Fire Two-Thirds of Your Employees

You might as well. Because according to the research report put out by Towers Watson, only about one third of employees (globally) are highly engaged in their jobs. They surveyed 32,000 people to come to that conclusion, so these data are nothing to sneeze at.

Okay, I don’t ACTUALLY recommend you get rid of the other two-thirds of your employees, but I wanted to draw attention to how utterly ridiculous it is that only one out of three people in our offices, on average, is actually highly engaged. People who would “go the extra mile,” feel that they have the resources they need to get the job done, and are energized and supported in the workplace. That’s their definition of highly engaged: engaged (like the work), enabled (have the resources), and energized (supported). Why are we not outraged at how few of us identify as highly engaged? Gary Hamel was right when he said, “We’re not angry enough.”

The study says this is a wake up call. That organizations

“are running 21st-century businesses with 20th-century workplace practices and programs. And the cracks in the foundation are starting to show in both small and large ways.”

Now it’s starting to sound a little like Humanize. They continue to argue that the world of work is changing, but management is not adapting fast enough:

In many respects, this new work environment — dependent on instantaneous and free-flowing information — has the potential to dramatically improve productivity and creativity. But adapting to it puts even more pressure on leaders, managers and employees themselves to embrace continuous learning, remain open to alternative work arrangements, and find creative ways to give support and energy on the job.

So, what’s their response? In their analysis, they identified five things organizations need to do to make things better. Here’s their figure from the report:

Here’s where the study starts to lose me. I mean, this list is fine, and I even see some Humanize elements in there (truth and trust), but I am really left flat by things like “treat employees with respect,” work-life balance, integrity, growing the business. How are those new? Who currently disagrees on those items?! This is the model for 21st century leadership?! Manage stress, hire more people, be “highly regarded,” and give flexible work arrangements?

Sigh. This list is still top-down. So much of their research is about how the “disengaged” don’t understand their goals or feel unsupported by the higher ups, so the solution is for the “leaders” to do their job better. I am all for people in authority doing a better job in supporting the periphery, but as long as we keep defining the solution that way (and only in that way), we are missing the point of the global challenge we are facing today.

To me, only 35% of employees being highly engaged is a big fail. But our organizations are not failing due to a lack of effort. It’s not that we’re not trying hard enough. They are not failing because we’re not properly measuring leadership competencies and holding leaders accountable. They are not failing because supervisors are not properly managing the stress of the workers.

Our organizations are failing because they are designed, at their core, to value mechanical efficiency over human purpose, and we have crossed the tipping point line where the costs of that approach are outstripping the benefits.

This is hard for us. We have accomplished so, so much in the last century with our machine approach. We’ve transformed society, generated vast amounts of wealth, and achieved staggeringly high levels of productivity. When we are faced with bad news (35% engagement rate), we still cling to our mechanical solutions to fix the problem. But the solutions are generating smaller returns. The study itself shows that engagement rates are on the decline.

We are less engaged, because we want to be human, and tweaking our mechanical systems isn’t getting us there. We have seen the raw power of endeavors that start with human purpose and community, endeavors that operate based on prinicples of being open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous. And we want more of that.

So I see two paths for organizations. One is to leap. To make your next management off-site about actually re-inventing your organization from the ground up and make a big bet on the value of being more human and less mechanical. This path is all in. High risk and high return. The other path is to walk. Take steps to change specific processes and behaviors that will shift you to a more human culture. But to be clear, taking steps requires stopping and walking in the other direction. It’s like you’re on a moving sidewalk. If you just stop, you’re still moving forward (in the wrong direction). You have to turn around and walk against the grain.

But trying to play the machine game just a little bit better is going to continue to disappoint us. At least it will if we really care about engagement (or agility for that matter). So make a leap or take some steps, but for goodness’ sake, please turn around.

3 Comments

  1. 30.09.2012 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for sharing the report. It is really an eye opener. It is clear that something needs to change–everyone agrees with that, but the question is What?

    I would like to suggest that even the solution you pose embeds seeds of the problem itself. Anything that begins with a leadership retreat is going to perpetuate the mechanistic top-down mindset that put us where we are. There is no way that even the most motivated leader can access the intelligence of the whole, act in the role of each part, and influence all of the millions of minute interactions that shape corporate culture and individual engagement.

    We suggest a radical alternative–not humanism, though it may sound like it. It invites each person in the organization including the leaders 1) to get aware of what is happening around them, 2) to assess for themselves (individually or in groups) what is/is not working, and 3) to take action to shift patterns to ones that are more healthy, coherent, and productive. When each person has such agency and when all are connected to respond to their individual and collective challenges, the system becomes its own self-organizing change-making machine.

    It is easier than it may sound. The intervention is simple and its results are complex. It is based on human systems dynamics, which draws theory and practice from nonlinear dynamics, including complex adaptive systems and chaos sciences. We advocate a wide range of models and methods (http://wiki.hsdinstitute.org/), but three are at the center of our methodology.

    First, a focus on patterns (similarities, differences, and connections) helps people see, understand, and influence the environment. When they engage with patterns, every interaction by every person in every part of the organization has the power to influence local and global culture and performance. This approach has emerged from decades of research and is captured in the CDE Model–Conditions for self-organizing in human systems.

    Second, a short list of simple rules sets the conditions for patterns that support the work of individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole. Every organization considers the pattern(s) it wants to create internally and externally and names 3-7 short rules that shape behavior that will influence the desired pattern. For example, one of our HSD simple rules is “Teach and learn in every interaction.” As a result, all of our interactions (including this one, hopefully) creates conditions for inquiry and engagement.

    Third, every individual and group sees, understands, and influences surrounding patterns because they are engaged in Adaptive Action. Adaptive Action is an iterative, simple, compelling problem-solving, solution-finding process. It includes three questions: What? So what? and Now what?

    What? helps people see the patterns that surround them.
    So what? helps them make shared and action-oriented meaning.
    Now what? moves them to action.
    Every action, no matter how small or by whom, shifts the pattern, so a new cycle emerges with What? is happening now?

    Those three fundamental ideas–patterns, simple rules, Adaptive Action–set conditions for a productive and engaging culture to emerge. We have used this approach in school districts, healthcare settings, NGOs, and all levels of government. It truly transforms human systems at all scales, from individual through community.

    It is simple, but it is not easy. It requires everyone–especially leaders–to move into an emergent world of uncertainty. There are still things that can and should be controlled, but there are others that are unknowable and have to emerge over time from unpredictable Adaptive Action cycles. Our experience tells us that the list of “Top Drivers for Sustainable Engagement” you quote above are symptoms of distorted organizational patterns, they are not causes of employee engagement. We think that attention to patterns, simple rules, and Adaptive Action can treat the underlying disease that affects the two thirds who are disengaged by engaging them in Adaptive Action.

    So, the questions:
    How is this approach same as and different from traditional humanistic approaches?
    What similar approaches have others used, and how did they work?
    What are the Adaptive Actions that change leaders can do to help set conditions for this kind of emergent, organic change to happen?

    Thanks for your thoughts and for opening this question in such a generative and compelling way. Glenda Eoyang