Hierarchy is the most natural and enduring form of leadership in human history. After all, it has survived for millennia.

People typically prefer to outsource key decisions that impact the larger group or carry high risk to someone else. There is a very high metabolic cost in making difficult choices that affect other people’s lives. Most of us would prefer having those decisions made by someone we trust and have faith in, i.e. a leader with strength and determination, a keen strategist, someone who is empathetic and understanding, or some blend of these.

A strong and effective leader stands at the top of the hierarchy. But great leaders today do not act hierarchically.

We Can’t Treat Employees as Children
To be sure, there is an important distinction here between the benefits of hierarchy (the ability to load share or outsource risky decisions), and the negative impact of a manager using hierarchy to push someone in a punitive or shaming way into a one-down position.

Traditionally, (and in some organizations, still today) leaders dictated to employees the way things would be done. In times of stress (e.g. missed deadlines, mistakes, lazy performance), managers and supervisors often fall back upon a model of leadership most deeply embedded in their memories—parenting. It demotes employees to the role of children. This top-down, correctional model is typically characterized by exasperation, irritability, annoyance, and even outrage. But, more importantly, it just isn’t an effective way to encourage exemplary behavior from adults.

Most adults do not want to be patronized, condescended, or treated like children. They are unlikely to respond by increasing their engagement at work and their loyalty to their employer if treated this way. Being patronized does not inspire employees to look forward to their workday and offer discretionary effort. Their reactions may instead take many forms, almost all of them unproductive, like becoming resentful and angry.

As we consider the future of work in a labor scarce environment, there is another possible result. Employees, especially among the current generation entering the workplace, are far more likely to quit under these conditions. A disengaging workplace isn’t just soul-crushing for employees, but it is also bad for business as it encourages turnover, underperformance, and disaffection with leaders.

Opponent: The True Role of a Leader
Creating an engaging workplace is possible inside a hierarchy. Having strong and effective leaders at the top and congruent managers and supervisors extending their reach deeper into the organization creates the consistent and predictable conditions that are essential to healthy workplace cultures.

Divisive micro-cultures can also thrive within a corporate culture if managers are allowed to deviate from the enterprise’s core values, mission, and vision. It is critical for senior leadership to align the various subcultures with the overall enterprise culture. This contributes significantly to a “safe haven” environment that supports employee engagement.

A leader who works to build a positive culture that is quick to recognize employee accomplishments is setting the stage for employee engagement. Leaders at all levels need to move away from the CPO template (Chief Punishment Officer), and instead move into more to brain-friendly modes as mentors, coaches, good listeners, role models, and captains of positive recognition, affirmative accountability, and servant leadership.

Action Steps to Cultivate Employee Engagement:

  • Learn more great strategies on how to effectively engage employees by reading my book, Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High Performance Cultures.
  • Listen to employees and lead the way in creating an emotional safe haven for everyone in the enterprise. Ask yourself, what does it feel like to work here? Does it feel safe?
  • Lead by example. Model core values.
  • Hold managers and supervisors accountable for communicating the corporate culture and living the organization’s values. Don’t let divergent micro-cultures in remote locations or siloed departments hijack the enterprise culture.

Download a free chapter of my book for more ideas about building a high-performance culture.