18 October 2010

Rethinking Employee Engagement

One of the LinkedIn groups I follow – Organization Development and Training – had an ongoing conversation that addressed the question of whether so-called employee engagement programs are effective. After all, a recent study by one of the name-brand, managerialist consulting companies, McKinsey, found that non-financial incentives like praise, recognition, attention, and the opportunity to take on new leadership responsibilities were only marginally more effective than the good old Taylorist approach of bonus incentive pay.

Given that a survey taken at a time of economic insecurity would find that economic incentives are more engaging than engagement programs is hardly surprising to anyone who looks beyond the restrictions of the assumptive box into which this study has been molded. But the conversation among OD practitioners expanded the question somewhat, and led to an observation from one person that employee engagement tends to be weakest among organizations which have no long-term purpose, but only a short-term vision—call it managerial myopia (nearsightedness).

The immediate response to that observation was a call for creating a balance between our individual passions and purpose, and those of the firm. The idea is that the organization’s interests being inherently superior to those of its members create a disconnection between individual’s (non-economic) motivators and those forms of engagement that turn on her/his intrinsic motivators. The responder observes that, “we are still wedded to the paradigm of the organisation holding the balance of power in a relationship. I think that increasingly that's a choice we make, not a truth.

The idea of organizations holding the balance of power in a relationship being a “choice” is only partially true. Over the past four centuries, that balance of power, and the subjectification of organization’s members to its institutional authority have been the received and accepted model that has shaped not only organizations, but Western society as a whole. It is received knowledge, certainly, but knowledge that has been consistently received and reinforced, predominantly by those who hold the privilege of societal power. What this suggests is that we have yet to fulfil the prerequisites for any hope of sustainable success in truly engaging employees through non-financial, supposed incentives. We first have to “unreceive” the knowledge that an organization’s (predominantly or exclusively economic) interests necessarily take precedence over the collective values of all its constituencies. In other words, we need to acquire both a new way of thinking about organizations, and a new vocabulary and discourse that supports that thinking, to effect the changes necessary to shift the last 400 years of “that's always been the way things are.”

To balance passion and purpose, I have proposed the idea of tactility to replace vision as the guiding sensory metaphor. The issue is not where we see ourselves in the future (which never arrives, of course), but rather whom are we touching, and how are we touching them, today? Are we touching – that is, creating the effects – in ways that we intend, and what subsequent effects (secondary, tertiary, and so forth) are being set in motion?

Those effects can be articulated as valence relationships—those connections that bind us and enable us to react and interact with each other, and with other organizations, communities and environments. It is through the effects we create by way of Economic, Socio-Psychological, Knowledge, Identity, and Ecological relationships that our passions and purposes become connected and viscerally expressed. When we balance the totality of effects among an organization’s various constituencies, employees (among other members) cannot help but become more engaged, or conversely realize that they and the organization are irreconcilably incompatible. The result? Organizations and their members are more engaged and aligned with each other, with their communities, and with their passions and purposes.

No comments: