I assume you are reading this at work. How’s your day going? Give it a score out of ten.
Six? Seven? Eight? Sound about right?
Aside from the fact that you may have taken some time away from the pressing business of the job that you love to read this, welcome to the dark arts of Employee Engagement.
I’ll talk about actual surveys later, but I recall something somebody once said to me: “I love my job, but I still hate it 60% of the time.” He was a novelist who worked when he wanted to, for himself, at home. No meetings, no presentations, no client needs analysis. And no “great place to work” survey form to fill in.
Have you ever sat through an Employee Engagement presentation and watched as the wiggly line of How Much People Like Being in Work meanders between 75 and 81% over the preceding ten years? I have, and it struck me that it was the modern equivalent of the medieval philosophical debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
At the heart of employment is the notion that Company x will pay Individual y the sum of z to stop doing what they want to do and come to work instead. In return, Individual y will sell their time and labour to Company x between the hours of n and n+8 in return for money to live. It was ever thus. In times gone by, no one ever asked a mill worker or a docker or an accountant if they were engaged with their work – and they almost never tried to get them to quantify their feelings about work through a survey – but they just recognised that, implicit in the transaction, there was a sense of frustration arising from not being free to do what you want, when you want. You either enjoyed your work (most of the time) or you didn’t.
Unfortunately, the human itch to measure and account for the vicissitudes of life meant that this ratio of work-based satisfaction to dissatisfaction had to be accommodated, and a whole swathe of what David Graeber termed Bullshit Jobs arose to service it. And what, globally, do they find? Surely “what gets measured gets managed”, right?
Well, in July 2018 ADP Research Institute found that the percentage of "Fully Engaged" employees was only 0.3% different to what it had been in 2015. Are you wondering if it was up or down? I’m not going to tell you, because, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. It means that globally approximately 84% of people are just Coming to Work and the number doesn’t change, despite all the surveys and measurements.
So, if we stop obsessing about numbers, and fretting about how we can bump next year’s survey figures up a magical 2% what can we do to make the exchange of time for money more acceptable?
Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of the fantastic Nine Lies About Work suggest that the thing that makes a difference to team engagement is being on a team. People who said they were on a team were 2.3 times more likely to feel Fully Engaged than those who were not.
“Great! We have teams! Job done!”
Not so fast.
Teams are more than just groupings on an Org Design chart. In fact, most work happens outside of these structured boxes. Of people in the survey who said they worked in teams, 65% of them said that they work on more than one team and that this team was not represented in the Org Design chart.
So you probably don’t know how many teams you have, or which are your best and most engaged teams. Quick! Commission a report! Find out! Quantify it! Draw up a survey!
That’s just more pointless busy work. I’ll save you the effort. The same survey found that in teams where the members strongly agreed that they trusted their team leader 45% were Fully Engaged. Put another way, a worker is twelve times more likely to be Fully Engaged if they trust their team leader.
“OK! Let’s send all of our team leaders on a course so they are super trusted!”
Again, I’ll save you the time.
The two factors that create and maintain trust in a leader are encapsulated in these two questions:
Apply your own experience here. I’m sure we’ve all been in work situations where the answers to these two questions were “no” and “absolutely not”. You certainly remember the few occasions where you could answer both in the affirmative.
At this point I could go off on a tangent about the folly of feedback, Personal Improvement Programmes and the chimera that is trying to make everybody great at everything. Or how it is possible to run a business more effectively without a whole swathe of middle managers whose only function is to check on the work of others… but those are topics for another day.
Instead I will repeat the thing that we have found in all the work we have done with a range of organisations in a broad spectrum of industries. Talk to your people. Find out what makes their day better and what makes it worse. Listen to them and help them make the changes that they would like to see. And if you are too close to the matters under consideration to take an unbiased view of things, pay an external facilitator to come in to help you make sense of the stories they tell.
That’s the only Employee Engagement that matters.
Is this the right room for an argument? If it’s not, perhaps it should be.
First of all, where do arguments start? Usually when someone says something that sits at odds with someone else’s values or views of the world and a debate starts. Positions are reinforced, ideas become entrenched… before long it can become heated and things get out of hand. That’s why the diffusing phrases “don’t let’s argue”, or “I don’t want to get into an argument…” feature so prominently when a disagreement surfaces. The very word has become toxic and imbued with negative connotations… but it shouldn’t.
The roots of “argument” lie in the Latin word “arguere”, to make clear, or prove accurate. In Middle English this became a process of reasoning in support of a proposition. So, if you don’t want to argue, you don’t want to accept reasoning and you might be happy with something that is confused, or inaccurate… so let’s argue.
Over the next few articles, I am going to throw out a few contentious statements. I hope they provoke you. I hope you rise to the bait and challenge what I say. Not because I want to get into a row with you. If I wanted to do that I would hop over to Twitter and gladly pick any number of fights with strangers. I just want to question the orthodoxy, because, well, that’s what we like to do.
One of our abiding beliefs is that “just because it’s like this doesn’t mean that that’s how it should be.” There might be a better way – to work, to interact, to speak to people, to organise, to collaborate – and our role is to offer thoughts, ideas and activities that will help you to find that better way.
So here’s my first contention...
Your business isn’t a family.
Thinking it is is duplicitous and manipulative.
There is an oft-quoted observation that, for most organisations, however much they push the “we’re a family” line, if you died you’d be replaced within the month, but for a deeper consideration of the topic you might want to read this HBR article on how the “business-as-family” metaphor can be toxic.
It makes the very good point that you don’t fire a family member or put them through performance improvement plans… however much you might like to.
Nearly as bad is the similar statement that I once saw in a customer service centre: “We treat our Customers as Family.” If that means you don’t speak for months at a time and you moan about each other behind their backs, that’s probably pretty accurate, but I don’t think that’s what they were driving at.
My belief is that using family references is a shorthand to create a non-existent culture of mutual dependability. However much you tussle in your own family dynamics, in most cases, at a time of genuine crisis family members rally round to help. Businesses wish they had that kind of loyalty, so they try to create it by using the same terminology, but there isn’t the same skin in the game.
Who benefits from a manufactured sense of familial bond at work? As a member of a real family, if the individual is having trouble help and support is offered immediately and organically without diverting the matter through the established protocols and procedures of HR. (And don’t get me started on the establishment of a function that sees living, breathing, emotional individuals as “resources”…)
Perhaps the family metaphor is more useful as a lever for the organisation. If you buy into the idea that they care for you and love you like a family member you’re more likely to put up with all the things that upset out of a misplaced sense of guilt.
Maybe it’s to get round the uncomfortable fact that you spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with your real family. Whichever way you slice that it’s just wrong. Don’t try to make it better by pretending that your “work family” matter as much as your actual family.
So what to do about it? Perhaps stop wasting time on meaningless, performative gestures like claiming that a means to an economic end (for employer and employee) has a mystical interpersonal connection. Instead maybe work on actual connection that recognises the strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of the individuals that make up the business. You are all people whose only connection in most cases is that you share the same space, at the same time, working on broadly the same stuff. We’re all different – which is brilliant - and as long as you recognise that people will choose not to leave and will feel better while they’re there.
..A bit like a family.
Next time: Stop doing Employee Engagement surveys and do something useful instead.
Colour; Noun (Vicky Holding and Howard Karloff)