Both Engagement and Change

Everyone loves employee engagement. It’s not only common sense, but repeatedly demonstrated in research that employees who are engaged perform better.

CIPD finds that high employee engagement is associated with a range of positive outcomes, including better performance, more innovation and higher retention rates. The Corporate Leadership Council reports that highly engaged employees work 57% harder and are nine times less likely to leave than highly unengaged employees. They also demonstrated that engaged organizations averaged 20.1% revenue growth over three years, compared to 8.1% growth in a control population.

And yet and yet and yet… When it comes to change, the text book goes out the window and all the value is forgotten. Accenture suggest that 57% of organisations experience a downturn in productivity during change initiatives.

Why? It is well accepted that the most powerful driver for engagement is employees finding meaning in their work. Thus engagement is fundamentally linked to an organisations core purpose and values. Any change which is perceived as a challenge to this purpose is liable to have a negative impact on engagement and performance.

For employees, organisational purpose and values are manifested every day – in how co-workers are treated, in how customers are served; in the factors considered when making any decision in the orgainsation.

When re-designing a process has an impact on these surface-level manifestations, it is highly likely that the change will also impact employees’ interpretation of organisational priorities and direction. Thus, while changes to organisational structure or personnel may be conceived to impact financial metrics, they can have unforeseen knock on effects on employees’ identification with organisational purpose and thus on their engagement.

So how to do better? Again, this is where co-creation of plans, strategies and meaning becomes so valuable. Rather than planning a change in a small team, then communicating the fait-accompli to the organisation at large, invite the whole system to contribute ideas and thoughts to the change. McKinsey offer some interesting examples of large organisations looking at this already. Letting go of control like this is incredibly hard to do – especially in a traditional, large, command and control organisation. Then again, 20.1% revenue growth over three years, compared to 8.1% is a devilishly persuasive argument.

Don’t burn the platform – light the way


“We will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea: Yes We Can”

Urgent! Urgent! Everyone be urgent! Our iceberg is melting, because our platform is burning. And even if that’s not technically true, we will tell you that anyway, and find data to support that argument, because good change management starts with a sense of urgency.

Sound familiar? Conventional wisdom has stated that any change effort needs to start with urgency: From Lewin’s “unmelting” phase (which Schein has expanded to include “disconfirming the current model”); to Kotter’s stage model – beginning with (you guessed it) stage 1: Create a sense of urgency. Steven Elop – Nokia’s CEO offers a textbook example of this approach – even starting his employee communication with the fable of the burning platform.

But is it really the right approach for every situation? Urgency gets things done – no doubt about that – and jumping off a platform into icy waters can be a sensible approach if your life is in imminent danger. But if the platform isn’t actually on fire, then people are going to see through the lie sooner or later.

There’s an unsaid assumption in this approach that in change, people need to be forced to do things that they don’t want to do. Kotter himself has started addressing this by talking about the importance of winning hearts as well as minds. It goes without saying that only exaggerating the negative aspects of what has gone before is going to win few hearts.

As an alternative – could co-creating a positive vision of the future bring about a more sustainable sense of urgency? David Cooperrider suggests that hope and a dream of a better future – a “burning vision” can catalyse action just as effectively. Moreover, there’s no “change fatigue” and a lot less resistance with hope as a foundation. Nobody has exploited that fact better in recent history than Barack Obama. And while there was no shortage of fuel for him to light a burning platform, his choice to focus on hope, and utilise relentlessly positive imagery led to one of the most impressive election campaigns in history.

New roles for new leaders (or what Rupert Murdoch can learn from UPS)

There have been a couple of really prescient examples this week of an old model of leadership proving defunct and irrelevant. Last Wednesday, Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone – a landmark judgment for the ICC. Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch was accused of being unfit to run a major corporation. Interestingly in both cases, there was insufficient evidence to directly prove either leader had actively done wrong. But whether Taylor ordered the rape and mutilation of thousands of civilians in irrelevant. Whether Murdoch explicitly ordered a cover up of phone hacking, or just created a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture devoid of moral questioning is moot. In both cases, leaders created a culture that allowed evil to occur. And in both cases, the leaders have been called to account, and have been found wanting – regardless of their plausible deniability.

Diana Whitney draws the useful distinction between leaders (as people with competencies) and leadership as an emergent process in an organisation that enables better performance. Given the rise of megalithic companies (or states – for that matter), it seems necessary to move past the assumption that an individual leader (no matter how competent) will be able to keep tabs on an entire organisation.

So if Taylor or Murdoch are guilty of enabling a culture where evil could occur, what does positive leadership look like through this lens? Arguably the most important aspect of leadership in a post-command-and-control space is to act as a moral compass. To ensure that good ideas are megaphoned, and ideas that can lead to evil are stamped out.

Beyond that, there is also the requirement to create a culture where everyone is enabled to question, experiment and engage.

In this respect, you could do worse than looking at UPS. At some point in the last couple of years, someone had the counter-intuitive idea to redesign all their routes so that trucks in the USA never had to turn left. No, it was not an ‘Ode to Zoolander’s inability to ambi-turn; the idea was to cut down the amount of time idling and sitting in traffic. The strategy has helped them shave over twenty million miles off their clocks in 2011, while delivering 350,000 more packages. They have also reduced their carbon footprint by 20,000 metric tonnes.

Regardless of Bob Stoffel’s (UPS CEO’s) charisma, personal insight, or knowledge of the activities in every nook and cranny in his organisation, he has created a culture where ideas like “let’s never turn left anymore” can not only be voiced, but can gather momentum and actually become reality.