Freedom to Choose

19 December 2007 John Smythe

Sometimes the answers to improving business performance aren't found in the boardroom, but from the company frontline. John Smythe from Engage for Change tells CEO how including employees in company decisions can boost productivity.

When I interviewed Allan Leighton, chairman of Britain's Royal Mail, as research for my book on employee engagement, he described how following the postal service’s controversial step of scrapping the second post, it turned to its staff to work out the implementation.

In other words, he went to the people who had to make it work, extolling his personal philosophy of how "in organisational change it’s the what down and the how up".

Most employees hear about new strategies, change, post-merger integration or everyday decisions only after management have made their decisions, which are then communicated through the usual array of top-down communication channels.

People on the receiving end often feel powerless and sometimes scared. Rarely does this style of decision making engage them - when was the last time a 'cascade briefing' caused excitement?

Yet leaders, whether bosses or supervisors, hang on to hierarchy and power because they think that being the boss means being right and making all the decisions.


Increasingly, organisations are engaging their employees in everyday decision making in a charge to drive performance.

But there is also much hype around the idea of employee engagement. Walk into many companies and you will be presented with a long list of factors which claim to cause engagement. Many are just re-packaged employee satisfaction surveys with an added action process, designed in the hope that employee engagement will increase.

During my research I became a temporary organisational fellow with management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, looking into the meaning and value of employee engagement (among 59 organisations worldwide). We charged ourselves with deciding what was the single most influential cause or driver of engagement.


We concluded that the primary driver to engage senior staff and employees is the appetite and ability of leaders to engage their subordinates in everyday decision making. In other words, to share their power and reach down to those who deliver the service on the frontline.

"The old exchange of security for loyalty between employer and employee is dead."

Sharing power as a leader means admitting that you don’t know all the answers and being able to move forward. For Jon Hargreaves, MD of Scottish Water, employee engagement is a leadership philosophy first and a set of tools and skills second.

It can be argued that we have been here before with empowerment in the 1990s. What is different this time around is the old exchange of security for loyalty between employer and employee is dead. Instead, the best and brightest, and everyone else for that matter, will move on until they find a culture where their creativity and challenge is welcome.


Leaders who engage the right groups will benefit both in terms of quality decisions and speed of execution.

The engaging leader is not handing over power to the people in a Marxist fashion, he or she must set direction and govern dialogue in a convincing way, always knowing when to close down the engagement.

In conclusion, I would make these points about employee engagement:

  • The business situation and the history of the employer/employee relationship will influence the way employees respond
  • Personal and corporate approaches to employee engagement are often impulsive, shaped by past experiences
  • The primary cause or driver of engaged employees is power sharing - reach down to give work to the people within a well governed framework
  • Employees are closer to the work and to customers – they have valuable insight
  • A leadership philosophy/social process first, a set of tools second
  • Leaders need to take risks to share power/‘citizens’ need to take the risk to implicate themselves
  • Past behaviour is the best predictor of the future – it takes practice
  • There will be pockets of excellence already
  • Top leadership are the blockers, not middle management
  • Highest performance comes from engaging people in painful decisions as well as growth opportunities

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