Ponderances of Steve

January 13, 2010

Employee Engagement Flaws

Filed under: Reviews — Steve LeBlanc @ 6:56 pm

This is my response to a blog post on fastforwardblog.com by Jon Husband: Employee Engagement – a Core Goal of Enterprise 2.0 Adoption? It may be useful to read that first.  Read it here.

Forgive me for being the only contrarian in a room full of “I agree”. This is neither a comfortable nor a common position for me. Jon’s post is beautifully written and well thought out, exploring one of the most important issues of our time, Employee Engagement. I am better for having read it and the comments that followed. But…

No one I know who was actually in a position to implement ‘democratic design principle’ actually believes that it can work. Mind you, I am not saying we shouldn’t give employees far more power than they currently have. Indeed we should. But let’s please separate out the idea from the rant. An idea leads to further productive discussion. A rant often trashes the discussion, leaving little room for anything but soundbite solutions and nodding heads.

Jon’s rant seems to be to hand over “the keys to the kingdom” to employees, which is almost sure to turn out poorly.

The “idea” is that companies have been overly controlling of employees and that has hurt their competitive position. Great. I agree. Enough studies have been done to readily demonstrate that the more engaged your people, the happier they are and the better job they do. The only question remaining is, How do we get there?

The “rant” is if the people don’t currently have the power to run the place, you just give it to them. If that idea seems appealing, then just let your kids run the house for a month and see how that turns out. If on the off chance your kids handle it beautifully, please have the wisdom to take some credit for the marvelous job you did in raising them. And have some compassion for all those regular folk who would fail miserably in this ill-conceived experiment. Even if it works in some rare circumstances, it is still a bad idea, a flawed rant.

I know nothing of Participative Design as developed in 1971 by Fred and Merrelyn Emery (or of Greg Vaughan, one of only a few consultants in the country to be trained by the Fred Emery Institute on Open Systems theory and Participative Design methods.) Let’s assume their method has a whole list of steps that allow for a graceful transition to the new utopia. They don’t just give the kids the keys and leave. They actually help them adapt. Great.

But let’s look at some assumptions made by Jon Husband.

  1. In responding to Atle Iversen’s comment with, “You put your finger on the key issues,” you agree with the meme that micro-managing is just plain bad. The debate between micro managing your people and empowering them is over. In The One Minute Manager, Blanchard points out that the best managers know when to micro manage (for new employees) and when to empower (as they demonstrate competence). Just because some managers don’t know when to mirco-manage does not mean that it’s a bad thing.
  2. I flinched when he referred to, “what people have always done well”. His list included: ask questions, and seek to understand, suggest alternatives, clarify needs or desires and decide together why and how to do something. Sure our best people can do these things, but to state it’s “what people have always done well” is comical. Have you ever attended a town hall meeting? A civil rights movement? How about a family gathering? These are in no way innate skills. And while I might even agree that they have been further suppressed by some weak management styles, I don’t recall a time in history when we (people) were all good at them. I am really good at asking questions and seeking to understand. And I suck at it half the time. I know some people who can’t create a good question even if you ask them for it. They just don’t have it in them.
  3. Not all employees are trustworthy, at least not today. We want to pretend that managing has nothing to do with parenting, but with the current state of parenting, we have a lot of unresolved childhood issues being brought to the workplace. To pretend that we can all act like adults, all the time, is preposterous. Sure we can bring some of our people up to speed, but only with training and guidance and trust building (not just by trusting them). No one should be trusted with large decisions until they have demonstrated their trust-worthiness. Raising healthy employees is much like raising healthy kids, both of which are much harder to do than it would first appear.
  4. The 38% mentioned in the Towers Perrin study who are mostly or entirely disengaged, only sounds impressive until we look at research done on creativity. Zorana Ivcevic, a post doctoral fellow at Tufts University found in her study of college students, “About 30% were not creative by any standard, which marked them as conventionals.” This makes them more resistant to change, less open minded and even less curious. Are these the people to whom we would hand over the keys to the kingdom? (Dec 2009 Psychology Today, Vol 42 No.6 in the article Everyday Creativity by Carlin Flora.)
  5. The first ‘democratic design principle’ we are told is, “Those who have to do the work are in the best position to design the way in which it is structured”. As seductive as that sounds, it rarely pans out. Only sometimes does an employee know enough about the system to make wise decisions about it. Certainly they should have a great deal of input on that. But even the greatest feedback given to a poor collector results in bad decisions. Yes, give your people a lot of say, but don’t give them full power just because they are supposed to know what is best.
  6. Point two is, “effectiveness is greatly improved when teams take responsibility for ___ ” (fill in the blank). Sure we want our people to own their projects and care. But how do we do that? How do we make people take that responsibility? If we make them do it, are they really taking it? And if they don’t feel like taking it, then what? The notion of others “taking responsibility” is a feel-good way to blame others for what went wrong.

I have done corporate trainings in both management styles and alignment of vision. And when it works, it is spectacular. I have spoken to some great leaders, trainers and teachers and they all agree. The great variety of contributing factors always makes easy fixes unlikely.

There is certainly an important topic being discussed here, but it scares me when people just blame management for the way things are. A cursory understanding of systems theory will lead one to realize that when you are blaming, you are getting further and further from a real and productive understanding of the system you are studying. The contributors are not the cause of the problem. They are simply entry points into the system.

There is a reason why ‘democratic design principle’ gets only 40 hits in google. It is a flawed idea. There is a reason that Participative Design has not caught on better in its 40-50 years. It was tried and failed to deliver. It’s not that it can’t work, but rather that it did not address enough of the barriers to entry that are in place to prevent such random change.

The argument that all we need to do is to give people more choice does not take into account the complex impact of things like unions, education levels, learning disabilities, drug use, crime, parenting, bank foreclosures and plain old petty jealousies. All of these have a profound impact on the workplace, one not easily corrected by simply giving people choice.

Again I am not saying we shouldn’t give people more say in how they do their jobs. What I am saying is that it is dangerously reductionistic to say that democracy cures all organizational problems. You still need people with a corporate vision, with social and diplomatic skills, with insight into the unique needs of their employees. We can’t go anywhere until someone decides what direction we are headed. We still need leaders.

Your thoughts?

Misc Refs

~~ http://www.fastforwardblog.com/2010/01/04/employee-engagement-a-core-goal-of-enterprise-2-0-adoption/

~~ http://www.michaelherman.com/cgi/wiki.cgi?SearchConference Search Conference Participative Planning Method by Michael Herman includes “Democratic Design Principle”

~~ http://www.amazon.com/Self-Managing-Organization-Leading-Companies-Transforming/dp/068483734X The Self-Managing Organization 1998 “Democratic Design Principle” Nice discussion.

~~ http://www.vaughanconsulting.com/pdw.html Participative Design consulting and overview.

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