When I took a look at my news stream on leadership and career today, a big question mark was written on my face. I saw several articles about the recently published annual Gallup study, in which, as every year, bosses are accused of not motivating their employees enough. In between, there is an article on a current study by Stepstone and Kienbaum, which concludes that employees want more self-responsibility and flatter hierarchies, i.e., less leadership as a result. Yes, what counts when it comes to employee motivation?
More leadership: Managers are the greatest productivity killers
Every year, the Gallup study shows us how little committed employees are at work and how many people only do what is prescribed. And as usual, the blame is placed on the bosses. These days they are called “productivity killers” that cost the German economy up to 105 billion euros annually. Incapable bosses, poor economy! If managers would finally motivate their employees properly, then the world would be all right, so the message.
As I read the article today, various questions went through my head: Are managers really responsible for the (low) motivation of their employees? Is it really a management task to motivate people for their work? Or is it simply convenient and guarantees high click rates in the media to turn bosses into the bogeymen for lousy employee engagement? After all, a large part of the working population will applaud courageously when their bosses are pilloried again.
So what is this about? Opinion-making under the guise of a popular study or a serious proposed solution for a better world of work? My view below, because right after these articles I read this:
Less leadership: Employees want more responsibility
“Only one boss, right at the top”, headlines ZEIT, “With flat hierarchies for happy employees” the Handelsblatt. The joint study by Stepstone and Kienbaum comes to the result that 80 percent of those surveyed would like flat hierarchies and more independent work.
“If there is still middle management, the executives act more like a consultant here,” writes Tina Groll. She paints the picture of mid-level executives without direct authority and more content-related orientation at eye level with her team.
A new understanding of leadership which, in the case of flatter hierarchies, results in greater operational management spans. At the same time, if the right to issue instructions is less, leadership would actually resemble the role of an internal project manager or consultant without disciplinary responsibility.
What does this mean for the management task of motivating employees, which according to the Gallup study would be so important? Can it both work?
Boss, please motivate me, but please leave me alone!
If I mix the outlined consequences of these two studies, I get a very questionable view of leadership, at least today. I am exaggerating: Employees need a boss who is highly motivated, is committed to his team and has their backs free, challenges and encourages them, gives them a feel-good environment, but also lets them do their thing, doesn’t interfere, and enjoy is invisible for a large part of the working time.
That’s paradoxical, isn’t it? Flat hierarchies, but better leadership. More personal responsibility, but stronger external motivation. A miracle if that succeeds.
Studies show trends, not recommendations for action
It no longer works today to derive simple if-then recipes from such study results. Employees are more committed when their bosses motivate them more. Sounds good, but it’s pretty one-dimensional. Less hierarchy makes employees happier is just such a generalized simplification of complexity on prescription.
I warn against frantically getting bosses involved in motivational training or doing away with them entirely in favor of flatter hierarchies. You may laugh, but some managers confused about the digitalization craze come up with such fixed ideas when they read enough articles like the above. Especially based on studies.
I agree with the general trends described by the authors of the articles and the editors of the studies. The generalization of their consequences in the form of recommendations for action is, in my opinion, a danger. The working world is too complex, every single person in this working world is too individual to derive such simple if-then relationships.
Leadership from the watering can fails today
There are so many companies in which hierarchical levels and tight leadership are extremely useful and exactly those employees work there who appreciate that. Some so many employees are afraid of more personal responsibility and need little snacks that their boss puts on their desk every morning. That makes you happy, not great freedom. Still, others want to understand why they are given tasks and grasp the big picture.
What the Gallup study and other surveys overlook and what, in my opinion, is becoming more and more important as the world of work continues to change, is that the commitment and loyalty of employees have something to do with individuals and thus individuality. Work is there to earn money! This simple logic no longer works.
Employee motivation: goal and value-oriented leadership
There are motives in motivation. Motives arise from personal values and goals. Anyone who tries to pour management and leadership over individuals as if from a watering can not be surprised that it wins the lottery when what is important to an employee is fulfilled, motivates, and binds them.
There is no longer the one price tag that sticks to work performance. In the future, it should become more and more of a management task to recognize the price tag of each employee. What exactly is it that motivates and binds? How closely does one employee want to be led, what leeway does another need? Here, my impetus also goes to you as an employee to tell your boss clearly what is important to you in your job and what motivates you particularly. After all, leadership is not a one-way street!
Individual guidance costs time. The time that many bosses believe they can no longer take for their employees. Misunderstandings and mistakes in day-to-day operations are consequences that ultimately take up a lot more time. The abolition of hierarchies and thus the enlargement of management spans would make individual management even more difficult from this point of view.
From my point of view, the success factor for motivated and healthy employees is not less leadership, but more intensive leadership with a real interest in people, their values, and goals – that is, their “price tags”. This makes it possible to delegate efficiently and at the same time motivate employees to take on more responsibility for their own thoughts and actions.
An investment that in the medium term will not only lead to more freedom in the leadership role but above all to more satisfied and more motivated employees.