Concerned About Rising Employee Disengagement? Then Walk the Middle Path

Leaders today are more overworked than I have ever seen in the past twenty years and are expected to perform at increasingly high levels, day in and day out. They are faced with crises and difficult situations on a regular basis including an alarming trend noted by the recent Gallup poll: rising employee disengagement.

The poll said, “Seventy-one percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive”.

For each of us every day can be what Joseph Campbell described as the Hero’s Journey: apparent stability, crisis, self-reflection and learning (See side bar at end of this article). In his interview with Bill Moyer some years ago Campbell talks about the ultimate aim of the Hero’s quest “must be neither the release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and power to serve others.”

For those in leadership positions this quote reflects one of the most important issues that face them today: How do they effectively respond to the onslaught of issues and challenges and not lose sight of the core purpose of leadership: Being of service to the organization, to customers, key stakeholders, and the members of their team.

Will they build a positive reputation and behave in such a way that brings out their highest values and encourages the same in others? Or do they find themselves using unproductive patterns of behavior that leave people feeling beat up, micro managed, unsupported and disengaged?

My experience coaching many leaders over the past few years is that under pressure most tend to lean on what comes naturally to them: If they have a preference for being aggressive they tend to be brutally honest, wearing their heart on their sleeve as they like to say.  If they tend to be more passive they often hold back an essential part of their deeper truth and deliver cosmetically acceptable feedback that skirts the real issue but keeps things pleasant.  Neither extreme is effective in creating employee engagement and an organization that can have long term sustainable success.

The key is to respond in a balanced, “middle path” (a Zen principle) manner that honors the positive aspects being aggressive or passive and integrates them into effective leadership behaviors.

For example, a balanced approach when delivering tough feedback to an employee integrates a positive aspect of being aggressive (directness), with a positive aspect of being passive (respect).

Here are some other examples of leadership attitudes and behaviors that are balanced and those that are not:

Aggressive                          Balanced                                         Passive

 Arrogance                           Humility                                              Deferent

Blame Others                      Mutual Accountability                     Blame Self

Goals only                          Goals and Values Aligned                  Values No Goals

Brutally Honest                  Honest and Respectful                     Respectful

Advocate Only                    Dialogue                                             Inquire Only

Unilateral Expectations     Mutual Accountability                      Saying Yes Unconditionally

Business First                     Socio-Technical System                   People First

The concept of balance is also a key principle deeply imbedded in Insights four color energies shown in the example below:

Take Fiery Red Energy for example:

The aspects of being competitive, demanding, and purposeful when displayed in their most positive form are very effective in creating results.  When they are overused or underused they can become liabilities as shown below.


Being overly directive and dismissive of others opinions


Determining direction and initiating key actions


Trying to please everyone and not taking a stand

Each of us is a “hero” in our own journey.  When we maintain our balance and lead from the “middle path” we can push for hard for results, build strong trusting relationships, encourage employee engagement and feel proud about our behavior at the end of the day.  That is what leadership and being of true service is all about.

The Hero’s Journey is a common pattern that can be found in myths and stories, from various cultures and time periods.  From ancient Greece to modern Hollywood, the hero’s journey is an important archetype from which many stories have been derived.  The pattern can be found in the stories of Moses, Buddha, Odysseus and movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lion King.

Joseph Campbell, a renowned mythologist studied and wrote about this pattern in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949.

 There are four phases to the pattern: The hero is presented with a crisis or challenge (The Call), goes through a period of suffering and/or reflection, (The Descent), enters a phase of learning/redemption (The Transformation), and then returns to his/her home with a richer/deeper sense of self/purpose (The Return).  So essentially it is a pattern of learning growth and maturation.


About Don Johnson

Don Johnson, the Founder and President of the Integria Group, LLC, has over 25 years of experience in business management, leadership, sales and consulting in the performance improvement industry. He founded the Integria Group after being a Principal Consultant with Axialent. He has worked extensively with executives at Google, YouTube, Yahoo! AXA USA, Crowe Horwath, The Jamaican Ministry of Defense, The United States Federal Court System and Allinial Global helping them develop their leadership skills and their business effectiveness. Don was formerly the US Director of Sales for Insights for 5 years helping lead the business to record growth and also worked at Achieve Global, a leading international training and consulting firm, holding many positions, including Regional Director and later Regional Vice President. For five years, he managed a 30-person, $15 million business unit, leading his organization through the post-merger integration of three consulting companies. After completing his undergraduate degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in English Literature, Don started his career at Élan Vital, an international non-profit organization that promotes the work of Prem Rawat. A member of the Élan Vital management team from a young age, Don was appointed President of the corporation in 1980 and held the position for four years. He is a competitive tennis player, plays guitar and writes and records music. He lives in Tayport, Scotland, a small village on the North Sea.
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