Engagement: practical process for building it & the notion of its limits

i have been participating in an online discussion on Engagement in the workplace (Everyone agrees that excellent execution requires employees to be engaged. We all know what being “engaged” means, but how do you get…). The discussion has explored a myriad of sub issues including: do we have shared view on what engagement is; what is required to increase the levels of it; what about the role of pre-established performance distributions; and can we even have too much engagement in the workplace.

 For me, one useful learning and clarification was that we can think about engagement being present in two general workplace areas: with the work itself, and with the organization itself.

Based on my involvement with this discussion, I was asked by Daniel Besecker to share what experiences , if any, I have had in building/aligning and continuously improving a high performance organization. This I hope to do.

A number of years ago the organization I worked in engaged a consultant to introduce a process called “Strategic Renewal ® which had the following attributes:

* Cascade the business strategy setting process throughout the organization down to the shop floor level

* To build teamwork and commitment to the organization through meaningful participation in business issues

* To improve local (team, department, etc.) climate and working conditions within the context of business priorities

* To translate corporate level objectives into meaningful local priorities so that the overall business would improve


This organization was a multi-unionized one and the occupations below the managerial ones spanned clerical, marketing and sales, to technical and professional. The process of working with each logical team took three years of effort. Overall the process of doing and redoing (updating the priorities and associated action plans) lasted about seven years before the process lost impetus an energy due to diminished sponsorship at the most senior levels.

As a participant in the team facilitating these sessions I learned many valuable lessons:

* Some teams were very hostile and suspicious about participation, this included one of the unions who actively expressed their concerns to their members. Where suspicion reigned, progress was slow and very nominal.

* Some sessions got into deep emotional and relationship issues which taxed the skills and abilities of the facilitators to safely and meaningfully channel these discussions towards useful outcomes. Most often there was no pre-warning that we as facilitators would be facing these kinds of challenges.

* Often the most meaningful (in terms f outcomes and feedback) were the most difficult sessions.

* Often it was the unionized teams that wanted followup sessions and were most outspoken on the degree of progress made on their initial strategic priorities and actions.

* In many cases easily demonstrable improvements were achieved, documented and celebrated.

* Sustaining sponsorship is never easy, most likely nearly impossible as changes in executives took place.

I know from this and subsequent analogous efforts within this organization and others that “authentically” involving people in their workplace circumstances including contributions to the larger enterprise can be incredibly heartwarming and substantial.

But it was never easy, and not always possible if the necessary baseline conditions (i.e., willing to even meet to together and talk about the intervention purposes). So there were a few areas that never participated, and from my perspective it was just as well, no discernible good could have come to of “forcing”. Again, some of these settings were discovered early in holding a session (our practice was to get consensus to stop the session and return to work or redesign the session purpose on the fly so that we could continue to willingly meet together). Again, these were interesting sessions for the facilitators involved.

Sponsorship is the driving variable to success or failure. People know when their leadership is genuine about any involvement process. What does genuineness mean? At the very lest it is knowing the limits in what is on the table (obviously corporate priorities, budget constraints, collective agreement conditions, etc.). But for me, genuineness also spans across to sustained commitment to make such efforts a way of doing business, NOT, a six month or four year program.

I also learned that we should not be afraid of anger or hostility. Many of us seem to think that the opposite of engagement is some form hostility and negativity. It isn’t. The polar opposites are caring not caring. Love and anger (or their workplace variants) indicate that people care. It is uncaring, indifference or apathy that is the death knell of organizational success. I could that many more people felt apathy towards the organization while still having emotional connections to the work they were doing. When apathy extended to both organization and work, I never found any significant solution to that as a facilitator (actually true in all aspects of my life as a person). Anger, of course, taken to extremes can be very dangerous as it can sad to fundamentally dangerous and unsafe behaviours. BUT, what about “love” or positive engagement, can it be a danger too?

PART 2: There is no natural system that does not have “high” “low” (or equivalent limits.

In my participation I raised the issue of can there be too much engagement. Although disappointed, I was not surprised by the lack of uptake to my enquiry. My opinion s that in OD we have so much bought into the positive value of engagement that we are only concerned with its lack rather than it over abundance. My statement about natural systems above is of course a hypothesis. This is very important, because it can be literally tested (sort of like there are only white swans). It would only take one illustrating example to disprove the proposition.

Setting aside this conceptual perspective, can we point to actual situations where people are engaged in both their work and their organizations such that we would be very alarmed at such high levels being present?

Can think of two such examples. The first is one I actually shared in the discussion: the officious clerk/bureaucrat (or Marge’s sister in the Simpsons”). We have all met such people, they really do like the work they do and where (and by implication for who) they do it. a friend of mine had to deal with city hall regarding a building permit for a septic hookup. The rules were clear, but in the specific situation their application lead to the conclusion that water/sewage could indeed flow uphill. When this was pointed out and the request for a variance was requested, the response was that only the rules mattered (they existed hence they were virtually sacred and rightfully so – otherwise chaos). I actually found out that I had some knowledge of this person and he loved his job and working at city hall.

The second example is in no way humorous: TERRORISTS or other fanatics. These are by definition people who are totally committed (sic) and engaged with what they are doing.

None of us would find the first example really satisfying or the second acceptable. Yet without acknowledging the limits of presence/use before the functional becomes dysfunctional I would suggest that we leave ourselves open to question about what we advocate.

For me the issue ends up being an issue of purpose or morality if you will. Great performance requires engagement, but for what end? There is an old adage: be careful of what you ask for, you may get it.

This is why for me, the issue of engagement in terms of work and workplace is so useful. Because we can ask the moral question discretely at both levels. Yet there is an order too: first the work then the organization. This was mentioned by at least one person in the discussion. Yet I become very concerned about the context that organizations fit into as well (e.g., the terrorist organization). Amoral and immoral organizations exist (yes an opinion) and having people who are totally engaged in these types of organizations is very disturbing to me.

A few years ago, I was doing some performance management related work with a client who was bemoaning the ineffectiveness of their PM scheme. When I looked at it I found that it was fairly typical in that it emulated what many other organizations have. His concern was that the system did not work efficiently or effectively. My thought and I shared it in a very careful manner was that the benefit of the current system was it did not work very well: it actually permitted sensible things to take place and more importantly it tempered the dysfunctional aspects of the system’s design. Better the poor operating system that does little harm than the well run one that does. 

Maybe, we who have participated in these discussions all agree. But I find silence about fundamental contextual assumptions is concerning too. The phrase: “the ends justify the means” is one where we quickly grasp the slippery danger of. Engagement is a “means”.

One of the benefits of living in pluralistic societies is the variety of organizations open to us in terms of work and doing “business” with. We have considerable opportunity to align our personal moral compasses to how we actually go about our lives. For this I am truly thankful.



About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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