Employee involvement, engagement, culture– why?

Jim Heskett, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, addressed an important topic in a recent article for Harvard Working Knowledge.  He wrote “One has to ask whether citizens in the U.S., who have experienced little loyalty on the part of their employers, can any longer identify with their organizations and, in a broader sense, their economy?”  (see :To What Degree Does “Identity” Affect Economic Performance? Jim Heskett, March 3, 2010  Working Knowledge, Harvard Business School http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6367.html)

Hesket refers to economist Robert Shiller’s view that: “In most civilian fields, job satisfaction may not be a life-or-death matter, but a relatively uninterested, insecure work force is unlikely to bring about a vigorous recovery.” Shiller concludes that “Solutions for the economy must address not only the structural instability of our financial institutions, but also these problems in the hearts and minds of workers and investors-problems that may otherwise persist for many years.”

Unlike the “most civilian” fields that Shiller refers to, in much of our DOE work, job satisfaction could be a life-or-death matter.  So what might be the implications of “a relatively uninterested, insecure work force” when dealing with the safety critical missions that we perform on behalf of our country and future generations?

In a previous blog I mentioned the recent LANL workshop.  It was clear from participants that employee engagement is not a slogan; it is a central tenant of robust and effective safety.   It is also a central feature of resilient, highly reliable organizations.  Maintaining engagement during change, and particularly management transition, was discussed during this workshop.  How do you maintain focus when the top level of the organization changes?  It is said that culture emanates from the top; but is this necessarily so?

A sense of community is more important that formal organization for continuity.  While roles are important, relationships are often more so.  Heskett’s article refers to the book, Identity Economics, by Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton.  In their view, an organization (and even entire societies) works well when people personally identify with it, so that their self-esteem is tied up with its activities.

Gary Hamel wrote similarly of an engagement chasm in his Wall Street Journal Blog last December. He took note of an 18 country survey on employee engagement and summarized the results like this: “researchers discovered barely one-fifth (21%) of employees are truly engaged in their work, in the sense that they would ‘go the extra mile’ for their employer. Nearly four out of ten (38%) are mostly or entirely disengaged, while the rest are in the tepid middle. There’s no way to sugarcoat it—this data represents a stinging indictment of the legacy management practices found in most companies.”

Hamel concluded “So what does all this have to do with engagement? Just this: in a world where customers wake up every morning asking, “what’s new, what’s different and what’s amazing?” success depends on a company’s ability to unleash the initiative, imagination and passion of employees at all levels—and this can only happen if all those folks are connected heart and soul with their work, their company and its mission.”

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google speaks about how culture and engagement can be an alternative to top down direction and control “…Google is run by its culture and not by me. … We operate under the assumption that everyone including me is extremely dispensable, because ultimately Google is bigger than the individuals who make it. Google is about a mission…It often feels at Google that people are pretty much doing what they think best and they tolerate having us around… It’s much easier to have an employee base in which… everybody is doing exactly what they want every day. They’re much easier to manage because they never have any problems. They’re always excited, they’re always working on whatever they care about. So you’re much, much better off if you select people to work in your firm who really want to change the world. Now, they’re going to have issues and you’re going to have to help them … But it’s a very different model than the traditional, hierarchical model where there’s the CEO statement and this is the strategy and this is what you will do.… Part of the job of being a CEO in a company like Google is to have an environment where people are constantly throwing you their best ideas as opposed to being afraid to talk to you.”  (for the full Washington Post interview click here)

So what’s the point?  There is a cacophony of voices from management researchers and leaders in world class organizations that new models of management and organization are necessary for success in the 21st century.  Hamel says that the task is no less than totally reinventing management; his blog Management 2.0 has since 2008 cited compelling stories of the challenges and successes of creating new management technologies.

When we listen to researchers like Hamel, Peter Senge, and Chris Argyris and CEO’s like Schmidt, John Mackey of Whole Foods Market or Tim Brown of IDEO we are hearing conversations about leadership and performance that may sound alien to many managers raised in structured command and control organizations.  Edgar Schein explains what these conversations may portend:

“The one thing that is becoming clearer and clearer is that the institutions of the past may be obsolete and that new forms of governance and leadership will have to be learned. Furthermore, as the rate of change itself increases, learning ability will not consist of the one-time learning of a new system; perpetual learning and change will be the only constant.

Whereas today the process of appointing leaders is a critical function of boards of directors, electorates, government agencies, and so on, we can imagine that, in the future, appointed leaders will not play the key leadership roles but will be perpetual diagnosticians who will be able to empower different people at different times and to let emergent leadership flourish. They will not assume that all Leadership and Organizational Culture groups need leadership, they will not assume that leadership means hierarchy and control of others, and they will not assume that accountability must always be individual.

If the world is to learn to manage itself better, many more people in organizations will have to be leaders and the leadership functions described above will have to be much more widely shared.”

These new ideas, these new experiences, these new realities may offer an answer to the question “why”; why culture, why engagement, why involvement.  Perhaps in the not to distant future senior managers will be as equally skilled in designing organizations for people as they are today in finance or technical project management.  Perhaps in the not to distant future designing organizations to support human performance will be a core competency heralded as a distinctive strategic advantage.  Perhaps in the not to distant future excellence might become the norm, rather than the exception.

That is for the future.  As for today, what might we learn from comments by Heskett and other thought leaders I have mentioned?  What are we doing about developing a fully engaged, committed workforce; what should we do?

Your thoughts???

2 Responses to Employee involvement, engagement, culture– why?

  1. SBH says:

    Excellent thoughts, but how do organizations that operate in highly regulated environments, with so much transparency to external stakeholders, adopt such innovation?

    • wecarnes says:

      Hi Sonja –

      For any who do not know Sonja, she is internationally respected for her work in safety culture (and other things too!)

      So everyone else, please comment to Sonja. What can we learn from these other domains and what good things are we doing to foster more cohesive communities in which engagement is how we do business?

      Thanks for joining the conversation Sonja, and please keep contributing.


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