Press pause

Lisa Sofianos argues for less mechanisation and more inspiration in employee engagement

Employee engagement must be one of the most talked about items on any HR agenda at the current moment. There have been swathes of sound research demonstrating convincingly that engaged employees are more innovative, loyal and productive than their disengaged counterparts. In many ways, the task of making the case for employee engagement has been a great success and I count myself as a champion for the cause. I am completely convinced that a workforce that fully understands and gets behind the strategic ambition of the organisation, that internalises the values and takes pride in the work, has to be a strong and resilient entity. And for every word that has been written about the benefits of employee engagement, at least another ten have been written about how to achieve the goal of an organisation staffed with people who brim with ideas and enthusiasm and who can’t wait to meet the next challenge that their working day presents to them. Yet, despite all of this discussion about what drives engagement and how to craft a magic formula for engagement success, it still remains a rather elusive prize. It is amongst all of this fevered activity that I would like to invite you to press the pause button for a moment to consider why so much thought has yielded relatively little in results. 

The Ikea Effect

How many of you still retain a disproportionate fondness for a flat pack coffee table or bookshelf that you may have sweated to assemble in your youth? With every successive house move the ‘Billy’ bookcase, that you thought would be a cheap and temporary measure at the time of purchase, is lovingly transported to your new home to be surrounded by increasingly more expensive and chic items of furniture. Harvard’s Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely, have called this phenomenon ‘The Ikea Effect’. They discovered, through their research, that [pullquote]whenever people invest some of their labour into creating an item, such as a bookcase, the degree to which they value that item is disproportionately greater than the monetary worth[/pullquote]. In their words, labour is love. The converse can also be true. When convenience cake mixes were introduced in the 1950s with the aim of making the lives of American home bakers simpler, they failed to catch on because they were seen to make the business of baking too easy. Since all that was being asked of them was to add a measure of water and to mix the batter, consumers felt that their effort, or labour, was being undervalued and treated as an irrelevant part of the process. The manufacturers added an extra step to the process with the addition of an egg along with the water and finally they were on to a winner. 

To some extent, we have always known that the more of ourselves that we invest in a project, the more committed we are to its success. It is not so easy to take personal pride in something that has been handed to us and too easily won; we all know the adage, “easy come, easy go.” With this lesson in mind, it is interesting to ponder why the Ikea Effect is not a main plank of any strategy to secure engagement. In other words, if the goal is to create personal engagement within people, then we need people to be really involved and to be authentically engaged, and this is where some of my concerns lie.

‘Doing Being Engaged’

There is a brilliant sociologist called Harvey Sacks who unfortunately died quite young and early on in a rather extraordinary academic career. Amongst other things, he developed a concept called ‘Doing Being Ordinary’ by which he refers to the ways in which we work at creating the effect of being ordinary people, simply doing ordinary things. He talks about how we might encounter unusual occurrences or events that we work to fold back into our sense of ordinariness. For example, if we are driving in a car and hear an explosion we will assume it is another car backfiring or a plastic bottle being run over. It may be something entirely different but our tendency is to make it ordinary and normal. One illustration of this is a real passenger’s eye witness account of a plane being hijacked “I was walking up towards the front of the airplane and I saw the stewardess standing facing the cabin and a fellow standing with a gun in her back. And my first thought was…he’s showing her the gun…and then I realised that couldn’t be, and then it turned out he was hijacking the plane.” Events such as these that take us out of the ordinary, find ways to be folded back into normal day-to-day routines even if they are anything but ordinary! 

Another way to think about this is the idea of ‘going through the motions’ and this is where the problem may be in respect to employee engagement. We have, it seems, found more and more ways to ‘mechanise’ engagement. We have our engagement surveys, focus group discussions, working groups to address issues that come out of surveys, engagement reports, engagement conferences and so on. We have got organised, and to some degree systematised, around engagement, but in doing so run the risk of going through the motions, of ‘doing being engaged’, and losing the authentic, real involvement of workers in their organisations. I would argue that real engagement needs tension to fully capture the heart and mind.

Employee engagement beyond command and control

My sense is that this has happened because for many we are still in an early stage of a transition from the old command and control models of leadership to more power sharing approaches. While we are getting ever better at communicating and listening to staff, and mechanising the process, it is hard to shake the expectation that the senior people have all the answers, or in fact that they organise ‘the show’.  [pullquote]It would seem that there are some missing or silent words surrounding the idea of employee engagement and that is that engagement is done by the leadership, to the employees[/pullquote].

What I am making a plea for, when it comes to employee engagement, is perhaps an unusual request, but it is for leaders to get out of the way of people and allow them the freedom to design their own meaningful relationship to their work. Come to think about it, how could it be any other way? Of course, leaders need to communicate the strategic intent to people in ways that make real sense to them. They also need to spell out and enforce the parameters in order to protect the organisation from risk. But real engagement comes from an authentic response by the workers, not one that is shaped, mediated and ultimately directed by the leadership. 

This kind of thinking isn’t entirely new. Ronald Heifetz sets out in his ‘Adaptive Leadership’ approach how leaders can identify an adaptive problem and present it back to the workforce to both learn from it and find a solution. This leadership style is not about sidestepping the leadership task, but rather to recast it as a facilitative role where employees are encouraged to face hard facts and supported in order to develop their skills. Adaptive Leadership has also been described as ‘leading when you don’t know what the answer is’ and Heifetz defines an Adaptive Challenge as something that is new to the organisation, requiring a solution that is not readily available. He contrasts this with a technical problem where the skills and knowledge already exist to respond to the challenge. It seems to me that employee engagement fits the bill of an Adaptive Challenge rather well. We are in uncharted territory where the psychological contract between employers and employees may need to be extensively rewritten in order to create the conditions for engagement. 

Engagement is nothing without freedom

Like Heifetz, I believe that the way to meaningful and authentic engagement is to open up freedoms for employees in order to construct their own response to their work. Creating these greater freedoms can help, specifically in terms of:

1.       How people organise their work and figure out how to approach their tasks

2.       How people communicate with each other in both style and content, and

3.       How they learn and incorporate that learning back into their work and find the space for their own individuality and creativity. 

As in the Ikea Effect, if you have constructed your own solution to a challenge at work, you are personally invested in it. If you are free to table the issues that you think are important and to choose the way that you talk about them, you are much more likely to find yourself engaged in the response. And if the workplace is a place of personal growth, you will engage in a way that is deep and meaningful to you.  This to me comes closer to a definition of employee engagement than any other we’ve seen.

Is your organisation serious about employee engagement?

While we have the pause button pressed then perhaps this is a good opportunity to think about what we actually mean by employee engagement and how far organisations are prepared to go on this journey. In other words, are we really serious about engagement?

For example, what happens in organisations when a significant proportion of the workforce does not agree with the new direction or initiative? I am thinking of Coca Cola’s recent PR woes with their sponsorship of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. There was widespread comment about why a company that had built a brand on youth and personal expression could be promoting an event in Russia, where laws on the promotion of homosexuality had recently been tightened. There were even large-scale internet campaigns calling for Coke to pull out of the deal from people who couldn’t square the perceived gulf between brand values and business strategy. It is interesting to think about what Coca Cola would have done if a significant number of employees opposed the sponsorship decision. This would be a serious conflict of values, and engaged employees would arguably feel much more compelled to make their concerns heard and even act upon them. Mature organisations should be able to hold this kind of conversation with their employees if they value engagement, but many don’t and wouldn’t. 

In contrast, the high street shoe repairers and key cutters, Timpson, are serious about their engagement and the extent to which they allow their staff freedoms in the workplace. This is symbolised by the fact that in every single one of the 1,000 Timpson stores across the country there will be a large sign bearing a picture of the chairman John Timpson accompanied by the statement “Our colleagues in this shop have my total authority to do whatever they can to give you amazing service.” The company’s chief executive James Timpson explains: “They can charge what they want, order their own stock, change the displays. They can even paint their shop a different colour to make more money – that’s fine by us”. This is an example of a company that is willing to go the distance in creating engagement in the workplace by trusting staff, giving them responsibility to make decisions and the power to act upon them. And it is precisely this level of job control that generates engagement, but importantly it is not the type of engagement, (that we more commonly see), that is directed, managed or mediated by the leadership. 

Unfortunately, another hangover from the command and control era is that many organisations are structured in a hierarchical manner with multiple layers. This can have the effect of pushing accountability and responsibility for decision-making ever upwards. This actively works against engagement and an organisation that is serious about the subject should see engagement as less of a process of issuing people surveys and creating focus groups, and more of a process of organisation re-design. But few leaders would have the commitment to engagement to take it to its logical conclusion in this way.

Finally, we know from our own experience that ideas don’t come to people fully formed and ready to be operationalised. Employees’ knowledge about the organisation, the environment, the threats and opportunities is imperfect, and unevenly distributed. For most people, ideas and thinking is a messy, emergent and iterative process. If we are to get truly serious about engagement then we must acknowledge that our current tools for engaging and capturing the fruits of engagement don’t fit with this reality. Surveys assume that information is easy to encapsulate in short paragraphs or the richness of individual experience can be captured through box-ticking. Focus groups aim to surface all the issues within an hour of choreographed discussion, and inevitably conversation is dominated by a few voices speaking for the constituency they seemingly seek to represent. And facilitated sessions tend to channel thought into neat models and diagrams. All of these techniques fail to get to grips with the fact that high quality thinking and discussion is difficult to organise, and this is partly why much of the ‘real stuff’ is discussed in the informal spaces; the coffee shop, along the corridors or on the train home. In order to get real about this, [pullquote]organisations need to develop new methods of engagement that can deal with the richness and unpredictability of human interaction[/pullquote].

These, and other examples perhaps explain why I am not convinced that we are bottoming out all of the engagement issues in what is a huge cultural sea change for many organisations. If there is a next phase for authentic employee engagement it has to be about less mechanisation and more inspiration.


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