The disappearance of engagement and passion

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.  

For centuries, entrepreneurship has been motivated by craftsmen’s passion. In less than one century this kind of entrepreneurship disappeared. The fascination of making new things still can be found incidentally in small and medium-sized businesses operating. In large companies a new generation of managers has taken possession of the boardroom, who are motivated by financial incentives in the first place. This applies to most employees too. Let’s face the facts.


Each year, Gallup collects data worldwide about the engagement of the workforce in companies and organizations with more than 50 employees. These are characterized as ‘engaged’, ‘actively not engaged’ and ‘passively not engaged’. The table below provides an overview, showing that in any country only a minority of this group is ‘actively engaged’. This means that they are enthusiastic about their work, their colleagues, praise their company, and do not worry if they have to work overtime. 

Percentages of actively engaged (green), passively not engaged (gray) and actively not engaged (black) of employees in different parts of the world.

Lack of engagement correlates strongly with the ‘low strain’ character of many jobs, but also with the management style of most bosses.

Companies want to increase the engagement of their employees as the level of engagement correlates with productivity. Therefore, worldwide they spend billions on this goal and to train managers to support it. Without much result.

Engagement is not enough

According to John Hagel, managers are heading in the wrong direction by focusing on engagement alone. After studying individuals who are exceptionally productive in a wide range of professions, he concluded that what they have in common is ‘the passion of an explorer’. 

Passion does not mean that these people are overly gifted, diligent, hardworking or smart. Instead, they are determined to achieve their goal in a certain domain, are excited when faced with challenges, and seek collaboration with others who can support them. Passion is the main driver of entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, the number of employees with passion is even lower than the number of engaged ones. The latest US survey of passionate employees shows that up to 13% of the workforce (managers included) have each of the three aforementioned attributes. An additional 39% have one or two attributes. 64% of all employees and managers are neither engaged nor passionate, or in other words they lack the essence of entrepreneurial behaviour.

This lack of engagement and passion entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship is understandable. The 20th century companies have organized their production according to principles of scalable efficiency and a system of planning and control, top-down assessment based on performance indicators and quarterly reporting to the next boss in hierarchy. Consequently, room for initiative is limited, neither expected nor desired. At the same time making money became the ultimate objective of most companies and the top management made large efforts to satisfy the shareholders and their own monetary ambitions.

Self-organization and interpreneurship

There are strong arguments for self-organization and -management by employees, just think of the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. However, little research has been done into the relationship between self-management, entrepreneurial behaviour and performance. The recently published HOW-report has changed this. Research in 17 countries (among others the Netherlands, Germany, the USA, India, Russia, China and Japan) showed that organizations based on self-government performed better in all respects.

The superiority of self-governed organizations. The gray bar refers at organizations in which employee’s influence depend on their rank and authority. The black organisations are the dominant type, based on hierarchical assignment of tasks, planning and control and the red ones are based on self-government.

The superiority of the scores of self-governed organizations is clear. The HOW-report has delved into the distinguishing characteristics of employees of these companies. These are: more trust, willingness to take risk, celebration of success as collective achievement, collaboration and mutual assistance, sharing information, and respect for personal judgement. 

In order to survive, companies should digest these data, but managers will not be happy with them. They undermine their position and huge financial benefits.  Time will learn whether the many new start-ups are wiser, or whether they become ‘takers’ instead of ‘makers’ as well, to use Joseph Stiglitz words.

Will Self-management replace managerialism in higher education?

Onderwijs - schaalvergroting ROC Leiden
The megalomaniac building that paved the way of a Dutch educational institution into bankruptcy 

In the eighties of the 20th century managers started taking over power in educational institutions[1]. Their ambitions were towering: More well paying foreign students, higher scores at international rankings, monitoring systems to control the duration of studies, institutionalized quality control systems. Numerous mergers, ostensibly for reasons of efficiency, impressive buildings and private drivers fuelled the egos of the new managerial class. New Public Management offered the exquisite administrative instruments they needed: integral management, hierarchical leadership and performance indicators to control middle management, teachers and students.

Meanwhile, the results have become visible: Occasional successes but many failures: Towering debts – often as a result of real estate projects – rising admission fees, calculating and consumptive students, overloaded – mostly not tenured – teachers, dominance of research over education, and growing organizational clutter[2] and overhead. Traditional well-known small-scaled colleges, where teachers and students formed close-knit communities, went lost.

Change is in the air. Students and teachers are revolting against the commodization of the educational system, universities in particular. They fear one-sided vocational orientation, uncritical collaboration with commercial firms and decreasing academic quality. Besides, a long row of scientific publications gives strong evidence that the mergers and acquisitions are increased costs, rather than bringing savings[3].

More democracy and autonomy must be paired

Worldwide students and academics ask for more democracy. More democracy often is identified with empowering representative bodies, without necessarily easing the regulative power of the government of universities. If this is all, the lack of freedom in the workplace and the pressure of bureaucracy will persist. As a consequence, democracy at institutional level must include a satisfactory level of autonomy in the workplace, where research and teaching are organized.

Onderwijs - rendementsdenkenHierarchical personnel management and extensive planning and control systems enabled late 20th century companies to produce massive volumes at low prices for relatively stable and continuously growing markets. Nowadays, the environment is changing at high-speed, requiring flexibility and development of new products in short notice. The labour force is well educated and prepared to take or share managerial responsibility. At the same time most workers feel disengaged under conditions of vertical control.

The demand for self-management is growing worldwide and goes beyond educational institutions. A growing number of publications have created an inspiring picture of the 21century organisation. One of the first protagonists of self-management was Ricardo Semler, who asked for more happiness and relaxation at work[4]. Lars Kolind has disclosed his own experience in a self-managing company[5], Brian Robertson has described his creation of holacracy, an elaborated model of self-government[6]. The absolute bestsellers of Laloux[7] and Getz[8] offer descriptions of companies and other organizations that have implemented self-management.

The ultimate goal of the transformation process of educational institutions, as part of a broader movement, is better education and research under responsibility of teachers, researchers and students practising distributed management, supported by a capable staff and enabled by engaging leaders. Less bureaucracy and overhead will increase money for education and research.

[1] Wikipedia is describing managerialism as belief in the value of professional managers and of the concepts and methods they use. It is associated with hierarchy, accountability and measurement.

[2] Decluttering higher education is a challenge. Read my last blogpost:

[3] Ben Martin: What’s Happening to our Universities? From: Science Policy Research Working Paper Series, University of Sussec 2016.

See also: David Matthews: Centralising Universities ‘ignores evidence of what works best’ in Times Higher Education February 15th 2016

[4] Ricardo Semler: Semco style, 2013

[5] Lars Kolind & Jacob Botter: Unboss, 2014

[6] Brian Robertson: Holacracy, 2015

[7] Frederic Laloux: Reinventing organizations, 2015

[8] Isaac Getz and Brian Carney: Freedom, Inc., 2014.