Employee Engagement – Still talking about the same thing, right?


An obscure “Blade of Glory” quote popularised recently by Jay-Z and Kanye But while Chazz Michael Michaels was talking about “lady humps” the same conversation might just make sense in the context of employee engagement.

As a concept, engagement has its roots in the work of Iban Mayo and the human relations movement. Contrary to the prevailing scientific management wisdom at the time, Mayo stumbled upon the somewhat obvious fact that merely treating employees like humans (with a gesture as small as adjusting the lighting in the workplace) can have a significant impact on productivity.

The concept has evolved over time, with notable input from survey based interventions and organisations like Gallup. But while the numerical focus has undoubtedly helped the idea to mature and guided organisations toward specific interventions, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real meaning of engagement has got lost in its practical application. Just about every employee will recognise the phrase, but try asking for a definition and see what you get. Provocative? Gets the people going?

Most research into the topic comes to the firm conclusion that the biggest driver of “engagement” is employees finding meaning in their work. This can be traced through:

  • Organisations having a greater purpose and vision,
  • Employees connecting with this purpose,
  • Understanding how their personal job contributes to this larger purpose
  • And having the tools, resource and mandate to complete their job effectively.

This is all very sensible. The difficulty when it comes to practice, however, is that organisations tend to focus on “quick wins” and easily measurable improvement plans – because we all know “what gets measured, gets managed”.

Many organisations focus on the bottom two points, with the result that to many, employee engagement has become a confusing mish-mash of making sure everyone has a pen, letting people wear jeans on a Friday and holding strictly scheduled briefings, where a corporate powerpoint presentation is recited to uninterested employees.

So what would focusing on a purpose and an individual employee’s relationship with that purpose look like? Here are three thoughts:

Define the organisations larger purpose (beyond enriching shareholders)

There are plenty of good examples, including Unilever, Melotte and Puma. Wal-Mart, suffering some particularly bad press in 2005, made an extra effort in its response to Hurricane Katrina. In the process, CEO Lee Scott noticed a massive increase in employee engagement. Attributing the increased engagement to a sense of purpose, and deciding he wanted a work force as enthusiastic as that all the time, he decided to do some thinking around Wal-Mart’s larger purpose. Scott set a target in 2005 to produce zero waste, have an energy supply that is 100% renewable and only produce products that sustain our environment and resources. This has been Wal-Mart’s sustainability mantra ever since.

Give employees the opportunity to create their own meaning around that purpose – and encourage two way dialogue

To make their sustainability mantra meaningful for their 1.3 million employees, Wal-Mart created a tool called My Sustainability Plan. This allowed employees to take the concept of sustainability and create meaning for the idea that was relevant for them. Regarding two way dialogue, Brighter Planet have produced research suggesting organisations where employees are able to make suggestions are six times as likely to have a very effective engagement programme.

Enable all employees to contribute to the larger purpose – and not just in a token way

Beyond personal sustainability plans, Wal-mart have used their Sustainability goals to re-invigorate their lean six sigma thinking. Engaging entire teams in sessions to re-design packaging and reduce waste has led to dozens of implemented ideas and millions of dollars saved.

Organisations looking for that magic bullet of discretionary effort, productivity and on-fire-employees would do well to look at their role in society and how their employees are able to engage with that. I don’t know about you, but more than having pens, or dress down Friday, I find that provocative. It gets me going.


Joining HR Dots… Corporate Social Responsibility and Employee Engagement


Image from sustainabilityadvantage.com

The above is the result of valuable piece of research conducted in Canada by Hewitt and Canadian Business for Social Responsibility. It looks at the link between employee engagement and employees’ perception that their employer is socially responsible.

It’s one of those relationships that makes perfect sense but is too often overlooked: The most powerful driver of employee engagement is people finding meaning in the work that they do. If an employee’s work is their cause, then of course they are going to go the extra mile to do it well!

So compelling were the above results that Hewitt have since included perceptions of CSR as an item in their engagement survey.

Hopefully this is symptomatic of a move to incorporate ideas about the social impact of an organisation in the employee engagement debate.

How to be a Woman (and an inclusive feminist)


“The best thing to do is to choose what you think is right and then just make it look cool… With writing a book about feminism, I was like ‘I could write a real ball aching book and just go ‘you must believe women are equal to men because it’s like a fact of science’, or, I could just write a funny book where women go ‘oh, I’m having fun reading this. It’s making me happier about myself and now I’m just going to buy myself a more comfortable pair of pants’.”

Caitlin Moran on how focusing on the positive (and humorous) can be a much more fruitful approach to engagement and change than acting righteous or having a rant. From a male perspective, I find her disarmingly funny, articulate, passionate and very intelligent. There is something about her style that makes me feel included as a feminist, rather than adversarial as a man. I suspect this comment about her positive focus goes a long way to explaining why. Her book, “How to be a Woman” has (as of July 2012) sold over 400,000 copies in 16 countries. For more funny, articulate, disarming feminism (including how to teach your children to pity Rhianna despite her beauty, wealth and power), listen to her interview with Tim Minchin 

The Empathic Civilisation


The above video triggered some interesting thoughts for me on the links between empathy and organisational change: Rifkin suggests here that “Empathy is our ability to show solidarity with each other” and that is it “grounded in our rooting for each other to flourish and be.”
There is a wealth of research in the field of evolutionary psychology suggesting empathy exists because it helps those that have it to survive. It is easy to imagine how an ability to put ourselves in each others’ shoes and root for each other has helped us to co-ordinate our interests, collaborate and organise. And it is easy to take this a step further and imagine how organised, collaborating, empathetic individuals gave themselves a load of advantages over others.

How does empathy work? By listening to each other, we can better understand each others motivations. This allows us to create knowledge, understanding and meaning that enables co-ordination of our actions. In other words, empathetic dialogue is all about historical/hermeneutic knowledge.

This is nothing new in itself. Iban Mayo was championing the idea of listening to employees and allowing them to engage in the change process as far back as the 1930s. The issue is that much recent literature still relies on Taylorist notions of rational managers identifying the correct path for change and overcoming resistance from employees who are attached to the status quo. There is an unspoken fear on the part of managers that allowing employees to design their own change will lead to off-the-wall suggestions, founded on employees’ rational pursuit of laziness and self interest.

But thinking of ourselves as empathetic first and rational second suggests there is a lot more give in the system. It suggests that in the face of external change, we are not inclined to steadfastly pursue our own self-interest, but that we are “soft-wired” to find a new way of working together.

So, assuming collaboration is still sensible in changed circumstances, people are pre-disposed to find a way to make it work. Facilitating an empathetic discussion will enable people to make sense of the change and build the hermeneutic knowledge they need to give their best in the new environment.

Letting go is always frightening for a manager, but thinking of employees as empathetic human beings is a very helpful first step.

Habermas, Knowledge and Resistance to Change

One of the things I’d like to do with this blog is to try to build a bridge between dense and complicated academic theory, and the real world – where some of these dense and brilliant ideas might be put to use. Today’s focus is Jurgen Habermas – and what his theory of knowledge interests can tell us about organisational change and resistance.

In his theory of knowledge, Habermas identifies three “knowledge interests” – three motivations people seek and create knowledge:

Rational/Empirical: Knowledge that is created with the aim of better predicting and controlling our environment

Historical/Hermeneutic: Knowledge that is created to establish reliable inter-subjective meaning – ie knowledge that allows people to establish a common frame of reference, a common understanding and co-ordinate around it

Critical/Emancipatory: Knowledge that is created to challenge the status quo, and to make the invisible constraints of language visible and thus changeable.

(For a good academic overview, see Bauer &Gaskell (2000): p 12-15)

Where this becomes relevant for organisational change is when you consider knowledge interests in an organisation. While there is undoubtedly a need for rational/empirical knowledge of the outside world, any organisation is only permitted to exist if its members find an ability to co-ordinate some of their personal motivations. In other words, the creation of historical/hermeneutic knowledge is necessary for the existence of an organisation.

All too often, change is approached by managers from an empirical perspective. The only knowledge required is that there is a change in circumstance which logically implies a need to change something within the organisation.

While the logic for change may be sound and irrefutable, if the change implied is not consonant with the hermeneutic knowledge that lives within the system, people will be unwilling to accept it. People need to create new hermeneutic knowledge, to re-affirm how their personal motivations and their identity relate to this changed environment.

Resistance, in this framework is not employees being lazy, or irrational; it is the conflict between a new way of doing things and an existing consensus on the identity, goals and meaning of the organisation. Resistance in this sense should not be crushed, but engaged with, understood and included.

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.