The Flip Side of Employee Engagement

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In a world where Gallup pollsters say 71% of American workers are “disengaged” from their work, “employee engagement” is clearly an issue needing to be addressed.  There have been numerous posts on TalentCulture about employee engagement, and Meghan M. Biro recently published an article about it in Forbes.  Dan Pink’s book “Drive” talks at length about the science of what motivates us. (Oddly enough, it’s not money, at least, money does not motivate the kind of work that really matters these days, like problem-solving and creative/visionary thinking.)

Since more and more of our work falls into “creative” categories, and emotional engagement is key to maximizing creativity and thus productivity, and money doesn’t motivate these tasks, how do we get to a place where employees are more engaged at work?

Instead of starting from zero and looking for fixes, I suggest looking at a workplace where “employee engagement” is already at 100% all of the time: a major symphony orchestra.

I once had the privilege of playing in the Boston Pops, where total “employee engagement” was standard procedure. In that culture, we weren’t concerned so much with “how to get it” as we were with making sure nothing got in the way of it. And the biggest issue was not employEE engagement, but “employER engagement.”

If you have ever wondered why major symphony orchestras take so long to find music directors, it’s not for a lack of applicants for the job. The issue is finding someone who can handle being a manager in a 100% employee engagement environment. This is a lot harder than you might think.

As an orchestral musician, I often observed young wannabe maestros as they were given their shot at the bigtime with a guest conducting stint. It was amazing just how many of them could not do the job. It wasn’t because they lacked musical talent or skill. What was lacking was an ability to accept the massive energy of the “engaged employees.”

You see, for many of these wannabe maestros, whenever the music got too loud or too exciting, amazingly, they just would slow things down, as too much excitement would exceed their need-for-control comfort level. Yes, this certainly sounds crazy; after all, in the music business, emotional excitement is itself the product. But I saw this self-defeating phenomenon happen over and over again. They actually resisted “employee engagement.”

You will see this “emotional fractal” occur in all kinds of situations.  Many people just assume that having things “under control” is equivalent to being productive and doing their job as manager, when in reality it saps energy and sabotages employee engagement. For example, in a recent 60 Minutes program, Sergio Marchionne talked about the previous regime at Chrysler having their executive offices in a far off penthouse suite. In rescuing the company, he moved the executive offices into the same area as the engineers, where they could get access to the CEO without any bureaucratic interference. Again, employee engagement can only occur if there is employer engagement willing to accept it, and not slow it down or prevent it.

You would think that the acceptance of massive employee engagement energy would be an easy and obvious thing to do, but for many people, it isn’t. When someone gets into a serious management role for the first time, it is rare that they have had any real long term gut-level preparation for the job. For example, they may not be used to trusting people on such a grand scale. They may be overly concerned about what their own boss thinks of them. They may be more concerned about loyalty to the past, “following standard procedure,” or “mistake prevention” than they are about overall productivity. They may not be able to handle the social discomfort stemming from their newfound power over former colleagues, or they may unwittingly abuse their power without realizing how it can affect worker attitudes. And perhaps most of all, the ability to graciously accept the gift of people coming to work every day and giving you everything they’ve got is not something we pick up in gym class. It’s a quantum leap in how one looks at the world.

Everyone who steps into a management role is a unique individual with their own set of past trust violations, issues with authority, shame issues about mistakes, confidence here and insecurity there, and inexperience with handling power, not mention just plain old fear and other human foibles. They may not be ready to handle the overwhelming amount of emotional energy that a team of “engaged” workers wants to throw at them. The natural response is always to slow things down.

Addressing these issues at their core emotional level gets into the realm of “touchy feely,” where many managers, especially those who have more technical skills than people skills, feel uncomfortable. But “engagement” is no longer a nice thing to have, it is now essential to your bottom line.  So if your issue is a lack of “employee engagement,” this is probably just an inevitable result of an emotional bottleneck occurring at the management level, and that is where the problem should be solved.

In many learning environments and business cultures, stress, anxiety, and bureaucratic distancing often lead to emotional numbness, so the trust, openness, connection, and personal recognition that so many workers seek from their boss are rare commodities. Leaders who inspire their team by offering these emotional responses (despite all the stress of their role) are generally seen as mystical beings who are “born with it,” but it is a skill that can be cultivated in anyone, given proper training.

(About the Author: Justin Locke spent 18 years playing bass in the Boston Pops, and his musical plays are performed all over the world.  As an author, speaker, and coach, he shares a pragmatic artistic approach to personal growth, “people skills,” and managing “top performers.” For more, visit his website at

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Justin Locke

Justin Locke

As a bass player with Boston Pops, Justin worked with some of the most famous conductors in history. Now, as an entertaining speaker and "holistic management coach," he shares a very different (artistic) perspective on what motivates an individual or a team to do its best work. You will find lots more info on his blog and website, is the author of 3 books: "Real Men Don't Rehearse," a fun musical memoir; "Principles of Applied Stupidity," a book on how star performers go past "classroom conditioning"; and "Getting in Touch with Your Inner Rich Kid," a look at the emotional aspects of managing money. His orchestral family concerts are performed globally, and he has appeared on CBS Radio, WCVB-TV Boston's Chronicle HD," and on the "authors@google" series.


  1. 80% of employees self report that they are not engaged.
    80% of managers are not suited to managing employees.
    The two eighty percents are closely related.

    Employers keep hiring the wrong people to be their managers and then they wonder why they have so few of engaged employees. Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employee lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent

    Employers do a…
    A. great job of hiring competent employees.
    B. good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture.
    C. poor job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job.

    Identifying the talent required for each job seems to be missing from talent and management discussions. If we ignore any of the three criteria, our workforce will be less successful with higher turnover than if we do not ignore any of the three criteria.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Talent

    There are many factors to consider when hiring and managing talent but first we need to define talent unless “hiring talent” means “hiring employees.” Everyone wants to hire for and manage talent but if we can’t answer the five questions below with specificity, we can’t hire or manage talent effectively.
    1. How do we define talent?
    2. How do we measure talent?
    3. How do we know a candidate’s talent?
    4. How do we know what talent is required for each job?
    5. How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job?

    Most people cannot answer the five questions with specificity but the answers provide the framework for hiring successful employees and creating an engaged workforce.

    Talent is not found in resumes or interviews or background checks or college transcripts.

    Talent must be hired since it cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.

    1. Dear Robert,

      We’ll thank you so much for reading in checking in. I really appreciate it.

      I was wondering if I could access your expertise here. Since I come from a show business background, the word “talent” means something fairly specific to me, i.e., “a natural ease with the technical aspects,” and to some degree, “the ability to draw attention to oneself.”*

      So when I hear people using the word “talent” in the context of the corporate workplace, I confess to you with all sincerity I really don’t understand what the word means in that context. Any chance you can enlighten me? Best, Justin Locke

      *Note, the word gets difficult because no matter how talented one is, there’s always that moment when talent is not enough and you have to sit down learn the technical fundamentals and fill in the gaps. Some people are actually too talented, as it’s enough by itself for them to get by, and they never go beyond a certain level. People with less talent often develop better discipline out of sheer necessity. Of course, it’s ideal to have both!

      1. Hello Justin,

        See the paragraph below for a definition of talent.

        All hiring managers hire for knowledge, skills, and abilities only and too few hire for knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors. The following is from the book “First Break All the Rules, what the world’s greatest managers do differently” by Buckingham and Coffman. The authors’ define a “talent “, (page 71) as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied…The emphasis here is on the word ‘recurring.’ Great managers say ‘Your talents are the behaviors you find yourself doing often.’ ”

        The authors repeat the following four lines several times in the book (pages 57, 67, 79). 

        · People don’t change much. 

        · Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. 

        · Try to draw out what was left in. 

        · That is hard enough. 

        When hiring, Conventional Wisdom says (page 66)… 

        1. select a person…based on his experience, intelligence and determination. 

        2. set expectations…by defining the right steps. 

        3. motivate the person…by helping him identify and overcome his weaknesses. 

        4. develop the person…by helping him learn and get promoted. 

        When hiring, Great Managers say… 

        1. select for talent…not just experience, intelligence or determination.
        2. define the outcomes…not the right steps 

        3. focus on strengths…not weaknesses 

        4. help find the right fit…not the next promotion 

        Conventional Wisdom says… 

        1. Experience makes the difference. 

        2. Brainpower makes the difference.
        3. Willpower makes the difference. 

        Great managers agree with the three items above but great managers label willpower a talent and it is almost impossible to teach (page 72). Only the presence of talents can explain why, all other factors being equal, some people excel in the role and some struggle (page 73).

        As manager you need to know exactly which talents you want. (page 101) Great talents need great managers if they are to be turned into performance. (page 102) 

Each employee breathes different psychological oxygen. (page 151) 

        You cannot learn very much about excellence by studying failure… Excellence is not the opposite of failure. (page 157)

        Whereas conventional wisdom views individual specialization as the antithesis of teamwork, great managers see it as the founding principle (page 173). In the minds of great managers, consistent poor performance is not primarily a matter of weakness, stupidity disobedience, or disrespect. It is a matter of miscasting (page 209).

  2. Great food for more thought, Mr. Locke. It really puts a damper on employees’ spirits, thus their engagement, when they are constantly encountering negativity by their managers, or worse, the heads of the organization aren’t fostering employee engagement. This is why leadership is so important. The top brass has to train managers to be good leads and rev up the engagement. If managers aren’t engaging employees, they are not suited for management.

    1. Thank you Katherine for reading and checking in! Yes, all true. I fear the problem is far more widespread than we wish to acknowledge, and the fixes far more complex than we would like. Leadership is kind of an art, and in my opinion needs be cultivated over a long period, starting young, the same way we cultivate ballet dancers and quarterbacks. As it is, we tend to throw people into management roles with precious little hands-on preparation. In my case, it was all “on the job training.” The best conductors were usually products of lengthy apprenticeships and mentoring, not an institution.

      There was a post in the Dallas Morning News this week

      bemoaning the lack of proper development of symphony conductors, and I agree with it. Industrial culture endlessly seeks a quick fix, but some things just take a lot of time to ferment. Leadership is a little like social dance, there is no way to teach it in the abstract, you have to go out and do it, and only then do people wake up and realize that they have a lot to learn. And let us never assume that the top brass knows how to teach the middle managers 🙂 I am doing my level best to share my perspective and experience on the topic– jl

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