Executive Engagement

Corporations spend vast amounts of money researching “employee engagement” and worrying about how to shift the distribution in one direction or another as part of some sort of change initiative.

There are good and bad, qualitative and quantitative ways of studying employee engagement. You can study it using survey instruments (something my wife does for her clients), and you can study it using various anthropological lenses, such as metaphors of organization or my model in the Gervais Principle.

Here’s the thing though: when organizational change is possible and desirable at all: executive engagement matters a heck of a lot more, and almost nobody studies it formally. If you take care of executive engagement, employee engagement almost (but not quite) takes care of itself.

Engagement and Change

“Engagement” of any sort, and organizational change, cannot and should not be decoupled. This is easiest to see with organizations that have clear operational gears, like the military. You want happy celebrations after victories, you want gritty determination during combat, with some fetishization of pain.  You want a culture of healing, reinforcement of tradition, mourning and recovery when recouping from losses. You want a culture of creative play and innovation when faced with a new kind of adversary.

And yes, when the leadership is inept and corrupt to the point of toxicity, you want potential for dissent and exit too: the non-zero probability of mass desertions and mutinies is part of what keeps militaries healthy.

Working with a single idealized notion of “engagement” is dumb. You want an adaptive culture that shifts in response to operational gear shifting.  When the set of available operational modes is insufficient, you want an organization capable of true reorientation in a Boydian sense: a creative-destructive, high-entropy shift in operational mental models, with an entirely new flavor of engagement accompanying it. This sort of culture shift is like a resurrection. A new gear added to the gearbox.

Let’s take a quick look at employee engagement first to understand this coupling between engagement and change, since it is simpler to understand than executive engagement. I’m going to use my own folk-ethnographic model rather than the industry standard empirical ones.

Change from the Bottom

Employee engagement is usually a part of change-from-the-bottom change strategies. The reason it is more popular is obvious: nobody likes to change, so the people with power — executives — are usually inclined to try and change others first, before reluctantly trying to change themselves.

In my Gervais Principle model, the Loser and Clueless archetypes correspond roughly to intelligently disengaged and stupidly engaged. The Sociopath archetype (capital-S, not the same as the clinical definition) corresponds to intelligently engaged, while stupidly disengaged is layoff-fodder. This model implies a series of management problems of increasing difficulty.

  1. Assessment: Assessing the Loser/Clueless/Sociopath distribution in a business is relatively easy with a few days of conversations and immersion. I’ve gotten to the point, where I can do this “reading” in one largish meeting of a representative sample of employees.
  2. Orienteering: Figuring out which direction to shift it is harder. Naive “culture over strategy” people assume you have to shift engagement in the direction of “happier.” This is not always the sensible direction (if you’ve read the Gervais series, you’ll realize why: “happier” is usually code for more clueless people). Sometimes, the right answer is to move towards “smarter but unhappier.” Contrary to what you might suspect, even shifting wholesale to “smarter and happier” is not an unmitigated good idea, since it means more Sociopaths running amok, moving the organization towards a Game-of-Thrones regime, potential civil wars, and empire-breakups.
  3. Levers: Figuring out how to shift that distribution — identifying levers of change — is even harder. Usually, you have to shift organizational habits all the way from bottom to top. Since this is hard, usually the effort degenerates into introducing more processes to control behavior more finely, rather than doing things to reshape natural, autonomous habits.
  4. Value: Perhaps figuring out whether the distribution is worth shifting is the hardest problem. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about organizational change. Either the seriousness of intent is lacking or the capacity for change is lacking. In the worst cases, both are lacking, and the organization is really looking for change theater. When I think about an organization in deep existential trouble these days, my null hypothesis is that the best option is to dismantle it and (in the case of public for-profit corporations) return the money to the markets. The dark side of market capitalism, private equity, is actually an industry based on pragmatic optimism: the belief that there is an alternative to dismantlement more often than we think.

This AOLV sequence is not the right sequence for addressing the problem, merely the common one. Usually, it makes more sense to go through the sequence in reverse order (VLOA), looping back and forth as necessary. Private equity, as I understand it, tends to play the VLOA nominal sequence rather than the AOLV nominal sequence. But organizations in trouble are often not ready to even contemplate the null hypothesis initially. They need some hope for positive change defined first.  It is too depressing for most humans to begin every effort at change with the question, “is this worth it, or should we just kill ourselves?”

Our tendency to anthropomorphize organizations makes us equate organizational dismantling with suicide. So you usually have to start with the case for living on (this is the reason I reluctantly use the resurrection metaphor). It’s the organizational equivalent of self mind-hacking to finesse collective effort shock: if you actually understood how hard it was going to be, you’d probably give up on Day 1.

In case it isn’t obvious, the null hypothesis is the extreme version of entropic reorientation through creative-destruction: you dissolve into the market and re-emerge in entirely new forms.

Given these game rules, it is not at all surprising that most change initiatives fail (John Kotter at HBS has been preaching this high-failure-rate mantra for decades now, but I think he understates the actual failure rate, since so many “successes” are actually rationalizations).

The picture is almost, but not quite, as dismal with executive engagement.

Change from the Top

Almost nobody studies executive engagement. Especially not the people who should  be studying it: employees and stockholders. Most rank-and-file employees lack basic literacy in executive engagement assessment and have no idea how to evaluate their leaders. They swing among mindless idolatory of charismatic executives, faddish collectivist religions that serve as an alternative to trusting leaders, and stubborn resistance to the more hapless executives.

Most stockholders on the other hand, simply lack enough data on day-to-day leadership behaviors. So whether or not they know how to evaluate executives is moot: shareholder activism necessarily operates somewhat blind.

Both these groups must deal with the added burden of penetrating the consciously scripted and enacted perception-management theaters (including book-keeping theater) put on for their benefit by the executive class.

That leaves executive engagement as primarily an exercise in executive introspection, since executives themselves are the only ones with the right mix of resources, visibility, incentives and skills to actually work on it. This is the reason the consulting industry exists. When it rises above pandering and flattering the self-images of executives, one way or another, it works to help in this honest introspection process.

So how do you do this?

Executives — a group I’ll loosely define as people with Vice President or higher positions, with both internal and external facing responsibilities and at least one layer of management between them and individual contributors — cannot be studied easily with surveys or statistical models. This is because cross-company aggregates are not particularly useful to study. Much of the effectiveness of executives depends on senior-team conditions at a given company. So the relevant comparison group is too small, and too uniquely put together,  in terms of the circumstances shaping the effectiveness of any individual.

So you have to resort to more qualitative/anthropological methods to understand executive engagement.

Executive Leadership Game Rules

There are a few key things to understand about executives. These constitute the game rules of the executive world:

  1. Executive leadership is by definition an infinite game in the Carse sense. If the senior leadership team is not at a rough consensus that the game is worth continuing to play, there is no game. The organization is in countdown mode.
  2. Every executive by definition has a streak of Sociopath in him/her (in the capital-S sense I defined in the Gervais Principle), that was expressed at least once before in their career. That’s how they got to where they are. If that inner Sociopath is dead, the executive will not last long. The inner Sociopath needs to be continuously improving, and re-emerge when the occasion demands it.
  3. Managing direct reports and organizations over which they have formal control (inward+downward responsibility) reasonably well, and almost on autopilot on good days, is table stakes. It should also be something an executive does well even on their worst, most disengaged days. If an executive cannot do that, there is no point studying his/her engagement. He or she needs to be eased out.
  4. Managing sideways and upwards at a baseline level — not necessarily enough to win tactical C-suite battles or outmaneuver peers all the time, but enough to not crash and burn due to everyday demands — is another table-stakes criterion.
  5. Engagement is really all about how an executive approaches and handles their outward facing responsibilities. The ones that determine whether they are a net positive in the evolution of the company in the marketplace.

The reason executive engagement is all about effectiveness of outward-facing behaviors (which can be completely invisible from the outside) is that those are the ones where executives need creativity, and cannot expect to operate via pure Cartmanesque authoritah. They have to deal with the unpredictability of the environment and the marketplace craftiness of individuals over whom they have no direct influence.

“Head in the game” is the colloquial phrase for executive engagement. The game in question is not an internal game. It’s the external game.

So the rules actually define a Darwinian environment for executive leadership. One that only exists and is worth playing in if there is value left in the market that can be gotten at through some net intelligence and non-random maneuvering emerging from the executive suite. Otherwise you might as well shut down the company and return the wealth to the market. The null hypothesis at the executive-suite level is that the senior leadership does not add any non-random intelligence to the maneuvering.

If the leadership team is not collectively adding some intelligence to the marketplace maneuvering, and reshaping the natural trajectory created by inertia and market forces, all the internal Game-of-Thrones cleverness it exhibits internally is irrelevant. The organization will not have any advantage over a leaderless collective.

Capability and Desire Surplus

An executive history with a few Sociopath moves tells you that the individual in question can break out of closed/finite game universes in creative ways, and potentially contribute to this non-zero-sum net-non-random maneuvering towards greater value.

The ability to manage downwards even on low-engagement days speaks to a certain desire for power and a capacity for emotional self-regulation.

Without that raw desire, there is no source of net-positive energy available to energize the organization from the top. Without the self-regulation, there is no way to prevent negative energy from ruining things. Or to put it another way, an executive must be putting out more positive-biased emotional signals than he or she is taking in.

The primary challenge in managing downwards on your bad days is not checking out or letting your  unfiltered emotions overflow and mess up operations below you (unless you intend them to as a conscious tactic, something I covered in some of the essays in Be Slightly Evil).

The skills you have beyond what you need for baseline C-suite survival, and the emotional energy you have left over from managing downwards, determine how “engaged” you can be in the executive game. How much “head” you have left to put in the game.

I think of this as a capability-and-desire surplus. Without such a surplus, there is no potential for engagement. The existence of a surplus though, does not guarantee engagement.

Patterns of Disengagement

Engaged executives are all alike. Every disengaged executive is disengaged in his/her own way.

An engaged executive is simply someone who has enough skills and emotional energy left over from managing downwards and sideways  to actually think about doing some real creative leadership. How they choose to deploy this surplus determines how steadily engaged they can be. Smart deployment of the surplus creates a virtuous cycle that increases organizational vigor. Dumb deployment triggers a vicious cycle that drains it.

This leaves us with typical patterns of disengagement (assuming they’re overall inclined to stay rather than leave). Here are the ones I’ve observed and documented over the years. Each has an obvious but painful solution.

  1. Leadering instead of leading. I wrote a post about this phenonemon, which is basically what happens when a leader buys his/her own bullshit, in the specific form of the theater put on for the benefit of employees or stockholders. Solution: get out of theater activities, break the addiction to playing whatever role you play.
  2. Game of Thrones: Getting into a civil war mindset where the maneuvering around peers becomes the main focus of attention and an addiction. Solution: cede a bunch of internal battles, create some reserve energy to create a narrow external win with which to win the war collectively. Let others have a few internal victories, and move the game towards non-zero-sum regimes. Business is not war even if it sometimes feels like it. The leadership team is actually playing for the same side. That’s not a feel-good sentiment. It’s a truth that can get you killed if you ignore it.
  3. Poor Little Rich CxO: Feeling like a trapped and helpless animal with no friends, no support and no way out. This is somebody who hasn’t kept their Sociopath skills evolving fast enough to play at higher levels of the game. So they regress to Loser or Clueless mental states. Solution: this is what you’re being paid the big bucks to handle. Take the best deal you can engineer and quit if you can’t handle it.
  4. Checking Out: Going Bartleby at the executive level is like watching a ship crash into an iceberg in slow motion. Unlike an individual Loser at the rank-and-file level, if somebody doesn’t intervene, a checked-out executive can take down a large organization as they go down themselves. Occasionally, other enlightened executives let this process run long enough to create an excuse to get rid of the problem peer, but not long enough to irretrievably damage the organization. Solution: hope the intervention team lets you go gently.
  5. Emotional spillover amplifier: When executives fail at emotional self-regulation and the spillover is sideways or upwards instead of downwards, they become tagged as problem-multipliers rather than problem-solvers. Pariahs in the constant game of alliance formation and breakups that drives executive work. Nobody wants to be your ally because all you do is add FUD to any coalition. People start to work around you, then they isolate you, finally they get rid of you. Solution: get therapy, take baby steps towards actually helping a peer solve one of their problems with no thought to your own advantage. Start learning how to create wealth rather than just issuing debt in the favor economy.
  6. Abstraction: retreating from all forms of direct work by labeling them “low-level details” is perhaps the most pernicious kind of executive disengagement. This leaves reports alternately without sufficient direction, or burdened with the bureaucratic plumbing *cough* holacracy *cough* required to work with your abstraction-based management “model.” Ironically, this is often over-compensation for insecurity about lack of low-level skills. To earn the “respect” of skilled individual contributors, the executive tries to design a “process” around their own strengths, whose primary purpose is to show off their procedural prowess to people who make them feel insecure. Except that the skill in question is not a real skill but a cargo-cult ritual skill. In other words, abstraction is how bad leaders try to turn leadership into something resembling an individual contribution skilled role. Solution: The person has been over-promoted. Move them down or out to where they can have an actually useful process to play with. They need the emotional satisfaction of “doing something.”
  7. Playing Victim: This is a more vicious-minded version of feeling sorry for yourself (#3). Not only do you feel like a trapped, lonely animal with no friends or support, you feel besieged by a particular enemy or set of enemies who are oppressing you. The classic sign is alternately whining about, and attacking, a particular group. This can develop into an obsession, where you spend a lot of your time simply stalking your “enemies” (who often have no idea that you see them as such). Often this “enemy” is a person or group they have no everyday way of influencing or engaging. Solution: see #3.

There is a whole bunch of other patterns, and if you read the business press with these mental models in mind, the world of senior management becomes revealed as an ongoing drama of executive engagement and disengagement. You become slowly better at predicting who is about to crash and who is on the way to engaged control and authoritah.

It is better than TV.

Most employees learn these things in very domain-specific ways at companies where they spend 3+ years. Usually, they fail to abstract out the right lessons and port and apply them to new groups of executives at new companies. Instead they attribute everything to individual personalities rather than to the peculiar circumstances of executive work.

Can you read and intervene in executive engagement problems? Yes, but that’s a story for another day.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. There is a whole bunch of other patterns, and if you read the business press with these mental models in mind, the world of senior management becomes revealed as an ongoing drama of executive engagement and disengagement. You become slowly better at predicting who is about to crash and who is on the way to engaged control and authoritah.

    It is better than TV.

    Yeah, sounds like lots of fun.

    There is one thing I spotted in the article you just glossed over. What are the “smart moves” which make people unhappy? I could think of layoffs or wage cuts making people unhappy, but I’m not sure those count as “smart moves”? I would attribute them to a rough and tough entrepreneur personality, which may have gone out of sight, just like violent strikes or other industrial actions from the early days.

    • Thin out clueless layers and stress out the loser layers.

      See for example, Amazon’s model

      • That’s crass. Thanks for linking the article as an illustration.

        • Still got it, *fist pump*

          • It’s a terrific/terrifying piece of 21st century steam punk. Being morally disgusting doesn’t preclude intellectual enjoyment through conceptual crossovers. Reader reactions on the NYT page where expectedly compassionate and also raised the “social question” which was a hot topic throughout the 19th century, which eventually led to unions, social democracy and later also to communist revolutions.

            A little time bomb exploded and litters its debris. We see archaic fragments of early modernism, a “machine” which assimilates human flesh, pieces of scientific management with all its metricisation and objectivity, early 20th century social darwinism and the social climate and architecture of the Neue Sachlichkeit, a corporate catechism to raise and grow true believers, the sectarianism of scientology combined with a fascist athleticism. Finally a boss which haunts employees like a Freudian father, inducing guilt in them. I have little doubt that all those meticulously assembled pieces work harmoniously together to create a great success story.

      • neuse river sailor says

        Here’s a specific example of a smart but unhappiness-making move. Find an intelligent, checked-out loser and assign him some fairly difficult task that will require him to develop some new skill. Tell him you are doing it for his own sake, to make him more valuable to the company. But don’t give him any more money, or status, or any kind of reward. Maybe promise that next year you will consider giving him a raise – in other words, do this for me now and I will gladly repay you with a 99 cent McDonald’s cheeseburger on Tuesday. The company gets the benefit without any cost, and the loser does it because even though it is irritating to get raped, it’s not much worse than sitting at his desk surfing the web for eight hours a day.

  2. So your engagement dashboard would show the percentage of focus on different voices against the shifting loser/clueless/sociopath tendencies toward each one?

  3. In reviewing the list I think you missed a pattern that is fairly common in smaller businesses is the leader who engages in the day to day activities and ignores looking ‘ahead’. Michael E. Gerber wrote about small business being run by “technicians”, doing what they know (be that plumbing or computer programming), while not applying long term business sense to the problem. I have seen in several instances of this in smaller businesses, even businesses with 50+ people.

    The tricky thing with this is, when a company is sufficiently small, it maybe reasonable for an executive to wear many hats, but as the company grows, the VP+ you described doesn’t grow with it. What I’m not sure of is if you would define this as disengagement or is it a failure to align your engagement with new business realities? How does this fit the model or is it outside this particular model?