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Towards sustainable engagement

31st Jan 2011
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Tim Casserley explores the importance of personal purpose in engaging employees.

 

 

The steady rise of 'engagement' as a way of capturing the hearts and minds not just of employees but of customers, local communities and other stakeholders has been mirrored by ever-decreasing levels of public trust in organisations. The past two years of recession coupled with the behaviour of the banks in precipitating it and repeated examples of declining business ethics (Enron, Worldcom etc) before that, have taken their toll on the perception of big business and meant that engagement has taken a battering.
According to the latest research from Hay Group, British workers are the most disengaged and the second most frustrated in Western Europe. Similarly, a survey by Aon last month found that almost half of employees would leave if they could find another job. And the CIPD reports that less than a third of staff trust their leaders to act in their best interests. 
The mantra of employee engagement is that an unengaged workforce is also a low performing one. But given recent events, it's not surprising that large sections of the workforce lack genuine engagement and commitment and are buckling down, simply pleased to have a job. 
 
"Meaning and purpose have to be satisfied at an individual level and cannot either practically or ethically be satisfied at a collective one."
One of the responses to this has been to encourage employees to find meaning and purpose through their work. In a recent article on TrainingZone – 'Manager on my tombstone – no thanks', Pia Lee amplifies the views of Gurnek Bains (i) and others that the key to raising levels of employee performance is to provide "meaning for individuals beyond making money which in turn unlocks discretionary effort". Jim Collins's study into 'great' companies in 2001 shows that "high performing organisations have a unique blend of core purpose and values" to which motivated employees align their careers in pursuit of "a purpose bigger than themselves".
Let's ignore for a moment later research (ii) showing that since 2001, eight of the 11 truly 'great companies' unearthed by Collins have either been acquired or underperformed (presumably the three remaining 'great' American companies must be feeling the pressure just now!) What is the most likely outcome from organisations providing their people with a sense of greater meaning and purpose? Experience – as well as our research – shows that if it's done effectively, employees start to believe their outlook and interests are identical to those of the organisation. Why should this be a problem you might ask? Well, if you are unable to distinguish between your own outlook and interests and that of the organisation for which you work, you tend to pursue your goals regardless, without bothering too much about your responsibility for others or what the outcomes of your actions might mean for them. When you put this beside the behaviour of the investment bankers as well as those in Enron and Andersen to which we referred earlier, you begin to get the picture.
Our research – published in 2008 (iii) - illuminated the dynamics in the relationship between leaders and their organisations that can either lead towards long term, sustainable success or business failure and derailment. We found there was a symbiotic relationship between work-addicted, highly absorptive corporate cultures and those whom the organisation regarded as its brightest and best. A large proportion of these rising young stars had little sense of self in terms of their own purpose and identity. The organisation supplied an environment in which they could get lost in the process of work, using it as a fix to get ahead, be successful, and avoid feeling (and ultimately avoid living). Providing them with a purpose to which they could align their careers had the effect of creating corporate clones – bricklayers rather than leaders – with little sense of personal integrity. It also created a fertile environment for job burnout to occur because it reinforced the unhealthy, co-dependent relationship they had with their work, in which the story of the organisation and their role within it had become their story.
Meaning and purpose have to be satisfied at an individual level and cannot either practically or ethically be satisfied at a collective one. Using work as a substitute for identity – for meaning and purpose in one's life – eventually leads to anomie, where employees have no rooted sense of self or character, over-accommodate themselves to others and lose their moral compass and sense of purpose.
So if supplying employees with ready-made purpose is unethical and unsustainable at a human as well as business level, what's the alternative for the enlightened organisation looking to sustainably engage its workforce? We believe it is to support employees in finding their own purpose and exploring how this relates to the organisation's purpose. In essence we are proposing a transparent process in which employees explicitly negotiate the relationship between their own sense of personal purpose and that of the organisation.
 
"...we are proposing a transparent process in which employees explicitly negotiate the relationship between their own sense of personal purpose and that of the organisation."
In practice this means finding the appropriate forum for employees to play an active, conscious role in determining how they engage with their organisation. Leadership and other development programmes provide an environment in which this 'negotiated engagement' can be done safely and as part of an overall learning agenda. Having explored the organisation's purpose and dominant cultural norms, get programme participants to define to which aspects do they feel committed? Which aspects do they simply accept – to which they do not feel committed, but equally they do not feel strongly enough about to change? And finally, which aspects do they seek to change?
We are not suggesting there needs to be a 100% correlation between an employee's sense of personal purpose and what the organisation holds as important; but there needs to be enough of a connection to allow an employee's personal purpose to flourish, and thus to make a career with the organisation sustainable.
The employee as powerful agent in relationship with the organisation is one of the key hallmarks of what we call 'sustainable engagement'. It challenges the infantilising notion that employees are blank canvasses upon which corporate purpose can be painted, and makes the health of the relationship between the organisation and the individual employee central to organisation performance. Most of all, it avoids the risk of creating an army of corporate clones at the very time when we should be fostering a greater sense of responsibility and ethical practice in our corporations.
Tim Casserley is founder of sustainable leadership consultancy, Edge Equilibrium
citations:
(i) Bains, G et al. Meaning Inc. The blueprint for business success in the 21st century. London: Profile books.
(ii) Burgelman, RA and Grove AS (2007). Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos – repeatedly: managing strategic dynamics for corporate longevity. Strategic Management Journal, 28, 965 – 79.
(iii) Casserley, T and Megginson, D. (2008). Learning from burnout: developing sustainable leaders and avoiding career derailment. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
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