By Daniel Hunter

In a new research report CEOs from a cross-section of UK business express a belief that a lack of engagement among the country’s bosses may be having a harmful effect on British business.

Some of those interviewed talked about the culture and system that operates within the nation’s businesses being a barrier to engagement, quoting outdated styles of leadership and the system’s focus on short-term results. Some also believe that hierarchy within organisations prevents honest conversations between employees and management.

The report, Engagement through CEO Eyes, was conducted by Ashridge Business School, on behalf of Engage for Success, a Government-sponsored movement on employee engagement. It involved in-depth interviews with 16 independently sourced CEOs from public, private and not-for-profit organisations.

The research sought to get under the skin of the CEO, to find out how leaders define engagement, what stops them from engaging, the factors that get in the way and why engagement is not happening more in the UK? With only around 1 in 3 UK workers being actively engaged, there is a lot of untapped potential which could make a big difference to the performance of the economy.

Amy Armstrong, Research Fellow at Ashridge, who undertook the research, said: "Through engagement, we can release the potential in all of us at work and with estimates of up to £26 billion being lost to the UK economy because of dis-engagement every year, it is critical that our business leaders recognise their role here.”

Stephen Dando, Operating Partner at Bain Capital and Chair of the group who commissioned the report, said: "Tomorrow’s CEOs may look very different, which is likely to have significant implications for how we identify and select leaders.”

In the report, current leadership models, which value attributes such as control and toughness, were described by some of the CEOs interviewed as deficient. Also, some talked about how command and control models of leadership are flawed, as is the all-knowing, all-powerful ‘hero’ leader.

Instead, some called for different ways of leading, where people, not just financial results, become the heart of organisational performance, particularly given the differing expectations of a multi-generational workforce.

One CEO in the report said: “I think big corporations have got a massive challenge if they think they’re going to retain talented people through command and control and not including them into decision-making and creative processes early on.”

However, a number made the point that they find it difficult to lead in an engaging way because, in the current climate, viability and survival has become their sole focus. Others believe that this makes it easier to ignore engagement, while some felt it was an excuse for poor leadership behaviours.

CEO’s recognise themselves as a potential barrier to engagement, that is to say some attributes within a CEO’s personality lead to disengaging leadership behaviours, such as acting in self-interest or an inability to show personal vulnerability.

Some leaders from large corporates voiced a fear that engaging styles of leadership within their area of the business would be viewed as “weak” or “holiday camp” leadership by other parts of the organisation. Some talked about how prevailing ideas of ‘good’ leadership are so entrenched, that experimental ways of leading are viewed with scepticism.

Ultimately, the report concludes, through engagement, there is a better way to work that releases the full capabilities of people at work, to enable organisational growth and ultimately economic growth for Britain. So, could it be that the catalyst British business is really missing to compete more strongly is CEO Engagement with its employees?

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