Peter Drucker's Paths to Creating an Engaged Worker

Engagement is a fairly recent term in business, but Peter Drucker saw its need long ago and showed how managers could develop it in their workforce. To contribute significantly to the goals set by the manager, an engaged worker is required. The goal and outcome can not be merely performance. The goal and outcome have to be outstanding performance. The difference between performance and outstanding performance is that between athletic sport participation and an Olympic athlete. It is the difference between an amateur acting and an Oscar-worthy performance. Peter Drucker said that to do this the manager must create what he called "a responsible worker." Today we would call this an engaged worker. An engaged worker is one who is committed to contribute to the organization, and is willing to exert extraordinary effort in accomplishing tasks important to the achievement of organizational goals.

Satisfaction Will Not Motivate or Create an Engaged Worker

Eventually almost every organization conducts surveys to determine what has been described as "employee satisfaction." I recently spoke on leadership to a large 50-year-old organization and learned that this organization was in the midst of one of these surveys, the most recent of many. Are these surveys useful? Probably so. They do represent an opportunity for employees to vent their irritants. They give leaders a feel for the major issues of concern that are in their organizations at that particular time. They may provide guidance for management decisions. However, as Peter Drucker noted, they have their limitations. "Employee satisfaction" is not easily defined and cannot be usefully quantified. For example, one cannot say that the fact that 75 percent of employees are satisfied is good, bad or irrelevant, even if a preponderance of workers agreed that "this is a good place to work." I have also seen satisfaction/dissatisfaction studies misused and worded to result in desired responses to various courses of action, either planned or desired. However, Drucker’s biggest criticism was simply that "satisfaction" or "dissatisfaction" responses simply weren’t adequate and did not result in engagement. Drucker noted that even if compensation were an issue, a manager could not buy responsibility with financial rewards. Therefore satisfaction alone could not have a positive impact on creating responsibility and cannot by itself create an engaged employee. Peter Drucker concluded that even a worker’s dissatisfaction with some aspect of his work was far more likely to accomplish this, if it caused him or her to initiate action to improve the situation and he was empowered to do so.

Peter Drucker’s Four Paths to Creating an Engaged Worker

If satisfaction wasn’t the key for creating the engaged worker, what was? Peter Drucker found four ways, and he stressed that these weren’t alternative approaches, but that all four must be used to achieve the desired results.

1. Careful Placement and Promotion

Peter Drucker taught that a systematic, serious and continual effort to put people in the right jobs was a prerequisite for worker engagement. Yet frequently promotions were made with little discussion or any attempt at soliciting the opinion of other managers before making either an assignment to a new job or promotion to a higher level position. For promotion Drucker very much admired the system in the United States military, with its formalized evaluations emphasizing emphasis on performance, review and fairness by promotion by a board, rather than a single individual. In many cases, promotion made the selectee eligible for further assignment, which was also based on accumulated experience and performance over time.

2. Demanding High Standards of Performance

Adequate performance is associated with easy, low demand work. For engagement, workers need to be challenged with more. They need high standards of performance in work that will challenge their abilities. University of Chicago professor Thomas Whistler once described what happened to one of his most brilliant and capable doctoral students. His student had taken his first job after receiving his doctorate at a major corporation, but at a relatively low position. This gifted student had apparently failed to perform to expectations and recognizing this himself, he had resigned. His former student then went to another corporation where he had immediately done so well that within six months he had been elevated to the position of vice president. "The problem," Whistler said, "was not that the job was too big, but that the job was too small. The only mistake my former student made was to accept that job in the first place. My student had this amount of ability (Whistler raised his hand far above his head) and that first job required this amount (Whistler lowed his hand to about his knee level)." Professor Whistler’s former student did a poor or mediocre job when unchallenged by the job, but rose to accomplish the most difficult, sometimes even impossible tasks imaginable when properly challenged.

Dr. Charles Garfield, a psychologist with degrees in both psychology and mathematics found this was particular true of what he called "peak performance individuals." In working with NASA during the first launch of astronauts to the moon, Dr. Garfield was amazed to discover that many individuals who previously had done only mediocre work had suddenly "caught fire" and were doing things that neither they nor anyone else had even thought possible. However, immediately after the moon landings had been accomplished, it was like they "fell back to earth." They returned to performing at their previous, only adequate, levels of performance. They and their superiors treated the whole peak performance and engagement experience as an aberration. Too bad. Properly led, they could have continued doing the impossible far into the future.

However, there is an important point that many miss about setting high standards. Drucker knew this, but many do not, or if they do know them they completely ignore this important point. High standards are not for the worker alone. The leader must set and enforce high standards for himself as well. In other words, the manager must set the example and get out in front in order to make his high standards motivate to true engagement. I have seen corporate executives make rousing speeches about how important a particular action is, exhorting their workers to keep at it until the job gets done, and then wave farewell and head off to play golf. That’s not demanding the high standards Peter Drucker spoke about and will not lead to engagement.

3. Providing Workers With Information

It is essential that the worker be provided with information needed. This is necessary whether the worker desires this information or not. Although Drucker didn’t go into this, if a worker isn’t enthusiastic about acquiring information that the leader feels necessary, it is the manager’s responsibility to explain its importance. Only with this kind of needed information can the worker control, measure how he is doing, and guide himself to reaching the goal and accepting complete responsibility for the task, assignment and job. Moreover, as Drucker explained, it is critical that the worker knows and understands how what he does contributes to the work of the entire organization, and after that how the work of the organization contributes to society. This category of information is what many call "the big picture." Information about the "big picture" helps in acquiring managerial vision, the last of the four ways Drucker identified for the firm to motivate the worker to responsibility and peak performance.

4. Encouraging Workers to Acquire Managerial Vision

Only with managerial vision can the worker feel the pride necessary for peak performance and see his work as contributing to survival or success of the enterprise. However, there are other important reasons that explain why encouraging workers to acquire managerial vision is necessary for peak performance and engagement. The engaged worker frequently operates without oversight or even the possibility of referral to higher authority when the boss is gone. Without managerial vision it is impossible for the worker to operate independently to avoid sub optimization and avoid optimizing what he does at the expense of the whole. Moreover, operating at peak performance frequently requires risk. One takes risk only with self confidence. This means that the self confidence of the worker is also essential for engagement and self-confidence is also encouraged through managerial vision.

So there you have it. The Father of Modern Management said that we can and must develop engagement in our workers. However to accomplish this requires ensuring four actions:

  1. Careful placement and promotion
  2. Demanding high standards of performance
  3. Providing workers with information
  4. Encouraging workers to acquire managerial vision

Adapted from Drucker on Leadership to be published by Jossey-Bass, November 2009