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Do employee engagement surveys filter out potential great leaders?


Did you see the recent article “Working at Amazon Is a Soul-Crushing Experience"? It was written by an ex-employee so he should know, or should he? It’s raised much controversy ranging from the defenders of Bezos to those who say I told you so.

We have other poster-boys for alleged employee abuse including Elon Musk (seeAshlee Vance’s “Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future" and the story of how Musk fired his long-time secretary).

And recently, to the add to the bad rap he already received in the biography by Walter Isaacson the story emerged that Steve Jobs had refused to pay any money to the mother of his daughter to make up for the years she raised the girl alone in poverty. His refusal came with the epochal phrase “I don’t respond well to blackmail”. Nice guy, right?

But Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are probably the most exciting, visionary, breakthrough, amazing leaders we have produced globally in the last 20 years. They are truly global change agents with almost unimaginable powers of vision, effectiveness and, yes, transformational leadership.

If we were to rate these three leaders using normal leadership scales, they would be abject failures. For one, their level of empathy and emotional intelligence is abysmally low. They would achieve scores of around zero on any employee engagement evaluation. They could never be hired in a “normal” company. So what’s going on here?

It’s customary now for most large companies to conduct regular employee engagement surveys. If you do well on them, you get promoted. If you don’t, you won’t. So those who get promoted have higher empathy and emotional intelligence than the ones who don’t.

But is it the case that these surveys are systematically excluding the people who are most likely to become the type of leader represented by the Big Bad Three? In other words, are our tests of engagement and leadership filtering out the most effective and exciting leaders because they are not nice enough?

Here’s an interesting indicator. Ex-employees of companies such as Facebook, Apple, Tesla and Amazon are in high demand. Other companies believe that their experience in these companies gives them an edge.

Why is that so given the apparent abusive conditions inside such companies? Could it be that these hiring companies actually value the employees of these companies precisely because they lack empathy and emotional intelligence?

Is it possible that other companies want them for their experience in these conditions but are too scared to recreate them inside their own companies since it’s not politically correct to have low empathy? Are low empathy and low emotional intelligence now being demonized? If so, how do we account for the success of leaders with low or no empathy and low emotional and social intelligence?

Is it possible that in our quest to produce the perfect leader we have dumbed down the requirements so much that we got nice wussies rather than meat-eating world-beaters? Is it the case that this is being enshrined and formalized through widely-used engagement and leadership assessment and survey instruments that promote this choice systematically throughout large organizations?

If so, is this one of the reasons that large organizations are generally not able to innovate and rise to the heights of the startups that continue to change ths world every day?

Now I’m not defending employee abuse, or saying that low empathy and low emotional intelligence make you a great leader. I’m just questioning the apparent global consensus amongst company managers and academics that these qualities are essential to good leadership.

Clearly they are not. But the instruments and assessments that are used almost universally in large companies enshrine these assumptions. So Scotty, we might have a problem.

Maybe we all need to be a little bit more open-minded about the pros and cons of emotional intelligence and empathy. Sure, it might not be a comfortable discussion. But that’s what blog posts are all about, right?









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