Phindile is a CEO of a big South African IT company. She started at the bottom of the rank as an Engineer. She was identified as a high potential employee and taken through the company’s leadership development programme. Phindile was paired with a mentor, Mr. Jacobs. Mr. Jacobs is director and had applied for early retirement. However, before he left, he was requested to mentor a successor.

When Phindile took over the reigns as a CEO, her dreams were fulfilled. She was passionate about her job, cared about the people and the company. In the past 5 years that she was at the helm of leadership, the company grew exponentially. As the client base increased, more employees were appointed and new systems and processes introduced. The employees were paid well and received great performance bonuses and incentives. Everyone was happy.

Change and disengagement

However, in the past six months, sales had started to decrease. The leadership team blamed it on the economy. They believed that things will improve before financial year end. During their Annual meeting, the situation had worsened. The company had lost some of its important clients. There were rumors that they will be losing more clients. Some of their best employees were also leaving. Phindile knew that if things continued as they were, she would be compelled to retrench people or close the company. This would mean she would have failed not only herself, but her parents, mentor, employees and their families, as well as every young girl who regarded her as a role model.

Phindile hired consultants to help diagnose and solve the problem. They found that the company had the best systems and processes. Low employee morale and disengagement was identified as the root cause to the company’s problems. Phindile was very confused. She knew that her company paid the best salaries. Each time she met employees, they seemed happy. Her team had never indicated to her that employees were disgruntled. The report did not make sense to her.

Mentorship conversations

Phindile realized that she needed help from someone who will give her honest feedback. She remembered her old mentor, Mr. Jacobs. Unbeknown to Phindile, Mr. Jacobs had kept in touch with his previous colleagues. He knew what was going on. Hence he was very happy when he received a call from her. He had heard that she had a reputation of not accepting failure or bad news. She was temperamental and known to cut grown men to size. Her team preferred to tell her what they thought she wanted to hear, instead of the truth. But Mr. Jacobs knew that Phindile was a caring person, open to growth and feedback. He understood that due to the pressure of her position, she could have developed a shield to protect herself. He saw that Phindile’s behavior was a defense mechanism. Unfortunately she had begun to lose her identity and was seen as a tyrant.

During the meeting, Phindile poured her heart out to her mentor. Mr. Jacobs asked her when last she had open and honest conversations with the employees. She could not understand how this could be related to her problems. She always held monthly meetings with all employees. These meetings were in her annual calendar. She has never missed a meeting. The purpose of these meetings was to motivate employees, inform them about the company’s performance and how far they were towards achieving their annual targets. During these meetings, she made sure that she referred to the company’s vision, mission and its values. She also gave recognized individuals and teams that exceeded their performance targets. These were the things that she was taught at the business school. Hence she was confused with the consultants’ report.

Mr. Jacobs knew about the meetings. He had initiated them a long time ago. He reminded her of the visits he used to make to the plant. They reminisced about how he used to spend one day in a month with all the engineers and technicians at the plant. It was where Phindile first met him.

Mr. Jacobs would work next to the different individuals. He would sometimes have lunch with them at the canteen. He had good relationships with all employees. He knew them by their names. The employees trusted him. He knew what would happen before their managers did. He was never caught by surprise about his employees’ actions.

The Tao of Employee Engagement

Mr. Jacobs reminded Phindile about the book “The Art of War” that he once gave her to read. He referred her to one of the quotes: “the natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally”. In the book, the author was referring to the environment or landscape in battle. Mr. Jacobs reminded Phindile that the company operates in the external and internal environment. She realized that she was focusing more on the external environment. She relied on others and financial incentives to deal with the internal environment, specifically her employees. She had forgotten that relationships matter. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Jacobs told Phindile that he knew she could turn the ship around. She just needed to remember to lead from the heart.


See also Gallup’s article on disengagement: the worldwide employee engagement crisis.

(to be continued )

Tshamani Mathebula

Tshamani Mathebula

I am an experienced process facilitator whose purpose in life is to develop people so that they can be the best they can be in their personal and professional lives. I have 15 years experience in human resource development, organisational development, change management, culture transformation, employee engagement, graduate development, leadership development and coaching. I am passionate about leadership development and transformation, and my area of study is focused on transformational leadership and high performance culture.

Help! My Employees are disengaged (part 1).

One thought on “Help! My Employees are disengaged (part 1).

  • January 18, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    Great read! Indeed, sometimes even the best intentions can lead to a disaster if we do not lead from the heart. Truly understanding the needs of your employees can make a significant change. Can’t wait for the second part.


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