What does it take for ’employee engagement’ to show up? (Part VI)


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The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear” Herbert Agar

In this post I continue sharing with you what shows up for me as I grapple with ’employee engagement’. Given that some of you may have not read the earlier posts, I will first cover some essential ground and the move forward with the ‘new’.

It all comes down to the “concept of persons” and how one should treat one’s fellow man.

I came across this quote which pretty much sums up the humanistic school’s stance on the human beings and how man should relate to and treat his fellow human beings:

“If you don’t find God in the next person you meet, it is a waste of time looking for him further.” Gandhi

Wow! That occurs in my world as a massively powerful assertion and I can only imagine the love that gives rise to this assertion, this stance, uttered and lived by Gandhi.

Whilst the words of humanistic philosophers (e.g. Rousseau) and psychologists (e.g. Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers) are nowhere as poetic, the underlying stance is remarkably similar: a ‘romantic’ notion about the beauty, the goodness, the nobility of the human being – every human being. Which is why Gandhi and the humanists, as I understand them, are labelled ‘idealists’.

The world that you and I are dwelling in is shaped, ruled and peopled by ‘pragmatists’: philosophers like Hobbes; and psychologists like Freud and Skinner. Pragmatists look at the same reality and come up with a radically different “concept of persons”. They say that the being of human beings is brutish and that left to their themselves people would turn our life into a brutish one. Recent examples of this brutishness include Rwanda and Yugoslavia. And who can forget the WWII concentration camps. And given this dark side lying at the centre of human being, human beings need (and can be) controlled. Who is to do the controlling? Those who have always done the controlling: the elite who hold/exercise power and get to determine what is good and what is bad.

Where do I stand on this matter?

As an “idealist” I can see the beauty/wonder of human beings and as such I say that “pragmatists” have a dim/dark view/unduly negative and possibly self-serving view of human beings.

As a “pragmatist” (I do have a BSc in Applied Physics) I see that human beings are so addicted to and run by the ‘four prime directives’ (you have to read my earlier post to get what these are) that human beings will slaughter life including millions of fellow human beings simply to be right, to dominate, to look good. And if we those of us who have killed (including those of us who have stood by whilst the slaughter took place) are questioned about what we are doing/have done , we get busy enthusiastically invalidating others and justifying ourselves!

I say I can see the value and limitations of both of these distinct “concept of persons”. They both disclose as well as hide stuff about human being. Taken together they provide a fuller/richer picture of human being. Now lets move on with the main thrust of this post.

What is the underlying context that fuels our organisations and management practices?

As I have said before the dominant concept of persons is that of the pragmatists. Why? Because it is the pragmatists that won the fight, who hold positions of power and shape our world including shaping us, human beings.

If you get this then you may be able to hear and be with what I am about to say. And which I say gets to the heart of the matter of ’employee engagement’, ’empowerment’, creativity and innovation. That is to say it spells out why these are not present in almost all organisations and especially not large/established organisations.

I say that organisations are prisons. Please note, I am not saying that organisations are like prisons. No. I am saying that organisations are prisons.

When I say that “organisations are prisons” I am pointing out that the people who run prison are primarily concerned with control. Controlling the prisoners. And the use they tried and tested philosophy and practices of command and control. Importantly, the people who work in organisations (the employees) experience and show in these organisations as prisoners. That is to say that employee show all the signs of learned helplessness. This is understandable. Think back to prisons, what shows up in prisons? One group of people, the prison guards, are relatively small in number and exercise power over a much larger number of people who are deprived of their freedom and are powerless to determine how they live. A fundamental design and operating practice is to get the prisoners to get present to their powerlessness, their helplessness.

How much prisoner engagement, creativity and innovation shows up in a prison? To date, I have never heard of anyone expecting these phenomena to show up in prisons. Nor have I read or heard about great prisoner engagement, creativity and innovation in prisons. Which leads me to believe that these phenomena – engagement, creativity, innovation – are not expected and do not show up in prisons.

What does show up in prisons? The exercise of power and the compliance with power. As well as the acceptance/resentment that goes with one set of people exercising power over the lives of another set of people. I get that from time to time, characters like Lt. Colonel Nicholson (from the movie Bridge on the River Kwai) show up who get fellow prisoners to be more, to do more for the sake of themselves, their morale, their dignity. And this engagement, creativity, innovation dies when people like Lt. Colonel Nicholson lose face, lose power, change roles and/or leave the prison.

If you get, can be with, that organisations are prisons then you will stop wondering why there is a lack of employee engagement, why empowerment rarely works out , why there is so little creativity and innovation. Who wants the prisoners to be creative/innovative? Creativity and innovation are threats to control – the orderly running of the prison and the fulfilment of the prison’s mission.

How do you call forth ’employee engagement’, creativity and innovation?

Werner Erhard coined an insightful stand/possibility: “a world that works, none excluded”. Stealing from Erhard, I say that the foundation for employee engagement, creativity and innovation is creating/living/operating from the context “an organisation that works, none excluded”. That means that the organisational play is designed so that it works for everyone in the organisation: shareholder, management, employees, customers, suppliers and regulators.

What goes with such a context? What is necessary to enable such a context to take hold and operate? I say authentic communication, Habermas calls this “undistorted communication” and he spells out four conditions for communication to be undistorted:

1. Symmetry condition – every single person has an equal opportunity to talk and duty to listen;

2. Sincerity condition – every single person means what s/he says;

3. Truth condition – every single person discloses what s/he believes to be true; and

4. Normative condition – every single person says what is right morally.

If you are going to create this context “organisations that work, none excluded” and a context where “undistorted communication” is called forth and is kept in existence then you need to get present to conflict. And you have to be a stand for peaceful conflict resolution.

Before I share these guidelines I have a question for you. How many “leaders” do you know that are up for creating/embodying the kind of context and practices that I have spelled out here? Put differently, how many want to see/be with this truth. Now you know why I opened this post with that quote by Agar.

I have another question for you: how likely is it, really, to get any significant and enduring employee engagement without such a context where the needs, the wellbeing, voice and talents are taken into account, aligned and allowed to unfold/flourish?

Guidelines for peaceful conflict resolution

I came across these guidelines at the Montessori School that my children attended. When I saw these guidelines it struck me that every family, every team, every organisation can dramatically enhance ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ by embodying the following maxims:

Respect the right to disagree

Express your real concerns

Share common goals and interests

Open yourself to different points of views

Listen carefully to all points of view, all proposals

Understand the major issues that are involved

Think about probable consequences

Imagine many possible alternative solutions, at least several

Offer reasonable compromises

Negotiate mutually fair cooperative agreements

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


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