Support Act – Part One

Transcript - a snapshot of my scribblings from the engagement meeting last week
Transcript – a snapshot of my scribblings from the engagement meeting last week

Last week I, and around 50 other practitioners, consultants and academics attended a meeting chaired by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke. This group had been asked to convene in advance of the first engagement taskforce meeting due to be held in early June.

David and Nita set the scene stressing that folks at Number 10, BIS, and the CBI see “employee engagement” as a hot topic. We are told the engagement taskforce is most definitely NOT a government initiative though it has government backing. The engagement taskforce companies have committed to putting forward resources, as yet unspecified. It was acknowledged that the weakest part of the original report “Engaging for Success” was the section on barriers to engagement, which had attempted to understand why the concept is not better understood and more widely practiced.

So why were we there? To answer two questions:

#1 since the publication of the Engaging for Success Report two years ago – what has changed?
#2 what stuff did we think the taskforce should prioritise and address first?

I’ll come back to the second question later this week. For now I want to focus on #1. We were sat in small groups at tables and this question was answered by anyone who had a point of view – hands up style. I’m not sure this is the best way to draw insight from such a large group, but that’s how it was handled. As people offered their views, and answers to the question I scribbled like mad trying to capture as much as I could. As you can see from the transcript which follows, a lot of folk didn’t answer the question; nevertheless some interesting points were made. Here is what I heard (with any additions in brackets).

Transcript from the Engagement Taskforce Guru Group Meeting held at 1 Victoria Street London on 19 May 2011

Question #1 since the publication of the Engaging for Success Report two years ago – what has changed?

There has been a proliferation of events, seminars

Strong emergence of social tools and new media (my observation – well come on you didn’t seriously expect me to keep quiet about that did you)

There is dissonance caused by pressure on living standards

Capturing where it is happening already

We are getting more C Suite (this term came up an awful lot and it makes me choke so I shan’t use it again) – senior level engagement

Command and control is an issue particularly in bigger more established organisations (I wonder how many of the taskforce organisations this may apply to?)

Is the person responsible for engagement committed to real change or is this just a part of their career progression (I worry that someone is responsible – surely we all are?)

The taskforce – what is the point of it? Can you integrate HR middle management with top level management?

Downsizing has not been handled well

We need to make a connection with brand and communication

The score or measure goes up yet folk don’t actually feel any better (indeed – comes from fiddling with numbers instead of trying to create any real meaning around the working relationship methinks)

Engagement is seen as a problem to fix, not a way to be

Surveys are not acted upon so people lose faith, think – why bother (murmurs about linking scores to bonuses – don’t get me started!)

Making changes in the way we educate children could be an opportunity (for new thinking and new behaviour)

Generations matter – perhaps younger people are not interested in authoritative leadership? They may have different expectations of a leader, pearls of wisdom and war stories bore younger folk.

Engagement is person specific – not a model

Engagement = compliance to retain your job

Tension around engagement versus short termism and the need to satisfy shareholders and deliver profit (perhaps we could use that to accelerate and drive change rather than shy away from it?)

Investment in middle managers has decreased – can we bring them together to reflect and learn from each other? (great idea something I hear other organisations talking about – so let’s do it!)

Aspire to be a social community (hmm – sound familiar?)

Pride, loyalty and effort come from the employee to the employer, what comes back? And how do we fit this into and around wellbeing and sustainability?

Participative working practices, involvement, converge

Why all this talk about the top level buy in – how about we infuse this stuff virally, further down?

Take a strength based approach

Collective behaviour change needed, mix passion and proof

Stories – what is being engaged? The organisation – no. Employees – yes.

Other observations which struck me about this invited group were: I saw no representation from the black and minority ethnic communities among the guests (there were a few empty seats so maybe some were invited and couldn’t make it) and I think I was one of the younger folk in attendance. I’m 46.

One further point that interests me is that I “advertised” the fact that I was going to this meeting on several forums. I encouraged folk to contact me with ideas, opportunities, concerns etc. that they might want to get on the table. The response barely registered a murmur.

So – I’ll write up question #2 and share that with you in a day or two. And now that you’ve seen the emerging thinking about what has changed in the last two years – is there anything in this so far which interests you? Anything you’d like to add?

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

22 thoughts on “Support Act – Part One”

  1. Great blog post! Where to start? This is just a very quick comment.

    The “how can we do to get them to …” has strong echoes of engagement’s first cousins, motivation and empowerment. I have a reference somewhere to someone saying that empowerment is the “latest in a long line in the lexicon of cant managerial terms for getting people to do things in spite of their in-born inclination to indolence”.

    And therein lies a deep truth, in my view. Taking the wider context, analysis of the management research literatures over decades shows that control is an enduring management concern. Tanennbaum (1968) said that “the theoretical analysis of control in organisations has a long and venerable history … control helps circumscribe idiosyncratic behaviours and keeps them conformant to the rational plan of the organisation.”

    This obsession with control “wreaks havoc” (Hitchins 1997). It is also profoundly disengaging and continues right up until the present.

    I think that the motivation, empowerment, engagement and control agendas are all related. Root cause and consequence. I am sure you know about the 2007 Towers Perrin international survey of 18 countries and 88,600 respondents. This found that engagement was associated with organisation, with a whole system of leadership and learning. Many businesses are failing to provide learning and performance environments that let people shine.

    High-performance work systems, learning and engagement – there’s another link. People in general crave meaningful work, and the opportunity for learning and using their skills.

    The question for me then becomes “how do we create performance environments (virtual, physical and organisational) that best enable people to connect, share and learn?” Then we’ll begin to get somewhere with engagement.


    Tannenbaum, A.S. 1968. Control in Organizations. New York: McGraw-Hill

    Hitchins, D. (1997). ‘Carry on thinking!’. Engineering Management, vol. 7, no. 3, 114-116

  2. Doug, I think there are huge opportunities for organisations to increase employee engagement however I’m a bit ambivalent about the task force. I think the main reason for this is the question about how much it can actually do. To an extent this is a problem with all taskforces but I have supported some previously eg the Accounting for People one, when they focused on something that it was clear there needed to be inter-organisational action on. But engagement occurs from what happens intra-organisationally (unless the taskforce is going to propose organisational citizenship lessons at school or something?). So apart from sharing theories etc, most of which those of us who are interested in this already know, what is it going to do? Particularly as I don’t think the problem in organisations is about knowing what to do, it’s having the guts to to it (make change, be different).

    1. Hello Jon – thanks for popping round. I agree – opportunities exist, and I too share your ambivalence. I epxet cmany others do too – when I made it known I was going to this session and asked for thoughts, ideas, views – I barely heard a whisper…

      Indeed my first reaction to being invited to contribute to this work was “you must be joking!” I reflected a while and thought it better to be in it – for a while at least – and try to gently influence, than exit stage left. I am interested to see if this group has the appetite to engage with connectinghr, who knows – some useful learning may occur.

  3. Jon, the theories and research are starting points for action and reflection. The same can be true of the task force.

    My own small contribution is to try to encourage people to have the guts to act. My experience had been working with senior execs, nationally and internationally, to co-create customised, active, social learning experiences in make the transition to new ways of working and shifting to new strategic positions.

    I want to take this experience online and to offer it to anyone who is looking for support as they seek to make changes. John Hagel and colleagues talk about ‘creation spaces’ in the Power of Pull. I am currently working with developers to build an infrastructure of learning communities, a creation space where people can get access to information, peers and facilitated help.

    It is not going to be easy but at least I am giving it a go. It has been a long haul and it will probably be September before I can launch. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    1. Hi again Anne Marie. Echo your’s and Jon’s point about guts, it’s why I feel so strongly about the power of proceed until apprehended, and why people who influence these things need to accept the inevitable disruption that comes with creativity 🙂

    2. Anne, just to explain I hadn’t seen your comment when I commented. I’m not against research – or of social learning experiences – particularly when these are well thought through as I’m sure yours will be.

  4. Doug,
    Thanks for the summary. After you post the second one, I encourage you to put the two together and offer it as a strong introduction to a forum on the Employee Engagement Network or even cross post as blog posts. This was the next best thing to being there.

    1. Hello David. I will drop a link up on the EE Network as soon as Part Two has emerged and I really appreciate your “next best thing” comment – that’s great thanks!

  5. Hi Doug

    I think there are a number of barriers to this whole engagement piece which need to be overcome. Firstly the unbelievable amount of tussling that can go on in organisations about who is ‘responsible’ for it which often prevents any improvements happening in the first place. Secondly I believe people overlook the individual employee at their peril. How much employee engagement activity takes into consideration that most of us (with some exceptions) don’t leave our real selves at the office door but come to work as individuals and with all our wonderful human characteristics intact?
    We are not one passive ‘audience’. Members of the public work for businesses too. If you want to take people along as your organisation transforms, you need to understand who they are, what they think and feel, what turns them on and off and what might just convince them to give a little bit extra. That takes proper insight but far too frequently all people work with are broad demographics pulled from HR Services or stats from the people survey.

    1. Hello Sarah, thanks for some great points:

      1 – the tussle over who is “responsible” preventing any meaningful improvement. Agree – and what to do? Devolve and dissolve responsibility maybe? Just make it everyone’s responsibility – or those that want it at least, you can’t force people to make work better – can you?

      2 – the importance of people as individuals. This came up in the exchange and I think there is a real need to acknowledge this and in so doing, connect it to your earlier point. I love the way you acknowledge that people don’t leave their real selves at the office door. In my experience though far too many people do. This is evidenced by the differing behaviours people acknowledge they use socially and professionally. I often wonder how powerful the world of work could be if we didn’t check in so much of our selves at the front desk…

      3 – We are not on passive audience. No we aren’t! It takes some time and care to work things through in a meaningful way. You are right when you suggest that too often people work with broad demographics pulled from HR and survey stats. What a yawn that is!

      I appreciate you popping by and I like the way your points support each other. I hope you, me and others will get the chance to discuss and progress this stuff soon.

  6. Hi Doug

    As to your first point, I think sadly there needs to be some ownership to get stuff done because although there is a lot of talk around engagement and what a priority it is I have seen too many senior folk concerned about the skewed people survey stats and not what lies beneath or any action that might need to take place. However, I am a big fan of involvement and encouraging people to get involved at all levels of a business if they want to make a difference.

    To Point 2, couldn’t agree more. In fact it makes me smile as I was asked in a senior management meeting once if I was a contractor or permanent bearing in mind I had just voiced some common sense!!

    Point 3 – surely there is a lot that can be learned from our colleagues in marketing and advertising to help with gaining better insight about the people who work for us?

    Will leave this debate for the time being or risk having ‘cyber stalker’ added to my list of skills!

    1. Hi again – yes indeed involving and encouraging work for me – I was perhaps too harsh earlier. And yes I think there is value in learning from marketing and advertising colleagues – and why not customers and other stakeholders too 🙂

  7. Your summary missed out a couple of points from the meeting Doug. I’m not sure about the “serialisation” of this discussion, so I’ll combine the two questions
    1. One point I made at the meeting was that awareness and interest in this area has increased by an order of magnitude over the last 2 years. This has unfortunately lead to a similar increase in the number of “definitions” and “practitioners” out there which is only clouding the issues. So lots of “snake oil salesman” and lots of self-fulfilling research, little progress. So priority should be some objective research involving academics, consultants, practitioners and, oh, people with REAL jobs – managers and employees (ask the audience)
    2. Another point I made was the bias towards HR and performance in the report. I have two fundamental issues with this. My first is the relationship an individual has with their organisation (brand) is just as (if not more) important than the connection with their role, yet ‘brand’ appears 10 times and ‘HR’ appears 298 times in the report (sadly I of the refrences to brand is a suggesstion that HR needs to be re-branded! (page 136 if you are interested)
    My second is the lack of analysis of the role of comms. If you look at the 4 enablers – Strategic Narrative, Engaging managers, Employee voice and Integrity – employee comms professionals spend a large proportion of their working lives focussed on these things. I was in the very small minority of comms people who contributed to this report. So priority should be a wider engagement with IC pros to get a better handle on this.

    Also, I think your point on ethnicity is a bit narrow. There are far greater diversity issues related to social mobility, gender etc.

    1. Thanks for a very useful expansion of your points Sean. Yes please – let’s get some “real” into this – real people, and also less bias towards HR. My experience shows me that often, operational senior management tend to push this stuff towards HR so I think this needs wider encouragement to include internal comms and others too. We’re all people people.

      To be clear, I wasn’t making a point about ethnicity as such, just observing its absence from the room on the day. Diversity is indeed a wider issue and thanks for reinforcing that.

      Cheers – Doug

  8. me again, another point discussed is the diversion that the GenY debate encourages. Bit of a red herring in my mind, backed up by a recent Gen Y panel discussion I chaired recently.
    P.S. Look out for management supplement on engagement in the Sunday Telegraph on 12th June – but don’t be too surprised to see the same old case studies from the big agencies and organisations that can afford the editorial fees. Objective journalism?

    1. Hello again Sean 🙂

      Gen X, Y, Z – whoever – they may all provide diversions and they all have some relevance. I’m not sure what it is yet because unlike you I’ve not yet quizzed the audience. I did think it was interesting that younger generations were another group conspicuous by their absence on the 19th. As for the supplement – thanks for the warning, I’ll try to avoid it 😉

  9. Hi Doug,
    Excellent summary of the event (first half anyway.)
    I share your perspective on many things (not surprising perhaps given that I was sitting next to you!) I too was struck by the lack of diversity amongst the ‘gurus’.
    I’m OK with the label by the way, as it only really means ‘teacher’. I reckon that’s a lot of what I do – it just so happens it’s in the ‘C’ Suites (new to me) rather than in schools.
    We’ve held loads of events on the Engagement topic and recently held another lunch with a group of ‘talent professionals’ looking at From ‘Engagement to Commitment’. There’s a write up in our magazine if anyone fancies a look.
    Anyway – good discussion Many thanks

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