One of the joys of working in a particular field of work is the utter devotion by so many to jargon that can take on a personality its own.  Layer upon layer of heated debate, analysis, and oxygen over a long period of time and it can become like the colour of a wall in your house.  You can’t see it anymore.

In my field of people development, it is the jargon of employee engagement – the holy grail of organisations large and small.  In recent times, I’ve been familiar with the inner workings of organisations in both the public and private sectors where the staff survey scores on engaging employees leave a lot to be desired.

Good practices across UK organisations have been identified repeatedly over the years, the most notable being the Government-instigated McLeod Report.  No surprises then that the 4 enablers of engagement are identified as:

  • Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrative about the organisation, where it’s come from and where it’s going.
  • Engaging managers who focus their people and give them scope, treat their people as individuals and coach and stretch their people.
  • There is employee voice throughout the organisations, for reinforcing and challenging views, between functions and externally, employees are seen as central to the solution.
  • There is organisational integrity – the values on the wall are reflected in day to day behaviours. There is no ‘say –do’ gap.

Easy to say, huh?  The challenge has not been identifying what works, it is why these practices rarely get embedded deep or long enough or implemented more widely.  It got me thinking about Einstein’s well-known saying

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Employee engagement tends to become a top-down initiative with a 20th Century mindset and context.  Hierarchy, command and control management and leadership, people as ‘human resources’  are all mechanistic approaches and have often led to change initiatives being  ‘done to’ people.

There becomes an over-focus on the culture change itself at the expense of what really engages people and creates real value with customers.  Employee engagement often becomes like a parent-child relationship and like a sulky or mischievous toddler, people don’t want to play and disengage.

Of course, it is more complex than that with a myriad of external factors impinging on our lives creating greater uncertainty like economic crises affecting job security and the lack of trust in our traditional institutions and authority figures engendered by one scandal after another (banks, politicians, BBC, NHS etc).

I strongly believe we need to organise our ways of working differently that take account of how we live our lives outside of work, adult-adult conversations and relationships between people in the workplace, different organisational cultures and structures, that align with how people really are, rather than what they do.

A new paradigm has to emerge that puts people first, results second.  The irony is by doing that results will improve.  And it can be done.  It takes courage and servant leadership.

Don’t believe me?  A man ahead of his time was Brazilian Ricardo Semler, the CEO of Semco, who turned accepted wisdom on its head in the 1980s and 1990s when he created a genuine democracy.  Employees were truly empowered and even decided the salaries of their bosses.  Read his great story in Maverick!

More recently, HCL Technologies hit the headlines with their ‘Employees First, Customers Second’ business philosophy.  Vineet Nayar, the CEO, has turned the traditional management hierarchy upside down. HCLT has created trust and growth through transparency, making managers as accountable to employees as employees were to their bosses, transferring the responsibility for change and value creation to front-line employees where HCLT and its customers interact.   HCLT is now one of the fastest growing and profitable global IT companies in the world.

What would you like to feel as an existing employee when you are at work?  Imagine what being at work would be like if you felt that!  Ask yourself that question when choosing a job.