Imagine sustained transformational engagement

Imagine a world where every employee in every organisation around the world owned a piece of the action – a world where fat cats and greed would no longer be tolerated, a world where shareholders who act like bullies wouldn’t be tolerated! A world of capped salaries, smaller lower to highest gaps or ratios and fairer pay remuneration!

Would this approach achieve true transformational engagement inside organisations? Has any research been done to find out if John Lewis (because of its partnering approach) has higher levels of engagement than Apple?

OK so we know that maybe sounds like the governments pro cooperative push – a push which has by now been badly dented by the latest shenanigans at the Coop.

But are there business where there is real shared ownership, non-divisive behaviour by the owners and smaller top to bottom pay differentials,. Well there is a rather unusual tomato processing business in the US that has no hierarchy – where everyone votes on each others’ pay and performance. And before you say it can’t work on scale it is the largest tomato processor in the States. True whether the model will survive its founder’s moving on remains to be seen, but it certainly is working now.

And we don’t honestly know enough about John Lewis and Waitrose and what life is really like inside them, but we have to admit to being hugely impressed with the maturity and attitude of the senior managers we’ve met. Their complete focus on performance and care for their colleagues is palpable. And they are comfortable that you can do both at the same time.

Equally we have seen the outrageous behaviour of shareholders who stride around organisations bullying and tormenting staff, including executives, in search of the return they want on their investment.

What about job titles? Why do we need them? Aren’t they divisive? Do they not send a clear message than someone is already more powerful than you? Do organisations with flatter structures achieve higher levels of engagement than more hierarchical organisations?

There is a strong voice on the internet discussing how performance management actually undermines performance. That top down cascades create what one commentators calls KIAs – Kick In The A***. Setting goals that we jump to, not that we want to achieve. Creating committed compliance – hard work cultures to achieve ‘their’ targets, not real commitment and engagement with the goals that we want to achieve. We’ve met organisations that are so hierarchical – though they would deny it – that individuals need to be in the same band (or higher) to be listened to by their colleagues, where it is deemed inappropriate to challenge upward; or where more time is spent on managing upwards than anything else.

And does size matters too when it comes to true engagement. Is small beautiful and big cumbersome! Surely it’s easier to feel valued inside a smaller business; there are more opportunities to be heard and to contribute to the success of the business than larger organisations?

It depends on the Leader and the Culture we hear you say. Well yes of course it does! But is culture easier to create in a small business?

That said we’ve known small business dominated by single owner leaders where the culture is toxic; and large business where the culture does truly feel liberating and empowering

But isn’t that the case for most circumstances when it comes to engagement? Is the leader(s) the key to unlocking the potential of the employees and how they feel, what they think and ultimately how they act? There is another complication though – as Prof Adrian Furnham of UCL reminded us recently – some people have a DNA of job dissatisfaction. So what should we do with these kind of employees? Surely we can sack them?

So reflecting on all the above, can we truly achieve transformational engagement and sustain this over a long period of time?

Well we think it can be done and the answer lies in all of the above.

It happens:

  • When leaders, staff, shareholders and other key stakeholders think, feel and believe that are working together and their actions and how they reward themselves and each other demonstrate and reflect this.
  • When all staff work without hierarchy but recognising it.
  • When everyone gives of their best and that is recognised and appreciated.
  • When thought is given to context, structure and processes as well as goals.
  • When all staff take ownership for the culture they create through their behaviour; and values aren’t just things stuck on walls; and vision statements are not shopping lists of motherhood and apple pie but visceral statements that mean something to everyone.
  • When people care and support each other with the intent to help them succeed, but don’t tolerate time waster or game players.

In short it happens in places where everyone who works there wants to work there, not where they have to work there because they need to pay the rent.

Simple really; but hard – like so much in life. Understanding the difference is key.