employees who feel aligned with the company's mission.) In my experience, if employees don't feel a genuine passion for their work and believe that it makes a difference, engagement drops off dramatically. When engagement falls, so does productivity.
Message Not Being Heard
Many senior executives have been focused on building mission-driven organizations for the last decade. The CEOs I know are fully committed to getting everyone focused on mission through regular engagement with employees—much more so than CEOs in my generation. So if CEOs are focused on the mission, why aren't these messages getting through to employees?
“Instead of managers who control, we need leaders who inspire”
I believe the answer lies in the highly bureaucratic, multilayered organizations that companies are using to execute their plans. There is so much pressure to realize short-term results that middle managers are consumed by making this month's numbers rather than building teams that focus on achieving their company's mission. Innovating under intense operational pressure is nearly impossible.
In addition, the heavy burden of compliance with government regulations and internal corporate requirements is taking a toll on people, limiting their creativity, and causing them to be risk-averse. In this environment, desired qualities like empowerment, engagement, and innovation are subordinated to control aspects. No wonder people aren't engaged and having fun!
Finally, we have lost sight of the importance of first-line employees—the people actually doing the work—and have given all the power to middle management. We have driven down compensation for first-line employees, increased their hours, and taken away their freedom to act with myriad control mechanisms. When it comes to layoffs, it is the first-line people who get laid off, not the middle managers, as senior leaders protect the people closest to themselves.
What's the solution to this dilemma? I believe we need to restructure large organizations by giving much more responsibility and authority to first-line workers and paying them accordingly—with appropriate performance incentives. We need to trust employees, not control them, by empowering them to carry out the company's mission on behalf of customers. They should be given full responsibility for performance, quality, achievement of goals, and compliance with company standards.
To realize this change, organizational structures need to change. Dramatically. For starters, companies have far too many layers of managers. The best way to address this is to widen the span of control for everyone between the CEO and first-line employees. Instead of six to 12 direct reports, all managers should have 15 to 20 people reporting to them. For many managers, this violates traditional management principles, but it also dramatically reduces the number of layers between the CEO and first-line staff. I know many extremely effective executives, including Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy and Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak, who have more than 18 direct reports and handle the load extremely well. It just requires ensuring that all your direct reports are competent to do their roles and that you use a superb system of delegation, so that you're not over-managing subordinates.
Required: Leaders Who Inspire
Next, the role of middle management requires fundamental changes. Instead of managers who control, we need leaders who inspire in these roles. They should work alongside their employees, doing more than their fair share of the most challenging aspects of the work. Their leadership role is to champion the company's mission and values, and to challenge others to meet higher standards on behalf of their customers. It is the job of these leaders to facilitate the work of the people they lead by making their jobs easier, and removing bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles. Middle managers who cannot make this shift may have to move on to new roles elsewhere. All of these actions make these leaders more like partners and coaches than bosses and controllers in the traditional sense.
Finally, the most senior executives in the organization should be engaged every day with the first-line: working with them in the marketplace and in customer meetings; roaming around the labs, quizzing innovators, scientists and engineers about their latest ideas; visiting production facilities and service centers to check on quality and customer support. That means far less time holding lengthy business reviews in their conference rooms or having 1:1 meetings in their offices. Executives who are fully engaged with first-line employees every day will have a much better sense of how their businesses are running, and their presence will be highly motivating and even inspiring.
As a result of these changes, the employees will be more engaged and more productive, overhead costs will drop dramatically, and customers will report a much higher level of responsiveness. The executives will make better informed, more thoughtful decisions about the business because they are so much closer to their markets and the people doing the work.
Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic, and author of True North, a book about authentic leadership. He serves on the boards of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and the Mayo Clinic.