Employee Engagement Kool Aid

Kool Aid

I’ve just finished reading ‘Engaging the Right Message?’, a blog post by HRTinker which reflects on an Engage for Success regional event he attended in Leeds yesterday. I think it’s good that Engage for Success is out on the road on a much bigger scale than it has been before now. In earlier days everything seemed very London centric, so kudos for getting out and about, it matters.

I want to pick up something HRTinker said in his post, namely:

‘The worry for me is that there was no cynicism in the room, no one standing outside of the agenda asking is this really being pitched in the right way?’

It’s interesting that the Engage for Success group identifies the importance of winning people over, of converting the cynics, and yet it somehow manages to gently and quietly, and I think unintentionally, quell criticism from within.

From my experience based on attending a lot of Engage for Success activity over the years, I concur with HRTinker’s worry. In fact I’ve blogged critically about Engage for Success several times, to the point where people in the group began to address me as ‘our critical friend’. I think they appreciated the challenge, however since launch, the lack of questioning and constructive criticism has risen further to the point where I don’t feel like I can currently contribute critically like I used to. It feels to me like Engage for Success is heading for its own Drinking The Kool Aid Moment, and I think that is a dangerously detached place to be.

Right now – I feel less engaged with Engage for Success than at any time previously, although on reading HRTinker’s post, maybe I’m not as alone as I felt?

As I finish writing this piece I spy a tweet from psycho_boss asking, ‘So how do we engage CEOs with Engage for Success?’ I may be wrong, I often am, and I think in part, people are drawn to others when they get a sense of being able to have a debate, a sense of open respectful disagreement. So maybe it would help if the group demonstrated that behaviour through accepting and issuing challenge a little more comfortably? What do you think?

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Discretionary Effort is Theft

The holy grail of employee engagement. Get better at it and what do you get? More discretionary effort from your staff. Get better and better at employee engagement and you get more and more discretionary effort.

Work Life Balance

Except…the last time I looked we only have 24 hours in any one day, and we can only function productively and meaningfully for so long. So for employees to give more of that discretionary effort to their employer, well that means they have less to give to themselves, their family and their friends. and that doesn’t sound much like a balance to me.

Unpaid Overtime

How much is enough? Workers in the UK already work among the longest hours in Europe. And according to the TUC, around five million UK workers contribute over seven hours extra a week without pay. They estimate that to be worth upwards of £4,500 ($7,200) a year in extra pay.

If employers are really serious about engaging, then more consideration should be applied to binning bonuses and distributing some of that pot and the savings that come from no longer having to frig the figures, sorry I mean administer the bonus scheme, as an increase in pay. And perhaps overlay an across the company flat rate profit share scheme to distribute part of the extra benefit gained from better work?

Acceptable Discretionary Effort

So if there are only 24 hours in a day, and we’re already working long hours and making unpaid contributions already, is there a case for acceptable discretionary effort? Perhaps there is. Let’s say your team has a major project to deliver within a certain time, and things are tight. If you work for an employer who already treats you right then perhaps being asked for a burst of extra effort to get something specific done is fine, so long as a) we can be clear on how much extra we think is needed and b) for how long. If discretionary effort becomes any more of an expectation that that, then it’s not discretionary effort, it’s theft.

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What is Employee Engagement? Ask Archie!

In my Engage for Success launch blog post on Monday about defining employee engagement and measuring employee engagement, I also mentioned we heard from Archie Norman, currently chairman at ITV. Archie (I will refer to him by his first name, I hope he doesn’t mind) was invited to talk to us about what employee engagement means to him, and after David MacLeod introduced Archie as the Godfather of employee engagement, I was keen to hear what he had to say. Here are a few things that caught my attention:

Work is becoming voluntary

Archie said that young people are more and more deciding whether they want to work, where they want to work and for whom. The last two I get, but I felt his first assertion was somewhat removed from reality. Most people want and indeed probably need to work, and I couldn’t help wondering what kind of response his statement would get from the roughly one million young people currently unemployed in the UK?

Knowledge workers

Archie said that businesses are becoming more focused on knowledge, skills and the service people deliver, less about costs. I certainly think there is a strong connection between the employee service and customer service experience, and if you can get the employee piece right, the customer service flows more easily and meaningfully. And I think most people would agree that improving knowledge and skills is vital, yet the ‘training’ budget is often one of the first to be hit in tough times. As more and more big companies are run by bean counters, I’m not sure I see the cost challenge going away any time soon.

Customer service

Archie said that ‘we go to places to shop that have humanity’, and he also said that ‘self esteem defines service’. These are powerful observations and I was pleased to hear talk of things more emotional, and less functional.

Engagement is not a survey

“Engagement is not an HR activity, although HR should be responsible for measuring it,” Archie said. “And it’s not a survey. Engagement is about leadership living the values.” Unsurprisingly I disagree with anyone being responsible for measuring engagement and I do think that if engagement is about meaning, purpose and shared values, it should flow everywhere in and out of the business, through leadership and way beyond.

Hierarchy is dead

‘I haven’t had an office since I worked at McKinsey’, Archie told us. “Hierarchy is dead,” he said. “Offices and all that have to go. Job titles are meaningless.” He encouraged total transparency and said leaders should reward staff for speaking up and telling them what should be changed about the company.

I’m curious to know how Archie felt when after finishing his talk we were shown a video of some 40 CEOs all giving their blessing to employee engagement. Most, if not all, were older, white men, doubtless very well paid indeed. The fact that this collection of the great and good lacked any obvious diversity was disheartening enough, and the assertion that somehow the Engage for Success movement might succeed thanks to the exhortations of the 40 leaves me feeling Hierarchy is still very much alive.

You can read another angle on Archie’s talk courtesy of HR Magazine here and Graham Frost has covered the event more broadly here too. And as always, I’d love to hear your views, particularly on the death or otherwise, of hierarchy.

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