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Engagement: Will we ever learn?


Employee engagementIn decades past, organisations would take a sensible approach to employee engagement, which, says John Pope, we seem to have forgotten about now. But can we learn from this time gone by?

There is currently a great deal of emphasis on engagement. There are systems to measure how well people are engaged; there is a senior manager in the cabinet office who is head of employee engagement; there are expensive conferences; there are frequent articles in – well, here’s one more.

It wasn’t called engagement in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s when Maslow, Herzberg & McGregor, and others looked at the way people are managed, what they felt about work, how well they identified with it. The lessons were clear:

  • Get the employment conditions right; get rid of petty irritations; do something about the things which de-motivate people or get in the way of getting results.

  • Apply some leadership. Ensure there is a clear sense of direction; that people know what must be done; that they have the tools and resources; give praise for good work when it’s due; help the employees towards a better future. Ensure personal face-to-face contact with the workforce, at all levels.

So what have we done? Why have we forgotten those sensible approaches?

Real engagement

“It was a happy, friendly, productive, engaged business, under the influence of the owners, who did well out of it.”

The head of HR in a division of an international bank said to me a while ago: “Real engagement is not about the results of a survey, it is when one of your people says to a friend: ‘I’m working for a great firm – why don’t you come and join me there?'”

Over years, and years, of consultancy I have worked with businesses where ‘engagement’ was high and others where it was low. My story is of one firm which achieved high engagement, but then slipped back.

Two brothers, with a bit of money as a result of their selling out a small business, decided to go into house-building. They had no background or knowledge of it, but picked up the best practices from each of the different then leaders in house-building.

I didn’t get to know them until they were really flying, but talked to many of those who had been there in their early years. What did they tell me?

  • It was fun

  • There was a fresh challenge every week, sometimes every day

  • We knew what was happening, we could see where we were going

  • The partners were open with us, and told us the problems before we found them

  • We all saw the progress figures, and the profits, and could see how we were doing

  • They knew us all and our families

  • As our company grew, so did we, and our jobs.

They also told of the difficulties in the early years, the shortage of funds, the hole in the roof of the hut where there was a bucket underneath. They told of the way they worked – the ‘subbies’ came in and were treated just as if they were employees. It was a happy, friendly, productive, engaged business, under the influence of the owners, who did very well out of it. It became a major company; the partners were very active in building it up, and they were eventually persuaded to turn it into a public company.

Well that changed things. It put an end to posting the monthly management accounts on the office notice board for all to see. And it also led to a big increase in administrative staff. The founders became more remote – they had some cash to spend and, not unnaturally, took some of the holidays they had missed over the years.

“It is a matter of the way managers at all levels show that they care strongly about the results their teams get, about their people and their progress.”

It was not a small company when it made that change; it had settled down, become mature, the office roof did not leak, but the spirit was still there. Their people were still ‘engaged’, under the enthusiasm of the founders and the culture they had developed.

It changed a bit when it became a plc, and even more when the founders left and ‘more professional’ managers came in. Its decline continued and they became merged, perhaps I should say submerged, in a bigger organisation with plenty of the HR policies they had never seemed to need before. But it still retained much of the enthusiasm it had in the early years.

Now all this is little comfort to those who have to manage, or work, in really big centrally commanded organisations, such as the health service or the civil service. But even there, the attitude and enthusiasm of a manager in some department with an output which is clearly of value, and to which the staff can relate personally, is important to people’s engagement with their employment.

It is not just a matter of size, though it is easier for a dynamic chief executive to reach everyone in a small organisation than in a large one.

It is a matter of the way managers at all levels show that they care strongly about the results their teams get, about their people and their progress, about the attitude of their people to the work, the way they behave to each-other – in short all those aspects of the job which together lead to high performance.

What does this mean for those working in HR?

Well, I doubt if sheep-dipping managers through a trough of ‘human side of enterprise’ does much good, though it will have an effect on some.

More can be achieved by getting the senior management to concentrate on managing and getting results through their people rather than being high level operatives getting the results themselves. But that is unlikely to happen until top management recognises managers for the performance of their teams rather than their own.

What can HR contribute? Maybe if HR were more in contact with the workforce, saw more of them face-to-face, informally, put ‘workforce feelings’ further up the agenda, found out more about the way their people are managed, it would be different.

But since so much of their work is concerned with applying HR regulations, I suppose that’s too much to hope for. What they can do is to make sure that managers know how important it is to understand and report the feelings of their workforce, and advise them how they might improve things.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He advises businesses at senior level on their direction, strategy and especially on the management of change, and can be contacted at [email protected]

6 Responses

  1. See I told you
    Oh dear!
    If you only start to talk to people when you are about to mess up their lives – either through changing their work or taking it away – people will become sceptical about the motives behind the talk.
    Involving people in the organsation’s purpose is best done when everything is good. My experience is that people will respond by making the change process easier. Even redundancies can be handled well and leave the people, who are left, more determined than ever.

    But really, the suggestion that starting to learn to swim as the boat is sinking is not a good idea surely?

    Finally, saying that losing touch with your people is an inevitable part of an organisation’s growth is not true. We put all the people in the organisation back in touch with stunning results.

    There is a lot of material on our website to show you how.

  2. Coaching and organisational change
    Employees’ behaviours, attitudes, contributions, recognition and reward; all these aspects contribute to the achievement of an engaged high performing workforce. An organisation that believes, fundamentally, its marketplace strength is only in its products and ignores the contributions and value of the people who work in the organisation to make or sell those products may be at risk of losing the engagement of the entire workforce.

    When companies go through organisational change, the ‘steady state’ can be challenged. Small companies becoming big companies may lose some of the ‘personal touch’ previously enjoyed; big companies reducing in size without employee involvement / engagement in the rationale or process may lose the goodwill of the workforce. However neither situation means automatically that employee engagement will be lost. An organisation facing change, perhaps through a merger as in John’s article, could start the change process by preparing its people through consultation and involvement in the process. Making it a ‘done with’ process rather than a ‘done to’ can impact positively on how employees feel about the new look company; whether that be bigger or smaller in entity.

    HR has a role to play in supporting the business with the change process through a variety of means. Some will be regulatory admittedly, but through coaching HR can facilitate the business managers who are looking beyond their own position and are activity engaged in maintaining the engagement of their people. An HR business partner, with the right coaching skill set, can work with their management teams to enable each member to focus on engaging with employees to enable each person to remain engaged during periods of change whilst also enabling the managers to explore what the change means for them.

    At i-coach academy we believe coaching supports business executives and managers with preparing for and leading organisational change. Through their personal development they will become better able to engage their workforce in experiencing change as something positive. To further enhance the opportunities for business leaders and managers operating during these uncertain economic times, i-coach academy has been fortunate enough to engage the world renowned author of ‘Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart’, Mary Beth O’Neill. O’Neill offers a unique systems-based approach to engaging executives and business leaders in managing their organisational challenges. i-coach academy will be hosting this prestigious event in central London on 11-12 September. For more details please see the i-coach academy website (

  3. Change is inevitable, if we have not learned.
    I don’t believe that change is inevitable as we grow.
    It is if we ignore what we have learned about people, commitment and ownership when we were small.
    If we employ traditional managers whose job is to manage in the traditional command and control manner then we are actively creating the environment in which our employees can no longer take pride in or care about what they do.
    If however we employ managers who understand that their job is to support the workforce and not direct it, then we are creating the environment where the workforce can perform well and enjoy what they do.

    If we have not learned anything we will do the former and deserve the performance that results.

    If we have learned something it is that the workforces behaviour depends on their managers behaviour, get that right and the change is not inevitable.

    Peter A Hunter

  4. When the founders leave
    Thanks for your comments Peter. The change was gradual, especially as the senior management team remained in place. The only immediate change was that monthly trading results could no longer appear on the notice board – the restrictions on public companies are that all shareholders must have equal access as results affect the share price. Change is inevitable as a company grows. The band of happy pioneers becomes diluted or breaks up and inevitably the atmosphere and culture change.

  5. Bang on.
    The biggest lesson to take away from this story is that the change was not the fault of the workforce.
    The same people treated in different ways will behave differently.
    When the original partners were open and honest and included their employees in the running of the business then their reaction was open and honest and engaged. They worked well and were proud to belong to the organisation.

    When “professional” managers, (who really knew how to manage)came in the way they treated the workforce resulted in the destruction of the spirit and the engagement that had characterised this workforce.

    The fact that the two original partners had created this excellent working environment shows that you do not have to be anything special to do it.

    But to destroy it, all you need to do is to be a traditional manager, be directive, non consultative and whatever you do, never give anyone any support or feedback.

    Yep, that should do it.

    Peter A Hunter

  6. Good article, and….
    I agree with much of the content of this, but I would be more positive about what can be done. I would also add David McClelland to your list of ancient gurus – he was most noted for describing three types of motivational need, which he identified in his 1961 book, The Achieving Society:

    achievement motivation (n-ach)
    authority/power motivation (n-pow)
    affiliation motivation (n-affil)
    Maybe also add Bill Byham, author of Zapp, amongst other things, to your list.

    The reason that I would be more positive that HR can contribute is because the tools of measurement of “commitment” and “climate” are much more accessible for both HR and managers. Thus, in a sensibly structured programme, managers can be held accountable, even in big bureaucracies, for their commitment scores. Even in mega-corps and the civil service, the local manager is accountable for 70% of the commitment score. She/he should be held accountable for that. HR should know which metrics to use and how/when to use them to improve the performance of the business, and to empower and motivate the managers.

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