This post is an update to the earlier version (released yesterday) which I published before it was ready to be published by pressing the wrong button. I apologise.
The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear” Herbert Agar
In this post I continue sharing with you what shows up for me as I grapple with ’employee engagement’. Given that some of you may have not read the earlier posts, I will first cover some essential ground and the move forward with the ‘new’.
It all comes down to the “concept of persons” and how one should treat one’s fellow man.
I came across this quote which pretty much sums up the humanistic school’s stance on human being and how man should relate to and treat his fellow human beings:
“If you don’t find God in the next person you meet, it is a waste of time looking for him further.” Gandhi
Wow! That occurs in my world as a massively powerful assertion and I can only imagine the love that gives rise to this assertion, this stance, uttered and lived by Gandhi.
Whilst the words of humanistic philosophers (e.g. Rousseau) and psychologists (e.g. Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers) are nowhere as poetic, the underlying stance is remarkably similar: a ‘romantic’ notion about the beauty, the goodness, the nobility of the human being – every human being. Which is why Gandhi and the humanists, as I understand them, are labelled ‘idealists’.
The world that you and I are dwelling in is shaped, ruled and peopled by ‘pragmatists': philosophers like Hobbes; and psychologists like Freud and Skinner. Pragmatists look at the same reality and come up with a radically different “concept of persons”. They say that the being of human beings is brutish and that left to their themselves people would turn our life into a brutish one. Recent examples of this brutishness include Rwanda and Yugoslavia. And who can forget the WWII concentration camps. And given this dark side lying at the centre of human being, human beings need (and can be) controlled. Who is to do the controlling? Those who have always done the controlling: the elite who hold/exercise power and get to determine what is good and what is bad.
Where do I stand on this matter?
As an “idealist” I can see the beauty/wonder of human beings and as such I say that “pragmatists” have a dim/dark view/unduly negative and possibly self-serving view of human beings.
As a “pragmatist” (I do have a BSc in Applied Physics) I see that human beings are so addicted to and run by the ‘four prime directives’ (you have to read my earlier post to get what these are) that human beings will slaughter life including millions of fellow human beings simply to be right, to dominate, to look good. And if we those of us who have killed (including those of us who have stood by whilst the slaughter took place) are questioned about what we are doing/have done, we get busy enthusiastically invalidating others and justifying ourselves!
I say, I can see the value and limitations of both of these distinct “concept of persons”. They both disclose as well as hide stuff about human being. Taken together they provide a fuller/richer picture of human being. Now lets move on with the main thrust of this post.
What is the underlying context that fuels our organisations and management practices?
As I have said before, the dominant concept of persons is that of the pragmatists. Why? Because it is the pragmatists that won the fight, who hold positions of power and shape our world including shaping us, human beings.
If you get this then you may be able to hear and be with what I am about to say. And which I say gets to the heart of the matter of ’employee engagement’, ’empowerment’, creativity and innovation. That is to say, it spells out why these phenomena/qualities are not present in almost all organisations and especially not in large/established organisations.
I say that organisations are prisons. Please note, I am not saying that organisations are like prisons. No. I am saying that organisations are prisons.
When I say that “organisations are prisons” I am pointing out that the people who commission, fund, build and run prisons are primarily concerned with control: controlling the prisoners so that they become docile and do what they are told without asking questions, without questioning the power of those in power – in short without being troublesome. And this elite use the tried and tested philosophy and practices of command and control that originated in the military which consisted of a small elite officer class and the much larger class of conscripts who were expected to do the fighting, killing and dying upon orders from the officer class.
Crucially, the people who work in organisations (the employees) experience themselves and show up (for themselves and each other) as prisoners. They speak as if the organisation is a prison and they are imprisoned in it from 9 to 5. They do not speak even when what is being asked of them shows up as being ‘stupid’. They do not challenge bosses that show up for them as being incompetent and/or sadists. In short, they show all the signs of learned helplessness: people who, no matter what they do or do not do, cannot affect their circumstance and organisational practices.
This helplessness and the docility, compliance and doing the least that is necessary to get through the prison day is understandable – at least I understand it, I have lived it! Think back to prisons, what shows up in prisons? One group of people, the prison guards, are relatively small in number and exercise power over a much larger number of people who are deprived of their freedom and are powerless to decide how they live. The fundamental design and operating practice is to get the prisoners to get present to their powerlessness, their helplessness. Deming totally got this: one of his 14 points is “Drive out fear”.
How much prisoner engagement, creativity and innovation shows up in a prison? To date, I have never heard of anyone expecting these phenomena to show up in prisons. Nor have I read or heard about great prisoner engagement, creativity and innovation in prisons. Which leads me to believe that these phenomena – engagement, creativity, innovation – are not expected and do not show up in prisons.
What does show up in prisons? The exercise of power and the compliance with power. And the acceptance/resentment that goes with one set of people exercising power over the lives of another set of people. I get that from time to time, characters like Lt. Colonel Nicholson (from the movie Bridge on the River Kwai) show up who get fellow prisoners to be more, to do more for the sake of themselves, their morale, their dignity. And this engagement, creativity, innovation dies when people like Lt. Colonel Nicholson lose face, lose power, change roles and/or leave the prison.
If you get, can be with, that organisations are prisons then you will stop wondering why there is a lack of employee engagement, why empowerment rarely works out , why there is so little creativity and innovation. And you will stop listening to and taking seriously those who peddle ’10 steps to employee engagement’!
I ask you, who truly wants the prisoners to be creative/innovative? Not those who run the prisons! Creativity and innovation are threats to control in a number of ways including the fact that they embolden the prisoners who may then act beyond their station. Saddam Hussein engendered is downfall by his prison guards (the USA) by becoming creative/innovative and thus beyond the station assigned to him by the USA.
To sum up, creativity, innovation and authentic empowerment are seen as disruptive – threats to the orderly running of the prison and the maintenance of the status quo in power relations. And thus are not given the space to show up and if they do show up then they are suppressed. Those that don’t get the rules and play by the rules experience what Saddam experienced. Yes, he was tyrant and he was not deposed because he was a tyrant. He was deposed because he acted beyond his assigned station: he got too creative/innovative in deciding to conquer/rule and reattach Kuwait to Iraq.
How do you call forth ’employee engagement’, creativity and innovation?
Werner Erhard coined an insightful stand/possibility: “a world that works, none excluded”. Notice, that Erhard got that the current design and function of the systems of power is such that the world does not work for all and many are excluded. I say this is the same for organisations and organisational life as lived.
Stealing from Erhard, I say that the foundation for employee engagement, creativity and innovation is creating/living/operating from the context “an organisation that works, none excluded”. That means that the organisational play is designed so that it works for everyone in the organisation: shareholder, management, employees, customers, suppliers and regulators. And that there is an wholehearted authentic commitment to this context by all especially those who wield power and thus see only threat/risk (to themselves) from putting in place and operating from such a context.
What goes with such a context? What is necessary to enable such a context to take hold and operate? I say authentic communication. Jurgen Habermas calls this “undistorted communication” and he spells out four conditions for communication to be undistorted:
1. Symmetry condition – every single person has an equal opportunity to talk and duty to listen;
2. Sincerity condition – every single person means what s/he says;
3. Truth condition – every single person discloses what s/he believes to be true; and
4. Normative condition – every single person says what is right morally.
If you are going to create this context “organisations that work, none excluded” and a context where “undistorted communication” is called forth and is kept in existence then you need to get present to conflict. And you have to be a stand for peaceful conflict resolution.
Before I share these guidelines I have a question for you. How many “leaders” do you know that are authentically up for creating/embodying the kind of context and practices that I have spelled out here? Put differently, how many want to see/be with this truth?
Now you know why I opened this post with that quote by Agar. Pretty much everyone who writes, and is listened to, by the business world, about these topics ignores this elephant in the room: the fundamental imbalance in power relations and organisation as prison. Hence, the profusion of banal recipes/checklists for employee engagement, empowerment, creativity and innovation. Which also explains (at least to me) why these banal, even idiotic, 10 step checklists fail to deliver on the promises they make. And some 80% of the people who work in organisations are alienated/disengaged from their work and the organisations they work for/within.
An even bigger idiocy is to put your faith in technology to bring about employee engagement, empowerment, collaboration, creativity and innovation. Why? Because prison guards always use technology to further their needs to control/enslave/restrict the little freedom that the prisoners experience themselves as having in organisational life. I was there when sales force automation hit the corporate scene. I saw and experienced how those of us involved in actually doing the selling saw the technology for what it was and is. And we used ‘guerilla tactics’ to ‘fight it’. The fight continues and which is why social technologies have failed to deliver ‘social behaviour’ that the software vendors peddle and managers want.
I have another question for you: how likely is it, really, to get any significant and enduring employee engagement without moving from the existing context (organisations as prison) to the context that I am proposing (“organisation that works, none excluded”) in this post?
If you think I push this too far then I ask you ask yourself this: why did so many people live normal jobs in large/established companies to start their own companies or join dot.coms when the internet hit the business world in a big way!
Guidelines for peaceful conflict resolution
I came across these guidelines at the Montessori School that my children attended. When I saw these guidelines it struck me that every family, every team, every organisation can dramatically enhance ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ by embodying the following maxims:
Respect the right to disagree
Express your real concerns
Share common goals and interests
Open yourself to different points of views
Listen carefully to all points of view, all proposals
Understand the major issues that are involved
Think about probable consequences
Imagine many possible alternative solutions, at least several
Offer reasonable compromises
Negotiate mutually fair cooperative agreements
Montessori School stops here in the UK at age 11. Which means that I saw no option but to put my children into the normal/traditional schools. For my children traditional schools (they went to two of them, first was so bad I took them out after a year) showed up as prisons. Prisons where the students have no voice, no say on the clothes they wear, nor the behaviour of the teachers or the quality of their teaching. Prisons where the teachers are prison guards intent on dominating/controlling the pupils so that they became docile and do what teachers want them to do. My children hated these schools and did not want to go to school. So I made frequent trips to these schools and was seen as a troublesome/difficult parent.
I went to see the head teachers. At each school, the headteacher listened politely to my exposition of the Montessori philosophy and how it could be practiced in their school and the benefits for all. Each headteacher told me that his/her school was not designed for such a philosophy, that the Montessori philosophy is disruptive, and it would not work in their school.
Each told me that their mandate is “to run an orderly institution, in a standard manner, treating all children the same’. And this meant ensuring that they teachers had the power to control 600 unruly students. Which meant ensuring that the student knew the rules and stuck to the rules. And any students who created trouble were acted upon quickly. When I pressed for the need to respond intelligently, taking into account the needs of the child/the circumstance, I was told categorically that exceptions to operating rule risked the orderly running of the school and the loss of their jobs.
School is the first organisational prison (in our society) that acts on the creative, innovative, empowered, energetic, enthusiastic, alive human beings amongst us: the children. And it’s hidden design function/purpose is to turn these children into docile creatures who take orders from those in power and carry them out in the prescribed manner and timetable set by the powerful. In short, to prepare them for organisational life. And life in society.
What do you say?