Blame it on Facebook

Ever since Pepper de Callier told me about the Gallup survey, which concluded that more than 70% of all employees globally are either passively or actively disengaged, I have been bothered. I have no reason to doubt the conclusions of the survey. After all, having included two million people globally, it was one of the largest surveys ever conducted. If the findings were true and only 30% of employees were engaged, motivated, and prepared to follow their respective management, then global leadership must be in serious crisis.

It bothered me even more when I applied these figures to my company. Are 70% of my own employees disengaged? If indeed so, that means that my personal leadership ability must be in crisis. After a brief moment of panic and disillusionment with my own capabilities, common sense prevailed. I hope I would recognise disengagement of these proportions. But a curiosity to figure out the reasons behind this sickening figure developed. It certainly implies leadership failure on a massive scale and is a problem worthy of debate.

Leadership can be demonstrated by one's ability to get others to willingly follow one. Of course, it is easier for people to follow when they actually know where they are going. Explaining this, and how to get there, is a must. So, it follows that, if leaders intelligently articulate these answers, blended with some personal charisma and the art of persuasion, everybody should follow. Why then do more than 70% of all employed people prefer to wander off on their own? Assuming that the situation is worse now than it was previously, is it because today's leaders lack quality and credibility? Is it perhaps because today's leaders are more and more constrained by political correctness, rising levels of bureaucracy and (my personal favourite) ever-increasing health and safety concerns? Or is it because modern constituencies are rapidly changing their behaviour and becoming progressively more unruly? That with increasing democratisation of the work place, everybody's opinion is important and no one voice is more important than another? That everybody is an expert and a leader in his/her own right, thereby undermining the function of leadership? Can people even recognize true leadership any longer? Is this in fact a problem in the science of leadership, or a problem in the art of following?

One only needs to look around today's boardrooms. How many people are more interested in their flashing blackberries and smart phones rather than participating in discussions regarding business, strategies or financial plans? How many managers can honestly say that they can always successfully compete for attention with those blinking lights and gentle vibrations in the pockets? After all, meetings are mostly predictable, while somebody's opinion on where to find the best footwear in Rangoon or on how to bypass the garden hose ban in Kalgoorlie might seem absolutely fascinating. Especially when one can send a message to Rangoon reporting that breakfast at Jeff's was excellent. And let's tell people in Kalgoorlie that the holiday season in Europe is in full swing and you will be seeing the dentist later that afternoon.

Today's leaders need to contend with myriads of business, geopolitical, financial, strategic and personal issues. Leaders are expected to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions. They have to compete with a spawn of opinions instantaneously available on hundreds of social media websites and thousands of blogs. Every comment, every plan, every idea proposed can be immediately dissected and scrutinized by "experts" around the globe. A housewife in Johannesburg can provide an expert opinion on the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. A retired engineer in Vladivostok can instantaneously give an armchair diagnosis on cardiovascular disease in an indigenous population of the Amazon rain forest and a rapper from Jamaica knows exactly how to deal with the Greek financial debt. And the fact that a student in a little suburban school in Rio might know what one had for breakfast, can really distract one from the agenda at hand. How does one, as a leader, contain the distracting impact of such a proliferation of information and opinion?

It is not an accident that Facebook will have, most probably as early as in December 2012, one billion users. One seventh of the world's population wants to be heard, they all have something to say. Most of them are experts and they want all the other experts around the globe to hear them. In the history of human kind there has never been so much interaction, and so little genuine communication. In my opinion, disruptive narcissism, as it is played out on social media networks and in meeting rooms, is proving to be even more challenging to our leadership than any economic crisis, market collapse or product failure.

One more question, the most crucial one: how can the leaders of today influence the scary figure of 70% employee disengagement? Simply being aware of the scale of the problem might be a good place to start. I have several suggestions to make. Many would be unpopular, some might seem comical, and a few might even offend.

But before I challenge Pepper on this let me discuss it with the experts on Facebook and see what they think.