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Commitment, Empowerment, and Engagement are Decisive Competitive Advantages

Many organizations think in terms of physical assets such as plant, equipment, and distribution channels. All are important, but a committed, empowered, and engaged workforce can convey a decisive advantage over competitors whose employees show up only for their paychecks. Keegan (2014) reported that employee disengagement cost the US economy $500 billion roughly ten years ago. Gallup (2013) and Fehrenbach (2014) add that, on average, engagement is the exception rather than the rule. “On average” means however that engagement is higher in some organizations and lower in others, and our goal should be to be among the former. What are commitment, empowerment, and engagement?

  • Commitment means workers and other stakeholders identify with the organization, and think of its welfare as their own. When the organization looks for ways to pay workers as little as possible, they will reciprocate by doing as little as they can in return. Henry Ford (1922) told us instead, “It ought to be the employer’s ambition, as leader, to pay better wages than any similar line of business, and it ought to be the workman’s ambition to make this possible.” Only when Ford’s successors went against his principles, which apparently included a policy that nobody would be laid off if productivity gains reduced the need for workers, did the United Auto Workers gain traction in the late 1930s. Sinclair (1937, 81) elaborated on the no-layoff policy, emphasis is mine, “Twenty men who had been making a certain part would see a new machine brought in and set up, and one of them would be taught to operate it and do the work of the twenty. The other nineteen wouldn’t be fired right away— there appeared to be a rule against that.” When the benefits of higher productivity show up in the workers’ pay envelopes, they will indeed do as much as they can to make the enterprise even more productive.
  • Empowerment means workers have the skills and authority to improve their jobs, subject to the requirements of standardization. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911) depicted the role of empowered workers as follows. “And whenever a workman proposes an improvement, it should be the policy of the management to make a careful analysis of the new method, and if necessary conduct a series of experiments to determine accurately the relative merit of the new suggestion and of the old standard.” If the new method is indeed better, it becomes the new standard for the work in question. Henry Ford said many if not most of his productivity improvements came from hourly workers rather than from management.
  • Engagement is defined by Mercer (2011) as “a psychological state in which employees feel a vested interest in the company’s success and are both willing and motivated to perform to levels that exceed the stated job requirements.” Commitment, a vested interest in the company’s success, is therefore a prerequisite for engagement, but the work must also be its own reward. Commitment means people will show up and do their best but only intrinsic motivation, which means the work is its own reward, will cause them to get “stuck in” as depicted by Ford’s production chief Charles Sorensen (1956, 54). “With this group, work was play. If it had not been play, it would have killed them. They were as men possessed. They often forgot to eat. They drove themselves much harder than they drove anyone else.”


Historical Perspective of Commitment, Empowerment, and Engagement


Commitment, empowerment, and engagement are all terms from modern management science, but their value was recognized by armies centuries ago. Sun Tzu (1910 translation) wrote 2500 years ago, “He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.” Planners have recognized for thousands of years the difference between employees who show up only for the pay, and those who show up because they want to be there. Shakespeare’s Macduff proclaims in Macbeth, “I cannot strike at wretched kerns, whose arms are hired to bear their staves.” Kerns were mercenaries whose name comes from the same Celtic word, ceithernach, for a pawn in chess. When the battle went against their paymaster Macbeth, many changed sides at the first opportunity. Frederick the Great lamented in the mid-eighteenth century, “…our armies for the most part are composed of the dregs of society—sluggards, rakes, debauchees, rioters, undutiful sons, and the like, who have as little attachment to their masters or concern about them as do foreigners” (Luvaas, 1966). Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, said similarly that the typical British soldier was the scum of the earth, although he added that the British Army usually made a fine fellow of him.

The reason was that, prior to the rise of nationalism in the late eighteenth century during the American and French Revolutions, patriotism was rarely an incentive for enlistment. Men with remunerative trades rarely joined armies because the pay was much lower and there was also a good chance of dying from privation or combat. Frederick the Great pointed out that this was not however the situation in ancient Rome where military duty was taken for granted as an obligation of citizenship, and lamented that he could recruit only the kind of people who had to choose between soldiering and prison, starvation, the workhouse, or a combination thereof. These soldiers had to be kept in line with the threat of whips and other punishments. The British Army was equally infamous for flogging, and a civilian organization that has to rely similarly on close supervision to ensure that people do their jobs is equally vulnerable to a competitor who understands the value of a motivated workforce. The effects of commitment, empowerment, and engagement meanwhile made themselves known in the late eighteenth century.


Suwarrow Now was Conqueror

Russian serfs of the horse and musket era often knocked out their front teeth, which were needed to bite open paper musket cartridges, to avoid conscription into the Tsar’s or Tsarina’s army. The famous Russian commander Aleksandr V. Suvorov, however, turned these initially unwilling conscripts into a fearsome military instrument capable of defeating Turkish Janissaries, Napoleon’s future Marshals, and even Poles under the command of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who helped the United States win the War of Independence. How did Suvorov turn these unwilling conscripts into soldiers capable of taking on any army on earth?

Lord Byron’s epic Don Juan places the adventurer and swashbuckler at the siege of Ismail (1791) where he and a companion meet Suvorov. Byron points out Suvorov’s success secret which, although he portrays it in plain sight, then dismisses it as a waste of time.

Glory began to dawn with due sublimity,
While Souvaroff, determined to obtain it,
Was teaching his recruits to use the bayonet.

It is an actual fact, that he, commander
In chief, in proper person deign’d to drill
The awkward squad, and could afford to squander
His time, a corporal’s duty to fulfil:

There is in fact a painting of Suvorov holding a musket, the weapon of a common soldier that many officers of that era would not deign to touch, and instructing soldiers on how to mount a ladder to assault a fortress. Suvorov was actually “walking his talk” by making it clear that training was the most important thing the Russian Army did, to which he added that a trained soldier might be worth five or ten untrained ones. The individual soldier and his musket were the most important components of the army because they had to win the battles. Suvorov stressed the need for teamwork and cooperation with phrases like “Comrade help comrade.” Byron’s poem concluded of the outcome, “Suwarrow now was conqueror,” and against a heavily fortified position defended by highly motivated Turkish soldiers.

In contrast, George (2002) reports that a CEO brought in the famous quality expert W. Edwards Deming to teach his executives about total quality control (TQC). He told the executives how important this was, and then walked out. At that point, even Deming could not hold the executives’ attention because their boss’ actions showed that he didn’t think TQC was all that important. The lesson here is clear; when the CEO leads the training, or participates, everybody else buys in as well.

Ordinary soldiers would often not dare do anything without an order in most of that era’s army, but Suvorov empowered them as well. As but one example, when the French destroyed a critical bridge in the Alps, enlisted Russian soldiers waited for neither officers nor engineers to improvise a new one. They requisitioned lumber from a barn, and lashed planks together with officers’ sashes so the army could cross a deep chasm.




The takeaway is that we must take the same principles into the modern workplace as follows.

  • Gain the workforce’s commitment by paying the best wages possible, as opposed to as little as possible. The best possible wages are not however whatever the workforce wants, but rather what the productivity of the jobs will justify. The employer must share productivity gains with workers, customers, and investors. This is exactly how Henry Ford paid unprecedented wages, earned a fortune, and made automobiles affordable to the middle class.
  • Empower the workforce with training and autonomy to look for ways to make their jobs more productive. This does not mean workers are free to ignore the existing process standards; they must instead propose the improvements which are then tested for effectiveness and absence of undesirable side effects. If the new method is better, it becomes the new standard.
  • Commitment and empowerment are prerequisites for engagement, in which the job becomes its own reward. The latter is known as intrinsic motivation and it is extremely powerful. Engaged employees don’t show up for just the paycheck, they would really rather not be anywhere else.

Remember that, on average, most workforces are not engaged or even actively disengaged. This is a substantial risk for the organizations in question, and a very substantial opportunity for competitors who know how to earn buy-in, commitment, and engagement from their employees.



Fehrenbach, Pete. 2014. “The Jazzed Workforce.” Industry Week, April 2014, 16-20.

Ford, Henry, and Crowther, Samuel. 1922. My Life and Work. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company. Public domain due to age, available at

Gallup Inc. 2013. State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders

George, Michael. 2002. Lean Six Sigma : Combining Six Sigma Quality with Lean Production Speed. New York: McGraw-Hill pp. 19-20

Keegan, Paul. 2014. “The 5 New Rules of Employee Engagement.” Inc Magazine, Dec 2014-Jan 2015.

Luvaas, Jay, translator. 1966. Frederick the Great on the Art of War. Da Capo Press, 1999.

Mercer, 2011. “Engaging Employees to Drive Global Business Success.” (No longer available online)

Sinclair, Upton. 1937. The Flivver King. Second printing, 1987. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company

Sorensen, Charles E., with Samuel T. Williamson. 1956. My Forty Years with Ford. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Lionel Giles translation (1910), public domain due to age.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. 1911. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper Brothers. 1998 republication by Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY Public domain due to age, available at


Author: Bill Levinson, CM

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