From better to best — employee disengagement and the fine art of pretence

Helen Blunden recently exposed the elephant in the room — employee disengagement and the “fine art of pretence” — which strongly resonated with my own experience and observations. I thought that I’d add some extra thoughts to the discussion.

Employee disengagement is a massive cultural problem in Australia business with more than 70% Australians “ambivalent about or completely disengaged with their jobs”. This has occurred over the last 20 years for a number of reasons, in my opinion:

  • lack of competition;
  • disruption fatigue;
  • Boomer resentment and envy;
  • Feeling unwanted and fear of ageism; and,
  • the virus of the fine art of filtering.

A lack of competition directly creates complacency (see Australia does not need more ideas). It also leads to misplaced elitism as executives gravitate to thinking that they are smarter than their global peers because their oligopolistic rent-extraction is yielding better than global benchmark performance. Customers are the losers, of course.

Australian bankers have a reputation of seeing themselves as elite, since they perform at the top tier of profitability. The average Net Promoter Score rating for these same oligopolistic banks is minus 23.

Less obvious is how we have bred a generation of middle managers who, in the absence of clear clues about how to adapt to the constant re-orgs and to being digitally disrupted, have refined their real day “job” of into just trying to keep things together, in order to keep generating profit for shareholders and bonuses for themselves.

There is also the baby boomer legacy which hobbles any urge to take a risk unless out of complete fear. The massive rump of middle managers who are following the retirement of their baby boomer colleagues have a heightened sense of awareness, to the point of resentment, of the “easy ride” the Boomers have had to a comfortable retirement. Current middle managers believe that their working life is hell compared to the Boomers, and the Boomers have effectively thrown them a hospital pass.

That’s the core of the resentment, and then, in addition there is the matter of “getting what they got”. The Boomers managed to hang on for grim death and managed to get out with an average $1m house, $1m in superannuation, and $0.5m in vested company shares.

The sense of entitlement and financial envy among the batch of middle managers following the now-retiring Boomers is palpable.

They want at least what the baby boomers got — a ticket to a nice retirement by riding the system. That’s the purpose that drives their day to day actions, which are essentially about corporate survival by avoiding risks and bad news. Those who see themselves surviving another 10 or 15 years in the system want at least a $3m house, $2m in superannuation, and $1m in vested company shares. It’s this 3–2–1 which drives and amplifies their refinement of workplace disengagement into the “fine art of pretence”.

The post-boomers are also feeling another pressure, from the Gen Y’ers and Millennials. Not directly, but from the focus of their employees on doing everything possible to change things to attract the new wave of young employees.

Some of ways employers are trying to build a culture specifically to attract and retain Gen Y’ers and Millennials make the current middle managers feel decidedly uncomfortable. Even if they understand the necessity, they don’t necessarily see why they should have to sacrifice their “usual” working habits and environment. They feel that they have no choice and that no one will listen to them anyway as they are not the future of the firm.

In addition, they feel a sense of resentment that many of those above them only pay lip service to these changes and go on working how they have always worked, all aided and abetted by the fine art of filtering.

And finally, there is the “fine art of filtering”. We live in an social age, an age of apparent need for authenticity and transparency.

However we know that CEOs in our major Australian businesses still actively choose to surround themselves with messaging and communications gatekeepers. They instruct gatekeepers to filter all the messages going out from the “Office of the CEO” and coming into their office.

David Thodey, ex-CEO of Telstra, mentioned this precise point in a recent interview about why he found Yammer to be refreshing as he could cut through the filtering. He said:

Unfortunately, unlike the occupant of this penthouse, the CEO must always wear these special glasses with rose tinting, which nicely filters out the seedy areas, the traffic and makes sure that the sun is always shining.

You might well ask why, as CEO, he found it so institutionalised and so ingrained that he couldn’t eliminate the filtering. Reality is that these functions have a life of their own and are very hard to kill.

We still see new CEOs still building monuments to themselves by creating walled-in offices as big as a gridiron field and guarded by a row of personal assistants. Of course the corporate mantra is all about the benefits of open offices and shared workspaces.

We see them appearing at staff briefings closely coached by PR staffers. We see them mouthing the “messages”. And we often see them living a carefully screened-off corporate life which belies the same messages.

We see the “customer first” days where everyone is to call a “random” customer and ask “how they are doing and what we can do for them”. But of course PR & Communications has carefully filtered the list of “random” customers and especially those given to the CEO to call. (And even then it still goes horribly wrong when customers go berserk about things that have been lost in the system — hence foiling PR’s careful plans!).

It’s all so weird, because everyone knows it’s a doctored list — so everyone then knows that playing the game is more important than getting the job done properly.

We see the “customer-first” CEOs who discover a complete cock-up on the customer first days or via call-back radio and then set out on a frantic path of action to clean up the mess. Everyone gets hauled in and told to work as a team and to sort this thing out. No matter that the systems are incompatible and the departments are siloed by the hoards of middle managers playing the fine art of pretence.

Of course every high-profile customer problem can be solved with the CEO’s intervention — fear always works. But the message it sends through the organisational underground is “do whatever it takes to get him off our back” and life will go back to normal.

The result of the filtering is endemic and pathological — it is a virus which kills transparency and authenticity and those who survive are those very people who have refined and raised the art of disengagement to that higher level.

They have learnt by example that you need to be careful what you say, you need to screen things in and out, you need to hide behind lackeys in your collegial communication. And you need to make sure that your boss thinks that the sun is always shining.

They see daily demonstrations from the executive leadership that appearances count for a lot more than reality and a lot more than any espoused greater purpose. They fully understand that supporting the local kids charity is just a marketing exercise and that supporting the “safety bike ride” is just because a bunch of men in the executive group like lycra. If they liked yachting it would be a “safety yacht race” in a nice location.

Pretence and staying on message counts for everything.

The middle manager survivors have learnt the finest art of pretence — from better to best.

The role of HR, PR & Corporate Communications have all sprung from a need, and indeed they are crucial team members of culture change programs. It seems, like IT Projects, they’ve tended to develop a life of their own and grown into being ingrained parts of the problem instead of the solution.

That’s understandable given that culture pervades all functions and they are the same humans as everyone else — just trying to refine their pretense and survive. In fact they are in a more invidious position as they are instruments of the disillusionment and disengagement, while at the same time more conscious of it because of their very nature of their roles (and the type of people who fill them).

While there is always the allure of power — to become the next Peta Credlin — that path is only available to an elite few.

Thus, everyone else has to perfect higher levels of pretence than on average across the organisation just to endure daily work life.

Ironically, this often makes them appear to be less aware and more like unconnected human cogs in the wheel of the machine whereas it is fundamentally a survival mechanism. Like most police, they have to become desensitised to exist and this is often covered up by a kind of self-righteousness. You can’t help but hope that they’d do something else, for the sake of their kids.

Technology will triumph — especially technology related to the API Economy, data science and machine learning.

Thanks to this type of technology the legacy oligopolistic dinosaurs will die in their current form.

Oligopolies with large numbers of middle managers, and who are susceptible to the mentioned technologies, will be most susceptible. That puts almost the entire Australian Financial Services Industry right in the target zone.

If they retain their current hold on the legislative processes and regulation, and competition laws, it will take longer. If they lose their grip on the rules and regulations which stifle the challengers, notably the #fintechs, then it will happen sooner. The back-up plan is to join with and swallow the #fintechs but only the naïve #fintechs will fall for that, and there will be many who are not.

It is only a matter of 5 to 10 years — if they retain control of legislation as at present it will be 10 years. But then they will fall harder. If genuine competition and access is facilitated by new rules then in 5 years there will be a significant impact on those that have mastered the art of pretence. Of course those poor souls below them will suffer first, but inevitably middle management will take a big hit as well, because they are simply not needed.

There is a chance that the power of 1 could reform some of the ills, in the best tradition of working out loud and following perhaps the lead of a single person from within the Australian Tax Office. John Stepper in this post How Change Spreads observes that change “almost always begins with a single person saying ‘I want to try something different this time’”.

Should this happen it will mean a more purposeful and less brutal transformation to the new world of technology disruption. Let’s hope that’s the case.

Or, follow this advice from a real expert and build a weatherproof company.

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I’m Walter. I write articles on fitness, health, and motivation for men and women over 50. However, curiosity is my main distinction. I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced a bolt of lightning hitting me in Korea, crash landing in a 747 (LAX), being sucked into a thundercloud at 4,000m in a sailplane (Australia), jumping freefall from 3,000m on my 1st ever parachute jump (Florida), and two different lethal cancers. In 2000 I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes which sparked my interested in exercise, nutrition, motivation and cognitive fitness. University qualified in mathematical statistics, and computing science (Masters); have a professional diploma in sports nutrition; certified social media strategist. Feel free to message/email me with any comments, questions, or collaboration ideas. Blog: walteradamson.com

Optimistically curious, 70+ trail runner; 2X cancer; diabetic; Click “FOLLOW” for living longer better tips | Weekly Newsletter 👉 wja.is/newsletter

Optimistically curious, 70+ trail runner; 2X cancer; diabetic; Click “FOLLOW” for living longer better tips | Weekly Newsletter 👉 wja.is/newsletter