Leadership by Proxy Causes Low Employee Engagement

By Michelle Malay Carter on November 29, 2007 

Handing Over Managerial Work to HRA Wyatt Watson survey in India found that the adoption of well known HR practices does not necessarily?equate to higher?employee satisfaction and engagement scores.

I could not discern specifically what “well known HR practices” the study is referring to, but I suspect it includes the current idea of managers handing over more of their managerial work to HR (orientation, job scoping, performance management, coaching, selection, training), leaving the managers with only their “technical” work to do.? I think we have gone too far in this, and the tail is wagging the dog.? I read somewhere recently that managers can now hire someone to fire their employees for them!

I contend that the strikingly?low employee engagement numbers, i.e. 29%, reported in recent studies by Towers Perrin and Gallup are due to the fact that more and more managerial leadership practices are being outsourced to HR.?? Employees don’t want leadership by proxy, they want it from their managers!

Instead of putting in systems to relieve managers of their managerial duties, organizations should be focused upon designing systems that clarify managerial accountabilities and authorities.? Further, they should be equipping managers with the skills and technology they need to effectively lead their employees.? The role of HR should be to help managers understand and discharge their duties effectively, NOT to do their duties for them.

I’m OK.? You’re OK.? Let’s fix the system.

?What do you think?

Filed Under Corporate Values, Managerial Leadership, Requisite Organization, Talent Management


8 Responses to “Leadership by Proxy Causes Low Employee Engagement”

  1. Paul Holmstrom on November 29th, 2007 3:00 pm

    I completely agree with you. What we are seeing are managers outsourcing their core responsibilities and functions to HR, staff units and consultants, while maintaining their technical knowledge and actually working as specialists.

    I have seen large organizations in reality run by staff units in HR and finance, like a hidden Soviet nomenklatura. If the company managed to recruit anybody who dared to question the hidden system, the nomenklatura very efficiently got the manager deposed.

    Organizations need to have managers in place who do their own work.

  2. Michelle Malay Carter on November 29th, 2007 3:18 pm

    Thanks for the comment Paul. I love the metaphor!


  3. Jim Stroup on November 29th, 2007 4:01 pm


    A key motivator of this trend lies behind many others that promise simplistic managerial solutions to the fundamental managerial responsibility to manage human beings. I saw the item you referred to about outsourcing firings – it reminded me of a “Cheers” episode from long ago – is just an archetypical example of this.

    Paul’s astute observation is germane, here. This sort of behavior allows managers to have it all ways: displacing real management with intellectually sterile analysis and wire-diagramming, taking credit when things go well, and outsourcing responsibility when they don’t.

    The clock may be running down on this game, but that’s a tough call; there’s tremendous incentive to play it, and strong institutional (organizational and in the broader society) to encourage it.

    Great catch and great post – thanks!

  4. Michelle Malay Carter on November 29th, 2007 7:03 pm


    Thanks for the comment. I think managers find it attractive to give away their accountabilities because managerial authority isn’t what it used to be either. As we’ve taken away managers’ authority (to hire, fire, and reward), they’ve been glad to hand over their accountabilities too. This is why we struggle with accountability as well. Accountability must come with requisite authority.



  5. Eric Pennington on November 30th, 2007 10:12 pm

    Management is hard, and leadership is even harder. That concept is rarely if ever discussed in corporate America. It’s like a game of make believe. For example, Bill’s handsome, young, has an MBA from a prestigious school and says all the right things. And if he slips up HR can fix it. Sound familiar?

    With managers and leaders like Bill, is it any wonder that many companies are populated by the working dead.

  6. Michelle Malay Carter on December 1st, 2007 11:12 am


    I agree. Organizations don’t provide managers with what they need to be effective leaders.


  7. Employee Engagement Guy on December 18th, 2007 11:06 am

    Employee engagement has little to do with HR practices. It has more to do with leadership and management styles – if the culture is one where even a “small” employee gets a lot of responsibility, the manager recognizes them and works with them on an equal level, then the employee is going to be more engaged.

  8. Michelle Malay Carter on December 18th, 2007 12:38 pm

    Engagement Guy,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree, the quality of the manager – direct report relationship is the largest catalyst for or deterrent to engagement.