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A Leadership Assumption That Can Kill Employee Engagement

If you think you can, you probably will. You’ll find a way if you have the motivation.  If you think you can’t you likely won’t. When it comes to solving problems, attitude is everything and how we think about a problem is the first step to having a positive attitude. We all know these truths.   If a leader wants to have optimum employee engagement in their organization, they must evaluate their assumptions about people and problems and decide if those assumptions will support engagement or kill it. A leader’s assumptions can be either a powerful negative force or a powerful positive force for engagement.

No long ago I watched Jason Day, the Australian professional golfer, win the Well Fargo Open golf tournament.  He has a very useful and obvious habit. He closes his eyes just before each shot. Supposedly, he visualizes exactly what he hopes to do with the shot. He clearly understands that how one thinks about a situation will influence the behavior and that behavior will influence the result.

I have created a leadership development process called THINK-BEHAVE-IMPROVE. How a leader thinks will influence their behaviors and the behaviors of employees.  Similarly, how a leader behaves will influence an organization’s ability to improve.

At a recent client visit, the senior team was looking for ways to elevate the customer experience.  We were discussing issues identified during an employee focus group.  According to this focus group, the highest priority to improve customer experience was improving the ability of employees to handle customer calls.  Calls were being transferred multiple times and calls were being lost. It is widely accepted that optimum employee engagement is required to achieve optimum customer experience. (Adamsky, 2016)  The senior team was compelled to address these telephone issues.

During the discussion, the General Manager piped up in a frustrated tone “We have told the employees multiple times how to handle these calls. They just need to do it.”  A leader’s statements reveal their assumptions.  I asked this leader, “So, you think they are purposely not following your instructions and process?”  he said, “No, no, no.  That is not what I am saying. I just think they don’t get it.”  I asked, “So are they incapable or incompetent?”

One of the most damaging, and common, assumption is to think an employee’s behavior is a root cause of a problem. Employee behavior is rarely a root cause.  It is usually a symptom. In my example above, the General Manager assumes that the employees “don’t get it” because there is something wrong with those employees.  This assumption is not only damaging to employee engagement, it also prevents a recognition of the real root causes of the problem.  Instead of thinking there is something wrong with the employees, a leader must ask a series of process questions to uncover why the employees, “…don’t get it.” 

Instead of assuming a flaw in the employees, it is much more useful and healthy to assume there are flaws in the processes and methods used to provide instructions. Most often people who avoid embracing a change will have very good reason why. (Lahey, 2001)  It is a leader’s job to uncover those reasons.  They can do it by asking great questions.

Here are some process questions that can help us identify root causes:

  • What can we learn from this?
  • What process was used for training? Do we need to improve our process?
  • What are all the other factors which affect the employees’ ability to “get it?” and who is responsible for those factors? How can we improve those factors?
  • Did the employee not understand the instructions? What else do they need to understand?
  • Who is responsible for explaining the instructions? Did we communicate clearly and frequently enough?
  • What are the benefits employees will enjoy by not making the changes? How can we create other benefits more compelling to employees?
  • Do the employees understand why the change is so important and have we explained those reasons correctly and frequently?
  • What would the employees recommend for improvement?

An assumption that “they don’t get it” will lead to behaviors and/or communication which kills engagement. After all, who wants to be thought of as incapable, incompetent or purposely sabotaging a process?  When employees pick up on that assumption, engagement is dead and innovation to identify and remove the root causes is missing.  It’s tragic. The death of engagement and destruction of innovation with one assumption!

Check out the interview on C-Suite Best Seller TV to learn more about how to stop leadership malpractice and replace the typical performance review: https://www.c-suitetv.com/video/best-seller-tv-wally-hauck-stop-the-leadership-malpractice/

Wally Hauck, PhD has a cure for the “deadly disease” known as the typical performance appraisal.  Wally holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.   Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP.  Wally has a passion for helping leaders let go of the old and embrace new thinking to improve leadership skills, employee engagement, and performance.

For more, read on: https://c-suitenetwork.com/advisors/advisor/wally-hauck/


Adamsky, H. (2016). From Employee Engagement to Employee Advocacy: A Natural Progression. Aberdeen.

Lahey, R. K. (2001). The Real Reason People Won’t Change. Harvard Business Review.

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