Are Managers Abandoning Their Responsibilities in the Name of Employee Engagement?

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Aug 3, 2021

I just hopped on the internet and searched for “engagement and retention strategies.” Google returned 116,000,000 results. My God, have we written or read enough about this?

OK, full disclosure: I’ve got about 10 or so pieces in those results. Shoot, I even have an unfinished manuscript on employee retention and engagement. However, I consider it redundant at this point.

Anyway, Google offered an abundance of resources to help readers engage and retain their workforce, including a plethora of top 5 lists, best 10s, and lots of lucky 7s. There are actionable lists, ultimate lists, and even a “clever” list. 

But just like bacon, beer, and bread, too much of a good thing can be problematic. 

Many of the pundits I found online suggest that employees need to feel wanted, appreciated, and significant while at work. The experts have unlimited ideas for managers regarding how to make workers happy and satisfied with their employment relationship. 

However, very few of these pundits suggest the working relationship is reciprocal, or that managers have a right to feel good too — which has led many managers to focus too much on employee rights and not enough on their own.

Management Rights

Regardless of whether a workforce is unionized, Management Rights should be protected and exercised. And while I’ve written countless pieces over the years about encouraging collaboration, compromise, and even consensus, I have never wavered on the concept of protecting an employer’s explicit right to:

  • Determine the vision, mission, goals and strategies
  • Develop and execute a budget aligned with those goals and strategies
  • Develop and enforce policies, procedures, and protocols
  • Assign, direct, evaluate and correct/re-direct the work
  • Discipline and discharge employees

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for dictatorship or tyranny. I am simply suggesting that managers must recognize when Employee Rights have infringed upon Management Rights.

Give an Inch, Lose a Mile

Sometimes, managers inadvertently give up Management Rights to certain employees because of their perceived value to the organization. For example, people in hard-to-fill positions or those who have heightened expertise, technical prowess, or professional connections are often given too much leeway or forgiveness in the workplace. 

  • “I think we need to let Gary have his way here. He’s just too valuable on this project to push the issue.”
  • “We don’t have anyone else who knows ____, so we’ll need to give Sue what she’s asked for.”
  • “The client loves him. We can’t afford to lose the client over this issue.”

Have you heard similar statements in your workplace? That is the sound of Management Rights being offered to a different power.

Some employees have taken or assumed Management Rights because their manager fears or avoids conflict or their manager lacks confidence and hasn’t claimed or exercised the Management Right for themselves.

  • “I need you all to come up with a plan.”
  • “I just don’t know…what do you think?”
  • “What would be an acceptable solution to you?”

Unless managers preface such statements with something like, “I will consider your opinions and make the decision myself,” or “Ultimately, I will take action in the best interest of our company,” I can guarantee you that employees believe they have assumed what should be a Management Right.

Sometimes, piss-poor management results in relinquishing Management Rights to employees. For example, when a manager is an ass, it’s likely employees will complain. If an HR professional is an idiot, it’s likely employees will complain. If a safety rep is on a power trip and antagonistic, it’s likely employees will complain. 

All of which is to say that when such employee concerns are consistently validated, managers quickly become invalidated. When this happens, Management Rights begin to mean less than Employee Rights. 

Use ‘Em or Lose ‘Em

Management Rights are like muscles. If you don’t use them, you lose them. Or if you don’t use them correctly, you risk damaging them. That said, I humbly offer a few exercises to build Management Rights muscles:

  • Speak with conviction. Give clear and unambiguous direction regarding tasks, standards, deadlines, and feedback. Don’t use words or non-verbal cues that insinuate a suggestion unless you are, indeed, offering only a suggestion.
  • Listen and mindfully consider your team’s opinions and ideas, and thank them for it. However, don’t give them the impression their voice equates to a vote unless, indeed, you plan on having a vote. (Furthermore, make sure consensus or democracy is, for that situation, in the best interest of the employer. If it’s not the time or place for democracy, make sure you exercise your decision-making authority.)
  • Be respectfully clear with role identification. Communicate the difference between authority ⁠(the right to give direction and make decisions⁠) and responsibility (the obligation to perform the tasks assigned).
  • Model respectful disagreement, and don’t pacify or placate. (Healthy disagreement or conflict enables growth, innovation, and improvement, whereas appeasing folks does not.)
  • Quit playing the victim to policies and protocols. You’re a manager; management sets policy, so own it! Quit saying things like “the policy doesn’t allow it” or “our procedures don’t let me do that.” Instead, change your vernacular and respectfully say “I won’t allow that” or “I expect this.”
  • Hold staff accountable when tasks are not completed to the standard. This doesn’t mean that discipline has to occur each time, but it should be crystal-clear to the individual(s) that you noticed the infraction. Furthermore, execute meaningful and appropriate action to correct or redirect.
  • Never lose sight of what is in the best interest of the employer, and make sure your actions and decisions align accordingly.

Balance and Reciprocity

Consistent execution of the above activities will strengthen and tone your Management Rights, restoring a sorely needed balance in the employer/employee relationship. Ultimately, clarity on this subject helps provide stability and comfort in the workplace, which better enables reciprocity in areas of respect, helpfulness, and commitment. 

Finally, to come back to how this piece started, I believe managers who protect and exercise their Management Rights will realize that engagement and retention strategies are not the core to a meaningful, positive work culture. They are a complement to one.

And because I don’t want to force you to read over 100 million resources on that particular subject, here’s my quick list:

  • Provide a safe space to explore, create, and make mistakes (provided there’s learning)
  • Provide more feedback
  • Be open to receiving feedback, and then commit to improvement 
  • Model and foster listening, collaboration, and appreciation
  • Encourage and enable development
  • Challenge your employees outside of their comfort zones while providing support and resources 
  • Celebrate the little things, and definitely rejoice in the big things!