“Just one in ten Brits is engaged at work” – Who Cares?

Last week I attended Prof Rob Briner’s entertaining talk on Evidence Based HR, in Liverpool. His concluding section was on how to spot a management fad, and only a few days later I had a perfect example.

“Just one in 10 Brits feel engaged at work, says Gallup” shouted a People Management article. According to the report, that lagged well behind the US where the figure is apparently one third, and it was suggested that US management practices were one of the principal causes.

I thought it would be quite interesting to explore this in more detail. However, the full report is not available until the end of November – and will cost me £37.50! I wasn’t that interested so I thought that the Executive Summary would do. However, to get this, I need to give Gallup all manner of contact details and information about my organisation, and before I could get the download information there was the threat that “someone from Gallup may contact you to discuss your interest further”.

So essentially, Gallup have issued some marketing information disguised as “news”, with data that they are only prepared to reveal at a price and which can’t currently be challenged. It’s the sort of approach that ought to sound warning bells for anyone (such as a prospective customer) looking for evidence to support their claims.

And even if we take their facts as true, there are a number of questionable elements. Why does it matter that only 11% (which is actually one in nine, but what’s a percentage point between friends?) of Brits are engaged? Does it affect organisational performance – if so how? Profitability, turnover, productivity? And if it’s a more direct people impact, what is it? Turnover, absence rates, recruitment difficulties, industrial disputes?

And what about these management practices that result in higher US scores? What exactly are they? How do they affect engagement? And are they suggesting that US businesses are 23% better in organisational performance? We’re not told, which makes me wonder why low engagement is a problem at all? Could it be that Gallup have some magic product or consultancy service that they wish to sell?

Now, you may think that it’s easier to debunk someone else’s idea rather than come up with a possible solution myself – a question the CIPD’s David D’Souza raised on Twitter last week as a result of this article in the New York Times about psychologist Amy Cuddy and her “power pose” research. However, I think that’s missing the point. We should critically evaluate other people’s findings and scrutinise whether things that are claimed actually do work. The example of Amy Cuddy suggests that the debate moved from her actual research into a battle of egos and ad-hominem attacks, accompanied by online trolling by academics that seems to have made Twitter seem like a bastion of civilised discussion in comparison.   

Anger, Brexit and Moving Forward

I was reluctant to write a post about last week’s EU referendum. Enough keyboard warriors have already given their reactions, opinions and solutions. But a couple of recent posts and comments from HR people have changed my mind.

First, let me state that, as a Remain voter, I’ve been through anger, disbelief, shock and all the other emotions that many others (like this, this and this) have also experienced.  It’s small consolation to live in a city which voted overwhelmingly to remain and where I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s anything other than horrified by the result and its implications for them and their children.

But what I will not do is get involved in a blame game. People who voted Leave did so for a variety of individual reasons – some will have had well thought out principled arguments, some were out and out racists, some had a rose-tinted and nostalgic view of England in the 1950s and some were just conned by the duplicitous snake-oil salesmen leading the Leave campaign.  To start trying to demonise the old, or working class people from the de-industrialised north, or those who live in rural areas, or those without a degree, for the way they voted is neither constructive not helpful. Indeed, the demonising of certain groups, particularly by politicians (and I don’t just mean UKIP) is the sort of tactic that has led us to the present situation.

We talk in HR a lot about “engagement” – an ill-defined concept which provokes a range of reactions from evangelism to cynicism. But I remember in one discussion a colleague saying “I can’t really describe what an engaged employee looks like – but I certainly know what a disengaged one is”. What we saw last week was the result of a disengaged population who wanted to kick back against something. As an old boss of mine used to say when discussing union negotiations, “when you’re in a lose/lose situation, do what you want to do”. And that’s what they appear to have done.

The UK seems to be in a collective Kubler-Ross curve at the moment. But the only way we will move forward to is get past the denial and anger stages and start to make the best of our new circumstances.  And maybe that means applying some of the ideas we use to try to improve employee engagement on a wider basis.

All the World’s a Stage

There seem to be a lot of HR related blogs on authenticity at the moment. The concept of “bringing your true self to work” has gained a lot of traction for what are very understandable reasons. If we are looking to improve productivity and get the best from committed and motivated employees, then we need to counter the “reverse superman” effect (a phrase coined by Organisational Development specialist Ali Germain) where people who are talented, capable and innovative in their non-work lives suddenly turn into lifeless corporate drones as soon as they clock in. And creating more human, people centred workplaces may well be the way to attract people to work for our businesses in future.
However, I’m not convinced we actually want real authenticity. Let me give you two examples.
Many years ago, I worked with a senior manager whose life was dominated by his hobby of yachting. His office was full of yachting memorabilia, including a sailing cap he always kept on his desk. People used to hate being summoned to his office because, after 5 minutes of business, they would be subjected to interminable (and to non-sailing types, i.e. most staff) tedious anecdotes about his yacht, sailing generally or his days in the navy. He was being totally “authentic” but the real him was a dreadful bore.
More recently, I had to deal with a disciplinary situation where an employee was constantly rude and aggressive to colleagues, but never in front of her manager. Following a particular incident, she was suspended and ultimately dismissed. During the investigation, many people commented that it was good that management had now seen her true colours. In her hearing, she argued that she had done nothing that wasn’t warranted and that she had always been like that – even using the phrase “what you see is what you get”.
But even if we want to get the “real person” in work I very much doubt we will. There have been numerous psychological studies about how people modify their behaviour in different environments – as Shakespeare put it “one man in his time plays many parts”. It’s one of the HR clichés that you don’t have to be friends the people you work with – and if you aren’t, you probably won’t be comfortable with showing your real feelings or personality in the working environment – no matter how much you like your organisation, job or get on with colleagues at a superficial or professional level.
When we talk about authenticity in HR, what I suspect we really mean is that we’d quite like people to show some of the nicer aspects of their personality in work, maybe with the odd idiosyncrasy thrown in, not their misogynistic or racist views or even their tendency to drone on about their yachting exploits at the weekend.

Can’t Buy Me Love

While catching up on blogs post-holiday, I came across this piece by Neil Morrison. Neil is a well-respected HR Director with a household name company and member of the CIPD council, so when I read it I could only guess that his post was written to be intentionally provocative.

His argument, in a nutshell, is that when we in HR talk about “discretionary effort” from employees, we are in effect expecting them to do more than we are paying them for. If individuals just do the bare minimum, we don’t consider that satisfactory. In effect we want something for nothing – if we want more we should pay more.

At a very superficial level, that seems an attractive argument (and indeed a Marxist would argue that the essence of capitalism is that workers are not paid the full value of their work – as I pointed out in this post about Wayne Rooney)

But there are two strong points against this. The first is that many employers also offer “discretionary” things to their employees. If your workplace has a canteen or buffet bar; if you get paid your normal salary during sickness or any part of your maternity leave; in fact, even if a family member dies and you are given compassionate leave; then you are receiving something your employer does not have to offer. It doesn’t matter why the employer is doing this, they are giving you something more than you are legally entitled to. So to expect in return that you as an employee might give a little extra back is not, in my view, unreasonable. In fact, if we want to view work as a purely economic transaction, then I’m damned if I’m going to say “thank you” for a piece of work – after all it’s what you’re paid to do. And to take Neil’s analogy, if you ask for two scoops of ice-cream and it’s poor quality mass produced tasteless stuff, you’ve no grounds to complain – it’s what you asked for. I don’t have to give you hand-made full cream Italian gelato.

And secondly, while paying a decent level of pay is important, it’s been well recognised for decades that individuals value things like recognition, career development and personal satisfaction from work. Even if you consider someone like Dan Pink, with his suggestion that what people want is autonomy, mastery and purpose from work, is a bit too much of a modern fad (despite his very well researched books) then I’d direct you to that old HR staple, Herzberg, who 50 years ago suggested that pay was not enough on its own to provide satisfaction at work.

To put it simply, as a well-known band once said “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love”

If you’ve done 6 impossible things before Breakfast….

At the age of almost 6, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by my parents to come downstairs and watch, on a grainy black and white TV, the first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I felt a similar sense of excitement and history being made last week as I watched the scenes from Mission Control as we (and they) waited to find out if the Philae probe had landed on Comet 67P.

In so many respects, the Rosetta mission exemplifies what we in HR would like to see happening in every workplace -albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

It had a clear and incredibly stretching objective (I’d love to have been at the meeting where someone said “I’ve got a good idea – let’s see if we can land something the size of a washing machine on a comet 400 million km away and moving at 34000km an hour. To make it really interesting, we’ll have to send our instructions to the rocket half an hour before we need it to do them, and we’ll then have to wait another half an hour for the answer”)

Allied to this clear purpose was team working and collaboration – the effort involved not only different nationalities but scientists of different disciplines, engineers, computer programmers and mathematicians. And suppliers (such as those who built parts of the lander) were just as involved as the scientists working directly. (One other nice thing was the diversity of those involved – there were almost as many women scientists and engineers involved as there were men).

There was learning from failure – not everything went exactly right (Philae’s now famous bounce on landing being a particular example) but everything that happened was used to gain greater knowledge and to plan for the future.

There were clear and consistent values throughout – virtually everyone interviewed talked of the desire to do something new and the potential benefits of the things they were hoping to discover.

And finally, while the technology and the science were clearly important – the mission was only achieved through committed and motivated people. The scenes at the point of landing were not of the lander itself, but of the team at Mission Control anxiously waiting to find out what had happened. The expressions on their faces in the final 20 minutes, which varied from tension, nervous laughter, nonchalance (one team member appeared to take a call on his mobile with less than 10 minutes to go) to complete joy as the signal came through, emphasised how essential the people were.

The day after the landing, a trending hashtag on Twitter was #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant…If I were of a cynical mind, I’d conclude that tweet with “Build Better Workplaces”. But I’d like to believe, in the words of a certain US politician “Yes We Can”.