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November 2008

Let Down by Our Language

Do you ever pause to consider how much language might influence our behaviour?

I frequently quote the passage in Jack Welch’s biography “Jack” where he tells of an employee who told him, “For 25 years you’ve paid for my hands when you could have had my brain as well – for nothing.” I use it to support the argument that we get too hung up on job descriptions and fail to look at the total individual, their true potential and the contribution they could make to the organisation in the longer term.

This approach is cemented in our language and terminology by the tendency to generically refer to people as the “hired hands” or the “hired help.”

To date I have always focussed on the ‘hands’ bit, questioning how we can really expect to engage people if we, even totally subconsciously, consider them to be no more than hands. I was thinking about this yesterday when it struck me that the word ‘hired’ is perhaps even more pernicious.

The word ‘hire’ implies something temporary and therefore transient. This is hardly surprising for Webster’s Dictionary defines the word in part as, “To procure for another person for temporary use… to bribe.”  It therefore seems quite logical – even natural – that there is little or no loyalty, for the employment contract almost builds in barriers to employee engagement. Managers seem to expect that people will go elsewhere as soon as someone else “bribes” them to move, while they in turn offer little to the person to encourage them to do otherwise. This is clearly evident in the current economic climate where businesses are shedding employees like a wet dog shaking off water. 

The greatest irony, however, is that this is happening when the “war for talent” is supposed to be one of the modern manager’s greatest concerns. Clearly there is a great need to rethink the way people – the greatest asset – are viewed in the commercial world.

It seems to me to be impossible to expect to compete effectively, to offer superior customer service or to overcome the destructive disengagement pervading the workforce, unless we rethink the way we view people and the relationship between people and organisations. And perhaps we should to start by looking closely at our everyday language and what it reveals. For starters we need to stop talking about “hiring” and “firing” people, human “resources”, and other pejorative words like “hands”. I am sure you have your own list. 

Employee Engagement = Brand Alignment

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get from it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin   

A modern day cynic might well scoff at these words and the idealism behind them, and rebut them with Richard Nelson Bolles’ description of the American workforce in his 1970 book, ‘What Colour is Your Parachute’, "There is a vast world of work out there, where at least 111 million people are employed in this country alone--many of whom are bored out of their minds. All day long. Not for nothing is their motto TGIF -- 'Thank God It's Friday.' They live for the weekends, when they can go do what they really want to do."  Yet the dichotomy between the two sums up employee disengagement in a nutshell. 

The fact is that we have turned work into a need. As Ellen Goodman so aptly and humorously described it, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for - in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”  Or as Margaret Fuller more succinctly put it, “Men, for the sake of getting a living, forget to live.” And that, alas, is the true cause of employee disengagement, because, despite this self-imposed infliction and whether we recognise it or not, we all aspire to Ruskin’s ideal and greater self-fulfilment.

The fact is that everyone ultimately works for themselves. Whether employed or self-employed, our work is ultimately a matter of personal choice. So too is selling our own lives short by compromising a possibly fulfilling, satisfying career for the kind of 'TGIF experience' Bolles described. This, however, is an attitude that makes management accountability for employee engagement seem absurd, because it is always going to be a no-win battle.

On the other hand, management owes it to everyone – themselves, the rest of their colleagues, shareholders and owners, and all the other stakeholders – to maximise the organisation’s economic efficiency (regardless of whether it is a profit or non-profit, private or public sector organisation.) Since no organisation can operate at optimum efficiency with disengaged employees, such an attitude is intolerable. This, of course, alters the dynamics and makes management responsible for identifying and eliminating it, which, as a natural corollary, means creating a culture where everyone has the opportunity to become engaged or otherwise leave. 

To achieve this, management has to recognise that, in working for themselves, everyone is effectively their own brand. Consequently, the paramount need is to create an environment in which the development of the employee brand and the organisation brand are congruous. In other words, there has to be alignment between the employee brand and the employer brand in order to create effective employee engagement. Only then will it be possible to have an efficient, effective organisation with an engaged team of people delivering superior performance and bottom-line results.

Turnaround Leadership

“In order to be a leader a man must have followers. And to have followers he must have their confidence.” Dwight D Eisenhower   

Simple yet profound, Eisenhower could almost be said to have been stating the obvious. If that were the case, however, his words would certainly not appear in compilations of great quotations!

Either way his words have massive implications for modern business leaders. Surveys that indicate employee engagement is running at less than 30% would suggest business leaders don’t really have followers, which, by implication, calls into question their business leadership and their right to be leaders.

Yet surely our business leaders cannot all be that bad and need replacing? The very scale of the problem seems to suggest a possibly deeper malaise and that it may be the method of creating and developing business leaders that is flawed.

So, if the essence of the problem is not solely the personal shortcomings of the leaders but the training they are provided and the tools they have at their disposal, there is a need to change those. But how? If the problem is not recognised it is virtually impossible to rectify.

Inevitably, it has to start with the leaders, who have to face up to and recognise this challenge. This will only happen once they have realised that the lack of any following makes all their own endeavours largely futile. Then they will inevitably change the way they view their followers and the process will begin.

It could, however, be accelerated. The Zealise proposition, to value and notionally account for people as assets, is the most obvious catalyst to engender the requisite change in approach. It also has the additional advantage of being the easiest to implement and in a way that will embed the new thinking and sustain the behavioural changes requisite to ensure a happy work force and a superior customer experience that will build all round greater loyalty and engagement.

The Meaning of Work

“Implementation is straightforward if you understand the fundamentals, but only if you can engage so that modern workers are able to answer the question. ‘What’s in it for me?’” Mark Wilcox (with Jonas Ridderstrale: People Management: 6 March 2008)   

The rider that followed shortly after, however, was what really caught my attention: “Enticing people with money is going about it the wrong way.”  Not because of the words, but the relief that such ideas are being expressed more.

Jonas Ridderstrale reinforces this by adding, “Most traditional management presumes you can move from envisioning straight to execution, forgetting engagement. It equates great leaders with those who have Eureka moments. But to deliver real change you have to be able to tap into people’s emotional capital too.”  Traditional management could only make that presumption because it was rooted in the conviction that you had simply to tell subordinates what to do.

It would thus seem that ‘emotional capital’ and ‘what’s in it for me’ are synonymous and cannot be met by either command or enticement. The challenge then is to find a new operating model. Ridderstrale believes highly successful corporations have this and that “It’s a change from having a relationship with employees that’s purely transactional to having one that’s at least partially emotional.” This, these gurus claim, “starts with using positive deviance, rather than trying to exterminate the negative.”

Oh boy! Apart from the mind-numbing generality of this, it also sounds pretty much like the Dr. Spock school of discipline and the sort of thinking that led to the meltdown in the financial markets: a sense somewhat reinforced by the next question, which asks about their suggestion that companies follow the model of religion or the American dream in reinventing themselves.

Hardly propitious analogies right now, they begin to make sense when one understands the key issue here is that “both talent and consumers will search for organisations that can provide them with meaning.” Companies (Virgin and Nike are cited as examples) able to offer this will stand a greater chance of success. Unfortunately the only practical insight to achieving this is that “organisations need to rely on a number of shared principles that keep people together.”     

Of course this is precisely where the Zealise solution starts. Rooted in Kahlil Gibran’s statement, “Work is love made visible”, it has the philosophical basis with the practical interpretation to deliver the remedy being discussed; engaged employees who have both the emotional capital and the social capital to be happy in their work. If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to download “Lighting the Fuse” to learn how to really engage your employees.