Employee Engagement: Beyond Workplace Psychosis 2.0

I always have been an ardent supporter of true qualitative research. Yet, data IS interesting, specially when, considered under the right angle, it helps shedding a light on otherwise unnoticed facts and behaviors.

A number is a number is a number
Emanuele Quintarelli, when presenting the results of the Social Collaboration Survey he recently conducted among 300 Italian companies, exposed such numbers, which curiously were barely commented, during the recent Enterprise 2.0 Summit (you can have a look to his presentation here). He, and his colleague Stefano Besana, found out that middle management is not the problem we all thought it was. On average, it represents a problem for less than 20 percent of companies having undergone a social business initiative. Wow… A fast and dirty interpretation of this finding would be to correlate it with the now (in)famous prediction from the Gartner Group saying that 80 percent of social business efforts will fail, and to assert that old thinking — introducing social with a project mindset, something easily understandable and actionable at middle management level — fails in reshaping businesses to adapt to our new hyper connected reality.

While intellectually flattering, as it nurtures our believing in the necessity for a cultural and behavioral change, making such a correlation would be a fraud. 80 percent of middle managers seing value in social means that part of them are adopting new leadership traits in their behavior (Emanuele’s survey in fact shows that half of companies, on average, think that their culture fits social initiatives). If so, how may we interpret the dreadful level of disengagement (63 per cent worldwide) among employees reported by Gallup?

When structure trumps culture

More than culture, organizational structure imposes constraints on our behaviors. Going even further, organizational culture might be defined as the set of behaviors which develop over time along the interplay of these constraints. As John Wenger insightfully pointed out:

“I’m often fascinated by how people, when they walk through the door of their workplaces, adopt behaviors akin to the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite knowing in our hearts and in our guts that much of how workplaces operate is nonsensical and even anti-human, we maintain the charade that it’s the best way of doing things. As Alan Moore points out in No Straight Lines, industrial systems were not designed with human needs at their heart, yet we still organise workplaces along such lines. We go along with the deceit that doing things in a mechanistic, command-and-control way is the right way to do things.”

In many cases, the “victimization” of unengaged employees isn’t caused by, or targeted toward colleagues and managers, but toward the system itself, which structure embodies a deterministic set of constraints. Restoring goodwill requires much more than changing management’s mindset, it calls for a reweaving of the formal structure of organizations. Structure and culture are intimately linked, and at the end of the day, they all relate to relationships between people. As Dan Pontefract wrote in Flat Army:

“… organizational culture is defined by one criterion, and one only: an organization’s culture is defined by the manner in which employees are treated by their direct leader.”

I won’t discuss here the superiority of networks over industrial era hierarchies as organizational model, many others have brilliantly discussed it, you can for example read these recent posts by Jon Husband or Oskar Berg. Yet, a crucial question remains: does a networked organizational structure intrinsically trigger employee engagement?

Sadly, the answer seems negative. There are still few plausible case studies of companies exhibiting —and living— this kind of structure: GoreValveAutomatic, and some others, but they all share a common attitude toward employee engagement: they hire individuals who fit their internal culture, and are particularly cautious about the personality and mindset of new hires. When setting up the right structure, they tend more to protect the corresponding culture than to assimilate dissent elements. Indirectly, they all prove that, if a network-based structure enables engagement and collaboration by leveraging trusted relationships, it doesn’t help that much in restoring motivation from disengaged employees.

Workplace psychosis 2.0

Companies’ culture is evolving; in some cases, their structure is beginning — albeit slowly — to change, but the level of disengagement keeps on increasing. To counter this inexorable trend, some companies are beginning to adopt new behaviors: ROWE human resources approach, BYOD policies, better work-life balance,… but is there any tangible evidence that those are really enhancing engagement?

In a parallel to the rise of industrialization, in our Western societies, the XIXth century has seen our lives being more and more tightly structured and partitioned: work, family, religion, leisure, have grown into social and behavioral “boxes” which, for many people, were largely disconnected one from another. This social, moral, and ontological evolution even reflected itself in the thinking of the time. For example, in Ancient SocietyLewis Henry Morgan, one of the founders of anthropology, described social evolution as a set of patterns belonging different domains: technology, subsistence, marriage, family and political organization.

Today, all, but one, of these personal, social and political boxes which prevailed in the XIXth century have disappeared, in a global transformative movement, accelerated by the internet and the rise of networks. Technology is now pervasive, and affordable to anyone. Family is no more the infrangible nucleus it was hundred years ago, and marriage is no more the reference point of human lives. Political minorities take now their own voice, whichever it is, and the class struggle is merely memories in hedonistic and individualistic societies. Work, instead, has remained the last “reserved” domain, in which people still think and behave differently than in any other situation of a life characterized by social and cultural continuous hybridation. This fracture is less physical, as telework and freelance contracting develops, than psychological, as work codes greatly differ from the ones from our private life, as the nature of work moves away from its outcomes, and gets more and more abstract.

This situation sheds a new light on the lack of engagement, in organizations attempting to adopt more flexible internal rules and to entice employees to bring more of their personality and creativity into the workplace. Being a more complete self in a disconnected, self-contained, workplace, while living a more and more demanding and connected life externally, exhibits all the traits of a split personality disorder. In other words, organizations trying to socialize processes tailored (Taylored) to an industrial-era operational mentality, or to add a social layer to an otherwise closed system, are, slowly but steadily, growing workplace psychosis 2.0.

The nature of the firm, redux

Isn’t there any hope left, beside a radical erase-and-redesign move? Yes, there is. Beside culture and structure, and even beyond them, organizations have to rethink about their nature. I have previously written that the dominant transactional purpose of organizations, famously explained by Ronald Coase, is becoming an economic nonsense. For more than a century, they have grown on top of our society, draining tangible and intangible resources for their own sake, up to the point they have become totally closed systems, subject to growing entropy.

Instead of fighting for a shrinking piece of profit, organizations have to learn how to be useful again to the society which nurtures them, beyond shareholders’ interests, and to become the thriving engines of a global circular economy. To regain sustainability in the new world we see emerging, companies must rethink their own purpose, and will have to switch from an onward, quasi parasitic, to an outward, symbiotic, attitude. The schizophrenia route is definitely a no go. Instead of requiring even more from employees, they are urged to open the doors, and to show them that they care about the world, the society, the city, the life in which they operate.

For sure, most people want to get their work done the best they can, but this only if this work gives sense to their life, and if they are able to feel that this sense is shared among coworkers. Instead of trying to weave socializing behaviors with obsolete business mechanisms, let your employees know you care about your customers, and give them tools to support this. Let them know you care about broader, deeper issues, and help them getting involved in resolving the problems they tackle in their real, external, life. This was the lesson that my friend and colleague from Change Agents Worldwide Céline Schillinger brilliantly gave us during the Enterprise 2.0 Summit: her “Women in Sanofi Pasteur” internal movement grew on the premise of helping to solve the gender balance issue at work, a problem which isn’t limited to the internal corporate world, and the initiative flourished through external recognition. Her success shows that, in order to get more from their employees and contractors, in order to re-engage them, organizations must, simply, give them more. Not as employees, but as human beings. Not in the workplace, but in their life. Let us open the doors of the confined world of work, it needs fresh air. Right now.

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