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Why managers find it hard to engage

By Hofmeyr de Beer

I’m not going to make a case about why it is important to have an engaged workforce. We hear it all the time. I am going to highlight one reason why it is difficult to have one in the first place.

As a leader, your job is to get people to behave coherently toward some goal or objective. If you do your job well, people will want to play their part, and be engaged in the process – even if the task itself is dreary or dangerous.

Managers on the other hand have a similar job description, but they are not incentivised, nor overly concerned whether people want to do what needs to be done, they are more concerned that it gets done.

Effective leaders provide a vision and an example, but then foregoes control over their staff, and in return they hope to get engagement, judgement, creativity, and commitment. It is an uncertain bet that requires a lot of trust, but when successful it pays off big.

Managers on the other hand have a different take on this. For them the loss of control over their staff (who, what, when, where, and how) equals risk. They will make sure to get compliance, but it will be at the expense of engagement, judgement, creativity, and commitment. It is a safe bet, which can be successful in the short-term but can be detrimental in the long-term.

Looking at the research, we know that our sense of autonomy is a big driver of how intrinsically motivated we are. We like to feel self-directed and in control of our lives. Which is why our bosses play such a big part in how engaged we are at work – they don’t always give us the freedom to do what we think is best, but we have to comply or leave. Most of us want to be trusted enough by our bosses to act with autonomy, but then we ourselves find it hard to trust our own reports with the same privilege.

So, here’s the dilemma:

  1. Employees tend to be engaged in activities in which they have some autonomy, or control over what they do, how they do it, who they do it with, etc.
  2. Managers also tend to be engaged in activities in which they have some autonomy, or control over what they do, how they do it, etc.

It would seem that a manager’s engagement comes at the cost of the employee’s engagement. Is it then any wonder that reported engagement levels are so low in the world?

For those of us in management positions, risk and compliance are important, but so is trust and engagement. It doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both/and.

Taking some lessons from leadership

As already mentioned, we humans love the experience of freedom (autonomy). However, too much of it makes us anxious, and too little of it makes us depressed. No person is an island, and this individual autonomy – to act as one desires, needs to be socially appropriate at the very least, and ideally, should be beneficial to society. We are most happy when our individual freedom is used to serve society by using our strengths and resources. The best leaders are those who care about the “we”, not the “me”. They help us to use our freedom not just selfishly, but also to the benefit of society, or the organisation.

Here are some ways in which managers can find a balance between control and engagement:

  1. Hire people that fit the job requirements and the organisational context.
    If you do this right from the get-go, minimal management is required for performance, allowing you to trust your employees to do their work, thereby granting them the autonomy required for work engagement.
  2. Provide enough direction and guidance, but don’t micromanage.
    No one can handle full freedom, there are simply too many things to think about. Doing a proper job of onboarding new employees is critical. Over time you can increase their autonomy as their self-confidence increases.
  3. Take a leap of faith.
    Autonomy is a primary motivator for all human beings regardless of clan, colour, or continent. Trust first and allow your employees to rise to the occasion. Things will not be perfect, there will be mistakes. Management is not about creating perfect systems, it is about creating learning systems.



Breevaart, K., Bakker, A., Hetland, J., Demerouti, E., Olsen, O. K., & Espevik, R. (2014). Daily transactional and transformational leadership and daily employee engagement. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology87(1), 138–157.

Deci, E., Olafsen, A., & Ryan, R. (2017). Self-Determination Theory in work organisations: the state of a science. The Annual Review of Organisational Psychology and Organisational Behaviour4, 19–43.

Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., & Hayes, T. L. (2002). Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology87(2), 268–279.

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