5 min read

Stop Being A Hated IT Overlord

Recent research suggests that only 30% of workers are fully engaged in their job. We can't fix corporate dysfunction until we break down bureaucracy and do right by our employees.
Based on recent Gallup research, Fast Company contributor Mark Crowley recently offered a great mental picture of employee engagement in America: "Imagine a crew team out on the Potomac River, where three people are rowing their hearts out, five are taking in the scenery and two are trying to sink the boat." Do any of us who have worked at large, dysfunctional organizations think he's wrong?

Because of the complex and nuanced work that we do, IT is one of the industry segments that needs the most engagement from employees (apart from medicine and nuclear reactor work), so this message is compelling. Crowley interviewed Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management and well-being, and if you've not seen his conclusion yet, you should. He offers excellent takeaways based on data collected from 150,000 workers:

-- Only 30% of workers say that they're fully engaged in their job.

-- Too often employees are given managerial roles as a reward for success, meaning that the promotion is unrelated to whether they can effectively support and positively manage human beings.

-- Doing what's right for people turns out to be beneficial to the larger organization: Organizations in the top decile of engagement outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share, and have 90% better growth trend than their competition.

-- Leaders must be simultaneously results-oriented and authentically concerned about the development of every worker.

-- Most people come to work with good intentions and turn sour only when their basic needs aren't being met.

[ More advice for aspiring CIOs, from the school of hard knocks: So You Want To Be A CIO? 4 Tips. ]

This riffs on a theme we've heard before. Earlier this year I wrote about HCL's "employees first, customers second" approach. I then heard from HCL employees that even this well-intentioned slogan didn't rid the company of dysfunction, nor did it guarantee employee engagement.

So I've been doing some deeper thinking about this topic, and I've come to the conclusion that most of us, including Crowley, are missing one key notion: Form follows function. The way we create and structure organizations creates the way people feel at organizations.

Most organizations are not an exciting boat race in the middle of the Potomac. Most organizations are dank, hot caves, deep underground, with the din of infernal machinery everywhere and confusing conveyor belts that lead to parts unknown. Inmates are expected to perform work where they don't quite understand the whole picture, with a grim overseer who constantly changes the rules and dishes out rewards and punishments based on obedience and the outputs of some dials and bright lights on the machinery. A corporate overlord sometimes appears on the scene like a bad dream and tells the exhausted inmates what a great job they're doing, how lucky they are to work for the company and to hang in there -- with no specific recommendations as to how to hang in there -- and then quickly exits before any significant conversation can take place.

Harter and Crowley clearly understand that the workplace must be as much about satisfied employees as it is about business outputs. But business must convert from the underground people-factory model to the crew boat model if we want any chance of getting people's best work.

Let me be crystal clear about what I mean: the bureaucratic "factory" model of business, with its multiple layers of overseers, overlords and obsession with a flawed notion that top-down leadership creates efficiency, is broken. It has been broken for 100 years. It needs to be replaced. Employee disengagement is a natural consequence of that model. We can temporarily treat the disease, but we will not cure it until we change the model.

So what does a better model look like? My experience with the startup community suggests to me that tech startups, in addition to creating better technology, have also created better business models and ways to work with teams.

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I am particularly fascinated with Spotify's notion of "squads" (small teams) and "tribes" (related sets of squads). In particular, each tribe is not allowed to include more people than "Dunbar's number," a number (estimated to be between 100 and 150) that comes from an anthropological observation that human beings don't have the cognitive capacity to have relationships with more than a certain number of other people.

While you might argue that a typical hierarchical company does split teams into units of less than Dunbar's number, in practice, these teams are not self-sufficient in the same way that Spotify's are. The self-sufficiency is what makes them a rowing crew with a keen sense of where they're going, not laboring in the mines, oblivious about their purpose. (Now watch the disgruntled employees from Spotify come out of the woodwork, right? Ha.)

Is this a perfect model? All I know is that it appears to be better than what we've got. I will observe that on small, self-contained teams, it's a lot harder to "coast" than it is in the bureaucratic "factory" model. That model is clearly not working, and we need to at least try something else if we truly want to take advantage of Harter's vaunted benefits of employee engagement.