Managing Engagement in the Digital Age
by Walt McFarland

guestPosted by

The technological advances of the digital age seem tailor made for enabling an engaged and high performing global workforce.  One reason is that emerging technologies can actively support key human development needs.  For example, adult learning experts tell us that great human development is social, collaborative, immediately relevant, and self-directed—all features that can be enhanced by today’s technology.


In the digital age, members of the global workforce have the capability to be more connected, more collaborative, and have greater personal impact than ever before. More knowledge is immediately available to them—in more delivery choices—than at any time in history. Clearly, the digital age is creating a workplace optimized for high levels of workforce engagement.  Or is it?


Over a year after its publication, I’m still reeling from the results of Gallup’s 2013 Global Workforce Study.  In sum, it found that only 13% of people in 142 countries reported they are engaged in their work.  Further, it found that 24% of people reported they are “actively disengaged” from their work.  If the Gallup data are accurate—or even partially accurate—think about the implications for the global economy.  Even more, think about the implications for humanity as expressed in the quality of work life for millions.


The theme of the 7th Annual Global Drucker Forum is Claiming Our Humanity:  Managing in the Digital Age.  A great first step in claiming our humanity is creating workplaces that optimize human engagement.  Here are four observations about managing workforce engagement more effectively.


  • Managing workforce engagement is not about technology.  It’s about leading people better—and differently.


A key reason is change.  A powerful artifact of the digital age is nearly continuous organizational change—including periodic disruptive change.  These cascading changes can affect workforce engagement—either positively or negatively—depending upon the quality of leadership.


Some of our research for the book Choosing Change is relevant here.  It suggested that when leaders use their experience and insight to actively help people make sense of the changing environment—people are able to change their perceptions of change from negative to positive.  An event that was perceived as a personal threat is reframed as an opportunity for personal development—and as an opportunity to shape the future of the organization.


To be clear, the kind of leadership suggested here isn’t passive or merely intellectual—and it’s not just about communicating better.  The best change leaders are passionate and courageous. They deliberately position themselves between the initial chaos of large-scale change and the workforce. They help people better understand the purpose and opportunities of the change effort and they use the change effort to accelerate the development of people.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they assure that no one is left behind.  This kind of leadership sets the stage for higher levels of engagement (and performance).


  • Great leadership from the C-suite does not guarantee workforce engagement


Until recently, much of the emphasis on better understanding the role of leaders in workforce engagement focused on the C-suite.  However, data from Gallup, the Conference Board, the Association for Talent Development (ATD), and others, is indicating that leadership at the line is a key factor in engagement.  In engagement surveys, people often highlight their personal relationship with their supervisor as a key factor in their engagement.


There is also substantial anecdotal data underscoring the role of the first line leader in engagement.  For example, in my professional life, I am seeing a general—and often strong—dissatisfaction with the quality of leadership at the line. This dissatisfaction can manifest itself differently across cultures—but is on the minds of many of my colleagues around the world.


Senior leadership is also critically important in building workforce engagement to be sure.  A key role is redefining the position of first line leader to emphasize a stronger role in workforce engagement.  Another key role is creating, reinforcing, and modelling an organization-wide culture of engagement.


  • Leadership at the line is most “engaging” when it balances the technical and personal aspects of the workplace.



Last month, I attended ATD’s global conference in Orlando, Florida, along with almost 11,000 talent development professionals from 100 countries.  Speaking to people from five continents about engagement, I noted that the dissatisfaction reported with first line leaders seldom related to poor technical or business skills.  Instead, it focused on leaders’ poor personal skills–their inability or unwillingness to invest energy in building their teams.  By “building their teams,” I mean such activities as:  knowing team members as individuals, personally investing in team member development, helping team members navigate organizational changes, creating an environment of trust and fairness, and providing a sense of “higher purpose.”


When I asked people to describe a great first line leader—they often described the ability to do two things:  Perform the technical aspects of the job and personally invest in building the talent of their team.


  • Great leadership at the line demands new behavior from leaders and team members


Said another way, great leadership at the line is about everyone.  About a century ago, the great Mary Parker Follett wrote a classic article entitled “The Essentials of Leadership.”  While this article is rich for many reasons, a key one is its treatment of the critical role of the follower in organizational life. To Follett, “followership” was active and important.  In a real way, it completed the equation that is leadership.


I’m suggesting that great teams have more than engaging leaders, they have engaging members.  We each have the responsibility to our organization, our team, and ourselves to “self-engage.” A great step in improving workforce engagement is building into our teams and organizations more competence in self-engagement.


The digital age can enable us to do more than merely claim our humanity:  It can foster a renaissance for human achievement in organizations.  The digital age can enable greater human innovation, creativity, and complex problem solving power than ever before.  It can enable greater connectedness, collaboration, personal impact—and ultimately more meaning in work for tens of millions.  It can enable all of this only if effectively led.  Let’s build a generation of leaders who are technically excellent and people focused.


About the author:
Walter McFarland is the founder of Windmill Human Performance, the past Board Chair of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and co-author of Choosing Change from McGraw Hill.


  1. Very true. I hope all managers in the world will be able to read this article and become good managers of people specifically on people engagement.

    I think “team building” can be accomplished just by following the advice in this article. No need for expensive team building activities.

  2. Yes, but one question comes to mind: this piece could have been written identically 20 years ago, way before the digital age became a headline. So what difference does the fact that the digital age is upon us make to all this. what would we have to write differently in order to stay tuned to hte new context the “digital era or age” is bringing upon us. Reading this blog, one is tempted by the conclusion that the problems remain the same, digital age or not. Is that in the author’s intention?

  3. Thanks Jed.

    Erhard, you make great points and true. In my mind–and this may sound silly–we have never come to peace about the role of people in organizations: What is the best balance of human achievement and organizational performance? How does everyone win–as they must?

    As to the difference in the digital age–I think the stakes are higher now and hope that motivates us to improve. As you know, Grint in the UK, and Heifetz and Johanson in the US, among others–make a good case that coincident with the digital age–and relating to it–is an age of VUCA–a time so complex that new kinds of problems are emerging which overwhelm any single mind.

    Both Grint and Heifetz allude to the emergence of a new leadership competency: the ability to unleash the collective problem solving power of highly diverse groups. The ability to draw out collective problem solving power that is greater than the sum of that of individuals. They suggest that this ability–if mastered–may help us better face the complexity of the digital age.

    In my post, I don’t take on this issue–but hopefully took a step toward it by shifting more leadership emphasis to the line–and suggesting that at the line, the team had a greater leadership role–and greater accountability. In any event, greater performance comes from more engagement.

    You are right to suggest that it’s time we do better managing people–really start to improve. I believe we can improve today–if we will. I see it as a question of priority and of will.

    Finally, in the Harvard version of the blog I may have done a slightly better job linking engagement to the digital age. Please have a look.

    Thanks for your thinking on this.

  4. Leadership can be improvised as the best way to manage in this digital age but adaptation, I will say, will make it work better for all knowledge workers.

  5. I have high hopes that this post will be accessible to all managers throughout the world, and that it will help them become better people managers, focusing primarily on people engagement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.