Being Right Kills Employee Engagement

Being right feels so good. Be honest, it just does. Knowing the answer to another person’s question is enough to get a little rush of dopamine to the brain. It’s a beautiful imperfection and part of the human condition that should be properly understood, because many leaders get addicted to it and get themselves into trouble.

Having all the answers

Lots of people (including myself) have questions that need answers and there are many people who fortunately possess them. It’s what drives Google and YouTube searches, Quora, Wikipedia, mentor and mentee relationships, movie scripts, and also billions of dollars in advertising revenue every year. Nice.

The unspoken sentiment however, is that always having all of the answers makes one more valuable than the person who’s asking or defending the weaker point. In leadership situations this can easily create a troublesome dynamic to the point where others might not even feel valuable at all.

The silent killer

You might argue, “well Stijn that’s just the way it f***ing is, isn’t it?” In a way you would be right, ironically. I prefer to get my teeth drilled into by someone who has seen it all than by an intern (drawing from a very recent painful experience) and leaders often are promoted to their position because of their superior skills and knowledge.

The problem is that this dynamic slowly kills employee engagement. Consciously or subconsciously people will start to think and act in sync. Why would they bother coming up with new opportunities, analyzing weaknesses, etc., if every interaction reinforces that their leaders are the smartest people in the building?

All of this puts businesses and their agility at risk. It doesn’t hit them on the head like a ten ton hammer, but it slowly creeps in and becomes part of the company culture despite the motivational posters on the wall. Fast forward to a few years later and it will feel like the carrot or the stick is the only option to engage employees. Ugh.

Finding a balance

Yes. A leader can legitimately save everyone a ton of time in many cases with a quick reply to complicated matters or with their superb ideas about the best way forward, but that is besides the point. The trick is to balance employee engagement opportunities and coaching with the required speed of the business to create an agile business that will survive the test of time.

Leaders should ask themselves two simple things:

1. Does something need fixing asap?

There are only a few situations in which a leader has to make quick decisions with limited input according to Michael Watkins’ STARS model. In all others, centralizing decision-making is a bad idea and will cause leadership teams to burn out sooner rather than later. If you have the time, and you often will, engage your people and their brains, or you will end up with a company of disengaged robots and overworked leaders.

2. Who has the best information to make the decision?

A leader has knowledge and often a lot of it. However, if the organizational design is sound, everyone knows the overarching company and team objectives and key results, and trust is high, leaders should keep decisions as close as possible to the person or team with the best information and enrich their decision making with contextual information. Autonomy is scary, but it works wonders over time.


The ROI of being right is very low. Be wary of the quick and easy route of doing and knowing it all yourself. It takes courage, time, and more than a few uncomfortable moments for leaders to enable teams and engage their capabilities, but that is what being a leader is about. Trust and coach people to know more than you do. Protect them from mistakes, but give them authority to come up with solutions and execute.

A special mention goes out to new leaders, especially those promoted to lead former peers: the skills that often make for great individual contributors can easily and quickly kill leadership careers. Be cautious to not inadvertently rub colleagues the wrong way with your (undoubtedly massive amount of) knowledge. Make a conscious effort to invest in your team and to not focus on dazzling the people around you.

If you do things right, your team will take care of the dazzling and free you up to enable them more each day. They will deal with fires instead of jumping out of the way or turning to you for solutions when the flames show up, as they always do.