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Amy Armstrong

Ashridge Business School

Research Fellow

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Five reasons CEOs fail to engage


There is now a weight of evidence connecting employee engagement and business success, within which leadership plays a key role. Yet, much of the UK workforce remains dis-engaged. So, why aren’t our leaders engaging more? Engagement, that is to say, the sense of emotional connection and purpose that is created among employees so that they choose to give the best of themselves at work, is one of the most difficult parts of the leadership task. It requires a special set of skills and attributes and the ability to manage often complex and contradictory demands.

Recent Ashridge research has shown that there are at least five reasons why CEOs fail to engage. The good news is that they all relate to leadership capability, which means that if leaders and their organisations focus on leader development, they can be overcome:

Reason 1: Poor self-awareness

This barrier to engagement operates on many levels. First, the CEO needs to acknowledge the link between his or her self-awareness and effective leadership. Some leaders are not cognisant of the importance of self-awareness, and even when they do ask for feedback about themselves, they do not act on feedback to improve their leadership capability. Furthermore, leaders need be mindful that many of the conversations that take place in organisations revert to hierarchy, so even if a leader asks for the truth about themselves, they may not receive it. It is therefore down to the leader to facilitate an environment in which conversations can stem from a place of honesty. The HR Director or an external coach plays an important role here in being able to show the mirror to the CEO, so that they can see a true reflection of themselves.

Reason 2: Failing to break down hierarchy

Hierarchy is present in any organisation, regardless of its size or sector. It is the CEO’s job, therefore, to recognise that hierarchy exists and to work to break it down. Otherwise, those CEOs who hold on to the power and authority that goes with their role merely perpetuate deferential behaviour towards them. Furthermore, through symbolic gestures such as occupying opulent offices separate from the rest of the organisation and diverting all communication through their Executive Assistants, creates a physical and emotional distance between the leader and staff, thus perpetuating hierarchy and stifling true engagement.

Reason 3: Not balancing short-term demands with long-term gains

Many CEOs operate in a system which hinges around short-term financial performance, but to truly engage, leaders need to commit for the long-term. Engagement is not about annual staff surveys or town hall meetings. It is a long-term process of inquiry and dialogue where people at all levels have an opportunity to contribute to the organisation’s purpose and values and to understand the role they play in its success. To thrive, CEOs need to have all of their colleagues with them, which means their heads and their hearts. This will never be achieved by a CEO whose sole focus is quarterly financial results and shareholder return.

Reason 4: Failing to show vulnerability

When it comes to their emotions, many leaders are deeply uncomfortable entering into conversations in which they share their feelings, believing that this type of conversation does not belong in business. However, by legitimising the sharing of emotions at work, connection and understanding between people can be built, which leads to more fulfilling and productive relationships. If the CEO leads by example here, it also serves to help people across the organisation to understand the person behind the CEO title, which in turn fosters trust and engagement.

Reason 5: Not sharing power

Many CEOs struggle to let go of power and continue to lead by command and control. However, to engage, leaders need to learn to let go. It is an unconfident leader who clings to the power and authority that goes with their role, perhaps worrying that by engaging with their staff it may lead them to be ambushed or to take them to places they had not thought about before. However, by letting go of control and admitting that they do not have all the answers, this helps to build engagement by enabling people across the organisation to take collective responsibility for driving the organisation forward.

This article draws on recent research entitled ‘Engagement through CEO Eyes’, which was conducted by Ashridge and Engage for Success. The full research report can be accessed by going to:

One Response

  1. reasons for engagement failure

    i think the presence of hierarchy and status gradient always serves as a key reason for the loss of communication between people and their management.

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Amy Armstrong

Research Fellow

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