Wednesday, 14 November 2012

More on the #E4S report – a meaningful metaphor – used in the wrong way


   The one paragraph that did resonate for me in the Engage for Success ‘Nailing the Evidence’ report was the one instance when the report strayed away from presenting its statistics.

It’s not quite a story but it’s a nice little aside about one attempt to explain the importance of engagement a bit more engagingly:

“The scale of the engagement deficit in the UK is staggering. David Fairhurst of McDonald’s Restaurants Limited, in contextualizing the results of the Gallup 2001 survey reported earlier which found that only 19% of UK employees were engaged, asked us to imagine the likely managerial response to learning that only 20% of the organisation’s computers worked properly, that 60% were unreliable and that 20% either did nothing at all or spent their entire time infecting other systems with viruses. Alternatively, he suggested considering a manufacturing facility that ran at full capacity on Monday, at half capacity Tuesday through Thursday, and either shut down or produced substandard products on Fridays. Fairhurst rightly concluded that resource inefficiencies of this magnitude would not be tolerated.”


It’s an interesting way of describing the problem, but, to me, it also falls into the trap that I think also underpins some of the statistical commentary in the report – which is seeing low engagement as an employee problem that needs to be dealt with, in order to improve business results.

So in this quote, people are likened to defunct, unreliable and virus riden computers.  And it’s clearly the computers which are the problem, and which need to be upgraded, replaced or at least deep cleaned for the situation to be improved.

This is my main problem with engagement* – that’s it’s often defined as creating the behaviours which lead to business success.  So if engagement is low, its the behaviours – the people, that need to be changed somehow.

I don’t think that’s a helpful way to look at engagement.  And it’s fundamentally disengaging too – ie slightly unintuitively, it’s likely to lead to more of the problems that it’s trying to correct.

A much better, more useful, way to think about engagement is that this is the emotional state in which someone will feel able and motivated to do what they can – and which, all things being equal, will result in good things for the employer too.  It’s a small difference, but a critical one.  It places the employee at the centre of the approach and makes it clear that it’s the business which needs to change.

After all, most organisations recruit individuals who feel engaged about their new job.  The reason that these same people often feel disengaged a day / week / month / year later is often down to the organisation, rather than a change in demands of the employee.

So my suggestion for a better metaphor for disengagement would be something like asking people to image:

An environment in which your IT manager has poured out some cups of coffee and tipped them into 60% of the firm’s computers, and then picked up a chair and smashed up another 20%.  Or an organisation where the facilities manager has tried to save costs by only connecting to the electricity supply on Monday and asking people to use wind up generators Tuesday to Thursday, and also to sit in the dark with no power on Friday.


And this is basically the same as what I think our organisations do to their people an awful lot of the time.

But the problem is with the organisation – the IT and the facilities managers in my metaphor (and apologies if it’s an analogy?) – it’s not a problem with the employee – or the computers or the electricity supply.


* And for clarity – it’s just a small, not a big, problem! – I still think engagement is generally a good thing and a useful concept too.

I just think employers will get more from it by seeing the employee as the solution – not the problem.


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  1. I like your alternative metaphor Jon.

  2. I agree Jon. Anyone who thinks that engagement is something that can be 'done' by a bunch of managers coming up with 'engagement strategies' in meetings is barking up the wrong tree.
    It will be interesting to see over the next few months and years which companies have the courage to go to their employees and say 'OK, we know we got it wrong for the last few years, what do we need to do to put it right?'
    The anwers will be different for each company. There is no recipe for this that will work everywhere, in my opinion.

  3. Thanks Jo, Graham - I think you're spot on with this Graham. Cheers, Jon


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