If your interests lie in the area of leadership in the digital era or employee engagement, I urge you to watch the brilliant 10 minute TED talk given by thought leader Charlene Li called Giving up control: Leadership in the digital era.

The talk starts with the startling statistic taken from Gallop research which reveals that worldwide, employee engagement stands at just 13%, and despite companies’ best interests to address this problem, that number has barely budged over the past decade.

In her talk, Charlene discusses the journey that successful parents go on to guide their teenagers into adulthood, eventually saying to them “I know you can do this now on your own”.  She poignantly adds “I think it’s time for us to learn how to do this at work as well”.

She goes on to point out how hierarchies “work great if you manufacture widgets”, where the information and expertise you need to make decisions reside only at the top.  But in our modern, digitally connected world, efficiency pales against the need for innovation, for change and for speed.  The people who have to make decisions and choices around all of these changes reside at the edges and the bottom of the organisation. Leaders today have to trust that those employees will use good judgement when they have to make decisions that in the past would have been sent up the ladder for somebody else to decide.  In order for those employees to do this, they have to be able to have two-way, non-hierarchical conversations throughout the organisation to gather the information needed to make those decisions and to take action.

This is not some future, utopian world, she says.  This is the world that exists today.

Employee engagement isn’t just about employees talking with each other.  It’s about them being heard and their voice making a difference on an open communication platform.

But, she points out, there’s a big barrier in the way on the road to employees being given a voice. The managers that sit between the executives at the front lines, resist this new openness because they feel they are losing control. These middle managers can be a big obstacle to change, but they can also be a crucial part of the solution.

So, what can be done to address this problem?

Charlene Li identifies 3 things that can be actively done to help to improve employee engagement:

Employee engagement creative a culture of sharing1.    Create a culture of sharing

In hierarchies, layers are designed to filter information up and to push information down.  We were taught that to be successful we had to hoard information.  But in a networked organisation, the opposite is true. Managers become facilitators, they accelerate the speed and spread of information throughout the organisation.


Employee engagement - practice followership2.    Practice followership

The size and quality of your network determines how much power and influence you have, not your job title.  One of the key things is that when people share with each other they develop a relationship.

Managers and executives can take advantage of these relationships to actively create a network of ‘followers’.  These followers who have built a working relationship with this decision-maker then feel more engaged to champion the implementation of projects in their own departments, becoming catalysts for successful implementation.  If middle managers were encouraged to develop their own followership then, for example, if their titles were to change or even disappear altogether, they would still retain that power, that influence and that effectiveness.

Employee engagement - make meaningful decisions3.    How to use networks to make meaningful decisions

Employees and managers are clever.  They are not going to engage unless they know that their engagement is going to result in both the organisation and themselves as individuals moving forward.

But how do you get these employees to engage in the first place?  The key is to get the decision-makers, the middle managers and executives involved. Using networks which give the employees a voice and then making critical decisions as a result of that networking is the only way to gain traction.

So, above are Charlene’s 3 ways to lead in the digital era to help to improve employee engagement.  And they strongly involve change.

We all know that implementing change within organisations doesn’t happen overnight.

But what the 3 points have in common is that they require us to give up the traditional notion that power and influence comes from being in control.  It’s not an easy idea to let go of, but just as when we were teenagers and our parents had to let go in order for us to grow, we need to empower and engage our employees, let go and trust that they will do the right thing.  13% employee engagement isn’t something to be proud of, and isn’t something to hold on to. We need to change. This is the only way that we, as leaders, are going to be able to harness our employee’s passion, energy and creativity. And successfully harnessing those things will surely lead to increased productivity, efficiency and improved business performance.

To view Charlene Li’s TED talk, click here.

Sign up for the latest insights