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To have meaningful work that enables our independence and to live with dignity should be a basic human right

Tag: Employee engagement

The weakness of hierarchies

The linear hierarchical structure has, almost without exception, become the only type of structure used in organisations. The entrenchment of line-based management in modern organisations reflects the conviction that productivity is an outcome of time-and-motion efficiency.  Enterprises invest heavily in increasing motion, compressing time and utilising tools such as fish-bone diagrams, decision trees, organisation charts, pedigree charts, tree charts and flow charts to manage most of their activities in pursuit of their desired productivity increases.


10th Airborne Command and Control Squadron Emblem

De-layering in organisations has been a focus ever since those running organisations recognised the downsides of command and control structures include the cost of the structure itself. Those who sit in the middle and top of the chain of command cost more than those who do the work to deliver on production or service requirements.  To activate each line of production or service, the work needs to be broken down for each work group pushed down the line to each set of tasks to be completed, and then re-aggregated up the line to, hopefully, create a cohesive piece of work that meets all its separate requirements including financial, service, safety, quality and efficiency. Other costs are the time that organisational hierarchies take for decisions to be implemented and the degree to which they slow down the organisation’s ability to respond to the market. Concentration of power has also been a much-documented source of poor decisions with too much authority invested in the thoughts of too few. Two popular practices have been widely used to offset these drawbacks: downsizing (to cut costs); and promoting leadership as the quality that subsidises the reduction of management control.

Extensive research shows that what has appeared to be cause-and-effect or linear is often in fact small-world network behaviour.  Social network analysis on the relationships between individuals, groups and organisations, shows that performance is more influenced by our relationships and location within our network, than it is from our position in the chain of command.

Organisations that continue with the paradigm that performance must be ‘managed’ (i.e. top-down) must be very determined to ignore the social networks that occur naturally, and as the office grapevine proves time and again, operate far more efficiently than any corporate dictate.

Outdated management thinking assumes that given half a chance people will prefer to seek out friends and little formal attention is paid to their ability to build effective functional relationships.  It also wrongly assumes that even if people do prioritise social relationships, this is anti-productive.  ‘Outdated’ because it is thinking that fails to recognise the role of culture in the organisation.  When there is a culture of supporting co-worker relationships, the hierarchy becomes even less effective.  Gallup, the global consulting firm that has been studying employee engagement for decades has found that co-worker friendships increase employees’ satisfaction by 50 per cent, and employees who have a best friend where they work are seven times more likely to be fully engaged in their jobs.  This level of engagement has been correlated with company bottom line performance including earnings per share.

When the objective is command and control, the top-down hierarchy should be the organisation structure of choice.  However those that believe that the sort of productivity that comes from engagement is available from this structure are wasting their time and their money.

Hierarchical structures give us an illusion of effective control.  Sociological and organisational studies tell us people react and respond to millions of cues exchanged between people through all five senses at an estimated rate of 11 million pieces of information per second – and only a fraction of which occurs consciously.  Based on this information we decide what is important, what and who we can trust and how we will respond to different messages.  Nothing in the hierarchy acknowledges that any information we receive through the hierarchy is tested, and may be overridden by our responses to those in our network.

The increasingly technical and sophisticated approaches for managing performance and behaviour in the workplace convince us that people can be effectively influenced by the hierarchy.  This helps explain why despite the concerted effort to improve employee engagement, it continues to be persistently low costing businesses billions of dollars.

By depending on lines of authority or chains of command the enterprise all but guarantees that its organisation will have pockets of non-performance.

Many organisations dabbled in self-managing and autonomous teams at some point but few were actually game to understand and allow the social network to operate.  It would not only mean a wholesale dismantling of systems, and more importantly mindsets, on which we currently rely but it would seem that we would be risking control for chaos.  Here too, they would be wrong.  Hard evidence has emerged that networks are actually not random at all.  The activity that connects individuals, invariably follows a mathematical formula that leads the the formation of hubs (key connections) and hubs can then be used to manage everything from innovation to communication.

Even better, social networks are able to naturally produce many of the outcomes organisations have always desired and spent enormous energy and resources trying to achieve. For example, networks have been proven to:

  • Facilitate the creation of social capital for individuals and organisations
  • Allow authority to form where it is required
  • Operate in organisations effectively in place of hierarchies
  • Promote innovation
  • Assist in the development of trust and tolerance
  • Synchronise thoughts and actions
  • Diffuse organisational practices effectively across groups
  • Shape the way individual tastes and preferences develop

Author Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, argues that by managing a rigid structure we are actually creating the weakness we intend to avoid.  Anything organic is better allowed to develop and grow. “We humans, the more intellectual we are…the more we build things that are fragile because they depend so much on our projection of the future…they depend on theories, whereas robustness does not need theories…. When you are designing a system, it has more downside than upside…there is empirical evidence showing that anything top-down is fragile; anything that is bottom-up that takes place organically is [robust].

For organisations this means develop the strategy then support the network to deliver.

Engagement: masturbating employee satisfaction

Just over 100 years ago while much of the Western world was enjoying unprecedented growth brought about by the industrial revolution, the medical profession was treating women afflicted by a particular malady, female hysteria, that was thought to be caused by abnormal movements of the uterus.   By late 1800s it had become something of a crisis with an estimated 25 per cent of all women affected by hysteria.  It was easily recognised by many its symptoms including faintness, nervousness, erratic behaviour, anxiety, bloating, paralytic states, loss of appetite, irritability and a tendency to cause trouble (one physician who attempted to catalogue all the symptoms had to concede defeat after seventy five pages).  While it was not a new disease having first been described 2000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians, and also contemplated by such wise heads as the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, Socrates (who should know as his mother was a midwife) and his student, Plato, in the late 19th century relief was available through physician-assisted ‘hysterical paroxysms’, the manual stimulation of the patient’s genital area.  At a time when medicine was based on mysteries rather than science and consisted of primitive treatments such as bleeding, doctors were as likely to kill their patients as cure them.  Treatment for hysteria, by contrast, not only did not kill but the doctors were enjoying unprecedented success.  The invention of the vibrator facilitated a surge in their productivity – not to mention popularity (with the added benefit of the end of doctors’ work injury claims for hand cramps).   Some history writers even credit the boom in demand for hysterical paroxysms with helping to lift the status of the physicians from quacks to medical professional.  Hundreds of satisfied, repeat customers will do that.

Female hysteria as a diagnosed medical illness declined in the first decade of the 20th century, coinciding with the birth of the feminist movement and the growing understanding of psychology.  Rather than believing women were more susceptible to illness because they were the weaker sex, it was gradually recognised that depression, anxiety and stress were the product of the lack of power, independence, control and freedom forced upon them in a patriarchal society that expected women to be subservient, docile and of high moral character.  Families could avoid scandal by quietly confining ladies affected by’ hysteria’ to a sanitarium or an asylum.

Fortunately for workers suffering from depression, anxiety and stress, the history of female hysteria provides a precedent.  As it was for their 19th century medical counterparts there is a solution for employers struggling with unmotivated, intractable, under-performing and otherwise disengaged workers.  However, it seems that most HR professionals are yet to administer the ‘engagement program’ treatment that requires only some dextrous application to change people from melancholy to happy and satisfied.

In a recent report on the results of an online survey by cloud-based social talent management solutions provider SilkRoad, 781 HR professionals revealed their companies’ employee engagement practices. The survey tested for:
• the number of companies with explicit employee engagement programs
• the organisational impact of low engagement
• the ways professionals involve the C-suite in engagement
• HR professionals’ employee engagement ‘pain points’ and concerns
• which generations in the workplace are perceived as being more engaged
• the methods companies use to measure employee engagement.

“One of the most significant findings we uncovered is that a majority (54 per cent) of employers still don’t offer formal engagement programs,” said the director of product management at SilkRoad.  “While 73 per cent report participating in engagement programs on some level, only 38 per cent are offering formal programs.  This is problematic for a number of reasons, but top among them is the fact that informal programs lack clear goals and accountability.”

As any director of a company that sells HR software would tell us, we have a modern-day employee engagement equivalent of the vibrator.  Software designed to solve the engagement malady with financial, value-affirming, communicational or professional developmental paroxysms is available.

A pity that history has yet to catch up with the workplace which is still legally based on the feudal master/servant relationship.

Peter Hall-Jones in his 2008 article, Of Masters and Servants, posits:

“In this relationship, the servant works at the direction of the master and engages in work for the benefit of the master. In return, the master compensates the servant for his or her labour.”

“It appears that servants are not so thrilled about the conditions of their servitude.  And they are even less impressed with the behaviour of their masters.  Could it be that the two are linked?  Could it be that the master-servant relationship itself is creating all this alienation?”

“Make no mistake—this is not an airy-fairy ivory-tower kind of an issue.  Problems arising from workplace culture (depression, stress and anxiety) are now the primary cause of workplace absence in most developed countries.  Some 420,000 cases are reported in the UK each year.  Estimates put the cost to business in the US alone at about $44 billion per year.  And we do know that job satisfaction, engagement and productivity are somehow linked.”

While on one hand HR looks for the cures for employee disengagement, it continues to reinforce systems and structures that create the problems.  Employee disengagement is not an ailment to be ‘treated’ with a ‘program’ but has the same root causes (no pun intended) as female hysteria: having to live in a controlling environment in which she was totally dependent on the master and where she was expected to perform her duties, fitting into her rigidly-cast role.

Hopefully when the workplaces in which most people have to work are reformed so that workers can focus on how best to do the work, not on what will keep them the job, the good engagement programs can also go the way of the vibrator – no longer a treatment tool but used because it gives a little extra to something we like.

Employee engagement won’t work either

Employee engagement should be among the top priorities for organisations, according to surveys conducted with HR professionals around the world.

  • More than half (62%) of organisations surveyed say employee engagement is their top HR priotity in 2013, according to research by law firm Speechly Bircham and King’s College London. (Employee Benefits)
  • Engagement/retention of the workforce (55%) is the top priority for organizations in 2013. (The CEB Global Talent Measurement Solutions)

The generally accepted definition of ’employee engagement’ is the degree of emotional commitment an employee has towards their job that influences their work performance and willingness to contribute to better outcomes for their team and their employer.  ‘Employee engagement’ is also variously defined in more tactical ways: as a strategy for improving workforce management; a measurement of employee satisfaction; a barometer of productivity, employee retention or performance; an incentive program; a talent management plan; employee rewards and benefits, and more.  One thing that all proponents of employee engagement agree on is that increased levels of employee engagement lead to tangible benefits for the employer.  Research consistently points to employee engagement as having a direct positive impact on sales, profitability, customer satisfaction, reduces accidents, disputes and sick days, and all achieved with less management intervention.  It is no wonder that HR has strapped its collective boots on to begin a new pilgrimage in search of this ideal.

However a lot does not make sense about this new sense of urgency to engage the workforce.  The profession of human resources grew out of ‘Personnel’ against the backdrop of theories and research that emerged in the 1970s on job satisfaction and its impact on worker productivity, most notably the work of Edwin A. Locke  (Range of Affect Theory, 1976) who defined job satisfaction as “a pleasurable or positive emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job or job experiences”.  Management eager for the gains a more satisfied workforce promised, looked to earlier theories including Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954), Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory (or Motivator-Hygiene Theory, 1959), and Theory X and Theory Y (Douglas MacGregor, 1960), for ways to practically apply the ideas the theories suggested.

In the 1980s the focus of human resources shifted to motivation.  Job satisfaction, it was argued, was not enough as a satisfied worker was not necessarily a better worker.  Employee motivation was as described by Robert Kreitner as “the psychological process that gives behavior purpose and direction” (Management, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986).  Alongside the growing emphasis on lean manufacturing and just-in-time management to drive down costs and increase efficiency, the management focus on targets cemented the practice of creating measures that employees could use to aim for higher performance, and this desire to improve results would be the basis of greater motivation.

In the 1990s the well-being of workers came to the fore.  Restructuring became a mainstream management practice and put paid to any doubts that job security existed.  With the wholesome embracing of valuing workers based on continuous and ever-widening measurements, and adding to this the mainstream adoption of mobile phones, the work environment was becoming increasingly long and intense.  Employers began to take note of work/life balance and recognise that stress and poor well-being were an anathema to productivity.  Attention to issues such as gender and race equality, flexible working condition, employee assistance programs, employer-supported health initiatives, ‘mental health’ breaks, even the term ‘work/life balance’ itself, took greater priority throughout the the 1990s.

By the beginning of the new century, twenty-plus years of efficiency drives had left little room for new ways to cut costs and lift profits.  Attention turned to savings from the costs of replacing employees.  This was not the reinstatement of the social contract that existed in the traditional job model, that is, the exchange of employee loyalty for a job for life, but a concentration on ‘retention and talent strategies’ to attract ‘better’ workers who would stay longer.  With few exceptions, job structures did not change; attracting and retaining talent was encouraged through incentives, greater flexibility for leave, education grants and increasing career development opportunities.  The savings from an employee that did not need to be replaced were often cited as being in the order of 30-50% of the annual salary of entry-level employees, 150% of middle level employees, and up to 400% for specialist or high level employees, once the costs of recruitment, training and lost productivity are taken into account.  Hiring errors could make these figures even higher.

So there has been no shortage of attention to finding the formulae that will deliver workers who are happier, cause employers less grief, and who willingly work harder to support their organisation’s ability to do more with less.  Not much has been written about employee engagement that adds anything new, other than perhaps providing more proof than ever that it is highly desirable.  It is impossible to see how the same ideas and the same approaches can suddenly give a different result just because the banner under which they are delivered has changed.  A review over the forty years of workforce practices since we first became concerned for employees’ job satisfaction shows remarkably little change.  In fact, with a quick search and replace action of the words ’employee engagement’ for ’employee motivation’ or ‘talent retention’ for instance, there is little to distinguish what this new awareness of employee engagement has achieved.

Without a doubt, there will be many who will huff and puff at what they will perceive as a disregard for the value and importance of people – in itself interesting that much of this will come from those who still refer to employees as ‘human resources’ and ‘human capital’.  The message from this blog is actually the polar opposite.

People are not naive, empty vessels that can be simply manipulated into certain attitudes and actions because an employer makes it sound attractive.  That organisations continue to think that ‘incentive’ and ‘performance’ are a rational exchange between two equal parties insults the employees who submit to what even the law refers to as a master/servant relationship.

Short of new ideas perhaps, the current buzz of activity is around data (even better if it can be big data).  The wave of offerings that will finally solve the conundrum of how to make people want to happily work harder for longer indicate that the missing piece is measurement.  The path to employee engagement, if the companies’ product claims are to be believed, is either through surveys or speedier delivery of performance data to employees.  It was harder to find exactly how all this new data, coming on top of data already available, will be used.  Will this data consider, for instance, the amount of talent that goes unused when jobs are too narrowly defined, or contributions that were not appreciated by systems too inflexible to accommodate different ideas, or problems that do not get fixed because too many managers can say ‘no’ and not enough will say ‘yes’?  How about data that considers the behavioural side of people whose work is a product of their emotional and social influences not just what is economically rational?  How about no data at all, just an organisation designed for people to excel in?  Surely no data is better than data used to dictate the next form of manipulation?

Employee engagement is important and it should be amongst the top priority for employers.  The attitude that it is an end game that needs to be won is not only wrong but will simply lead to yet another yet-to-be-labelled phase of workforce management focus when this one yields no more gains than its predecessors.  Employee engagement is a state the workers reach when the organisation as employer offers itself as a partner to those who have the values, skills, abilities, aptitude, knowledge and experience to contribute to the achievement of its goals and objectives, and the interactions and the progress made in the process are rewarding and satisfying.

Should there be any doubt that this article is not an exercise in cynicism but a real despair that the next forty years will be better, critics might like to read more about the CEB Global Talent Measurement Solution report referred to above.  The report was based on analyses of various organisational practices and an online survey of 592 HR professionals.   It found that the top HR priorities to emerge from the survey were:

  • Engagement/retention 55%  (of respondents)
  • Leadership development 52%
  • Workforce planning/analytics 43%
  • Performance management 49%
  • Training 42%

It went on to note that workforce analytics had moved up the agenda as a priority for HR, in line with other recent surveys, however:

  • Less than a quarter of respondents reported that their organisations have a clear understanding of workforce potential.
  • Less than half reported using objective data to make decisions about the workforce.
  • Less than half reported their organisations use talent data to drive business decisions.
  • Nearly 75% of respondents indicated that their organisations want to improve the way in which they measure talent.
  • Fewer than one in five respondents reported being satisfied with their systems’ ability to manage talent data.

The problem with having identified such poor response to managing workforce analytics, said the report, is that the battle that HR is engaged in with Marketing, Finance and Operations for the ownership of talent strategy is being fought and would be won on these grounds.  “The outcome will depend on which group owns the talent agenda, can provide the most meaningful data analytics to drive business decisions and can demonstrate that talent management truly impacts business outcomes.”  Because the “responsibility for talent strategy ultimately lies with the group that can demonstrate how managing talent impacts the bottom line”.

Understandably it is difficult to find time to properly engage with workers when there is a bigger war going on for survival and relevance.

Another blog on people and work, and the concept of collateral gains

It’s already a crowded space, the many articles and writings available, full of ideas and opinions on what makes the intersection of employment and people successful.  Amongst them all is there room for yet another blog?  The fact that employment continues to be plagued with difficulties: disengagement, unemployment, underemployment, skills shortages and bullying, for instance, would suggest that the conversations should continue; that many more ideas need to be proposed, tested, debated and learned.  And so I hope this blog can add to this.

My interest in this area was piqued many years ago when I first began working in management.  The approach of human resources was so different from that of marketing, the field of study I first completed.  In marketing, activities start with understanding the target market and how to cater to them; in human resources it starts by telling the target market what’s good for them and how they can be part of it.  This interest was mostly academic until one day, sitting in the city traffic, I saw a body of staff of the major metropolitan newspaper, The Age, sitting outside their workplace (a building nicknamed ‘The Spencer Street Soviet’ for its stark façade) on makeshift stools on the street in the cold, protesting management decisions to reduce staff following the establishment of a new print facility in Tullamarine.  The set of their expressions communicated their determination to have their views heard by management.  It was easy to imagine how these – the news stories would suggest – semi-skilled workers, many  in their fifties and older, would find getting their next job a struggle.  Two thoughts struck me in quick succession.  First was how much stress these people would be under: going home each night to discuss with their spouses the possibility that the next paycheck could be the last for a while.  This was overtaken by the second thought – why a company that employed thousands of people could not have found a way to benefit from the single-mindedness shown by this group joined by their common predicament, just one of the many attributes they could no doubt offer beyond their labour.

From this point – unconsciously at first – I became increasingly aware of the impact of management on the lives of workers. Job security and job prospects can affect workers at the most fundamental levels from their ability to care for themselves and their families to the quality of education their children will receive.  No one’s child/parent/sibling/partner should be demeaned at work either by the workplace structure or from their treatment.  Yet no statutory minimum standards exist for managers; there is no specific responsibility imposed on managers to the people whose livelihoods depend on them.

The term ‘collateral damage’ – the incidental costs that occur as a consequence of the pursuit of another objective – is used often to refer to the job losses or other pain inflicted on members of a workforce.  Yet in my work with organisations large and small I see many incidences of ‘collateral gain’ and even more untapped opportunities to build them from the daily efforts of people .  These potential gains covered all ground from new ideas, to new solutions for old problems, to feelings of camaraderie within a work unit, to knowledge shared, to fresh enthusiasm for a task, to awareness of new problems yet to be fully understood.

The industrial model that still dominates despite massive changes in the types of, and how, we work since it was initially devised in the early 1900s is no longer relevant for today.  This method, born of FW Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, is based on the assumption that division of labour and time and motion efficiencies (finding ‘one best way’ to complete a task) will produce maximum productivity returns for the employer.  This was true when most job were comprised mostly of manual tasks, but even then it was only so long before the gains were eroded by boredom, mistakes, employee turnover and accidents that resulted from work that was mundane and routine.  Unfortunately, the initial gains to industry were so significant, the conviction that dividing work into specialisations, supervising inputs (such as time and skills) and quantifying performance is the ‘one best way’ continues to this day.  Even as we are in the full swing of the knowledge economy we continue to apply the rules of the production era.

The other mantle that persists is the ‘science’ of performance management.  An industry worth billions thrives on the ‘sciences’ developed for selecting and managing people.  Despite the emergence of actual scientific studies on how people behave (usually not rationally), neuroscience, the influence of environments and networks on performance and much more, outmoded notions such as, “If you don’t measure performance how can you improve it?” are still treated as valid.  However, as some wise person (most people believe Albert Einstein, but wise nonetheless) once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  Oddly, what most employers say they want to foster in their people are emotional connections: caring about the job they do, committing to the organisation’s goals and values, building relationships with customers, a sense of pride in their work, and so on.  At the individual level however, their discussions are about the rational: career steps, targets, competencies, KPIs (key performance indicators), KRAs (key result areas).  One thing science has clearly proven is that cognitive reasoning instantly displaces emotional engagement.

This blog intends to explore these and similar issues.  In the years since watching the determined workers from The Age, I have had the benefit of working with many organisations and their hundreds of employees.  I have met and spoken to many people doing amazing work and breaking new ground in understanding.  I have read about new things we are learning about work and motivation and found new apprp://isabelwudotcom.wordpress.commportant to my client organisations.  I look forward to sharing these with you.

Isabel Wu

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