What does it take to generate ‘employee engagement’? (Part III)

This is the third post in series of posts centred on the human side of the enterprise and ’employee engagement’ in particular.  In the first post I shared the story of the millwright and drew attention to what Max De Pree calls the ‘concept of persons’.  In the second post I shared with you what I say is the dominant ‘concept of persons’, as practiced in just about every organisation, and how it fails to hold up to reality of the human condition.  In this post I want to continue the conversation around the ‘concept of persons’ and bring Maria Montessori into the picture.  Why study her?  Because she achieved extraordinary results by generating extraordinary engagement in the process of learning.

What can we learn about/from Maria Montessori?

Maria Montessori was an italian physician and educator who is famous today for her educational philosophy (and method) that bears her name and is being used around the world.  She is famous because she achieved extraordinary results with the least promising material: ‘idiot’ children that society had locked up in ‘insane’ asylums and normal children from deprived backgrounds:

“Such indeed was her success that a number of idiot children from the asylums learned to read and write so well that they were able to present themselves with success at a public examination taken together with normal children.  A chorus of applause greeted this seeming miracle….”

To get present to this miracle it is necessary to get present to the children she was working with:

“To this school were brought, from the various day schools in Rome, all those children who were regarded as hopelessly deficient.  Later on, to this same institution were transferred also all the idiot children from the insane asylums in Rome.” 

Think about your business.  Are the people in your business as ‘deficient’ as hopeless as the children that Montessori worked with?  No, then why are you not generating extraordinary results through extraordinary engagement?  Could it be that the issue is not with your people but with your ‘concept of persons’ and your managerial/organisational practices that arise and are in tune with that ‘concept of persons’?

How was Montessori able to achieve these extraordinary results?

Montessori as able to achieve extraordinary results for a number of reasons.  First, she was a physician and not an educator.  And as such, she had not been indoctrinated into the dominant educational concepts and practices.  Second, as a physician she literally saw the world differently.  Third, she used her heart as well her head.  Here is an example:

In one of the lunatic asylums she came across a number of these unhappy children herded together like prisoners in a prison like room.  The woman who looked after them did not attempt to conceal the disgust which she regarded them.  Montessori asked her why she held them in such contempt.  “Because,” the woman replied, “as soon as their meals are finished they throw themselves on the floor to search for crumbs.”  Montessori looked around the room and saw that the room was in fact absolutely bare.  There were literally no objects in their environment which the children could hold and and manipulate in their fingers.  Montessori saw in the children’s behaviour a craving for a very different and higher kind than for mere food.  There existed in these poor creatures, she realised, one path and only one path towards intelligence, and that was through their hands. Instinctively the poor deficient mites had sought after that path by the only means in their reach……. It became increasingly apparent to her that mental deficiency was a pedagogical problem rather than a medical one……”

I invite you to open yourself to the possibility that the lack of ’employee engagement’ is not to do with ‘deficient’ employees but to the managerial/organisational practices that you have put in place.  I urge you to get present to the unity of the context and the behaviour that shows up in that context.  Put differently, situations matter, they shape human behaviour without us even noticing that human behaviour is being shaped by situations.  As Werner Erhard put it so elegantly “The context is decisive.”  Put bluntly, stop working on the ‘deficiency of your employees’ and start working on the context/situation that calls forth disengagement rather than engagement.

Montessori makes a remarkable discovery

“The world that Columbus discovered was a world without; Montessori discovered a world within – within the soul of the child…. her method is but a consequence of her discovery ….

What exactly did Montessori discover about children ‘under her educational care’?  She discovered that children possess different and higher qualities than those we usually attribute to them.  This is how she described it in her book The Secret of Childhood:

“I set to work like a peasant women who having set aside a good store of seed corn, has found a fertile field in which she may freely sow it.  But I was wrong, I had hardly turned over the clods of my field, when I found gold instead of wheat: the clods concealed a precious treasure, I was not the peasant I had thought myself.  Rather I was like the foolish Aladdin, who without knowing it, had in his hand a key that would open hidden treasures.”

Is it possible that the people in your organisation also possess different and higher qualities than you usually attribute to them?  I refer you to the story of the millwright which I shared in my first post. Is it possible that you are also like the foolish Aladdin, who has the key to the hidden treasures of your people and yet  do not know it because you are gripped by the dominant ‘concept of persons’ which I described in my second post?

What did Montessori learn about young children because she was not trapped in the existing concepts and practices?

Allow me to share what Montessori got present to by working intimately with children free from the normal taken for granted educational concepts, settings, practices, tools and traditionally trained school teachers:

Amazing mental concentration.  When the children worked with that which interested them and were allowed to get on with it, they showed amazing mental concentration.

Love of repetition.  Young children tended to repeat the same thing over and over again, an exercise that they already knew, could do and enjoyed doing.

Love of/for order.  “Montessori realised what they really wanted was to put the things back in their places themselves.  So she left them free to do it.”.

Freedom of choice.  “She realised that these children, who already knew how to use the materials, were – just because of that knowledge – in a position to choose some materials in preference to others”.

Preferred work to play.  Montessori was gifted some costly toys including elegant dolls, doll’s house, crockery and kitchen.  And she discovered that the children never chose the toys even after they were taught how to play with them.  The children showed an interest for a time and then went back to work, they preferred work that absorbed them.

No need for rewards and punishments.  The children were good and orderly as long as the work was stimulating and they learned how to work.  Naughtiness was found to be due to constructive energies not finding an appropriate outlet. It was found that punishment did not work.  Allowing the naughty child to pick the work that attracted him/her worked.  Put differently, the right work was its own reward and punishment was rarely required. And where it was, it was enough simply to not allow the child to use the materials and have to sit and observe other children working with the materials and enjoying doing so.

Lovers of silence.  The popular conception is/was that children love to be noisy.  Montessori found that “deep down in their souls, children have a great love for silence.”

Children refused sweets.  After particularly arduous tasks Montessori rewarded the children with sweets. Time and again she found that the children refused them.  And she was moved to remark “Was it from a feeling like that of monks, who flee from ease and such outward things as are useless for the true good of life, once they have risen in the ladder of spiritual life?”

Sense of personal dignity.  After showing the children how to blow their noses Montessori received heartfelt applause from the children.  Montessori got that adults had constantly been putting the children down on this matter.  And yet no one had ever shown the children how to do it without criticising/attacking them at the same time.  Through similar kinds of experiences Montessori got that even very small children have a profound sense of personal dignity and if adults failed to respect this need then “their souls may remain wounded, ulcerated and oppressed in away adults seldom recognise.”

Spontaneous self-discipline.  “As the weeks went by and the children became accustomed to this new mode of life, a happy and extraordinary change came over them….. They began to exhibit an extraordinary self-discipline; and with it a serenity of spirit, and a great respect for the rights of others.”

What is it that I am striving to point out?

Am I telling you that what Montessori found to be so for the children under her care is true for the folks that turn up at your place of work, your employees?  NO.  Young children differ from older children and adults differ from children.

My central point is that Montessori was able to cultivate extraordinary engagement because she:

  • was open to and able to see what others indoctrinated in the existing way of conceiving of children and educating children could not see;
  • she expanded her ‘concept of persons’ when it came to the persons of young children as and when new stuff showed up; and
  • she modified her behaviour and developed educational practices and materials that were in tune with / worked with the modified ‘concept of persons’.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that some of what Montessori found to be true of children is also true of us adults.  For example, it occurs to me the issue of human dignity is not given sufficient attention/consideration.  In the next post I will layout what I consider to be a richer/truer ‘concept of persons’, one if embraced will allow you to generate the context, the conditions, for ’employee engagement’ to show up effortlessly.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

5 thoughts on “What does it take to generate ‘employee engagement’? (Part III)”

  1. Hi Maz,
    I am enjoying your series on employee engagement and in this post there were two statements that stood out for me:
    1. “the possibility that the lack of ‘employee engagement’ is not to do with ‘deficient’ employees but to the managerial/organisational practices that you have put in place.”
    and
    2. “stop working on the ‘deficiency of your employees’ and start working on the context/situation that calls forth disengagement rather than engagement.”

    Those two statements make me think of trying to put square pegs into round holes and how many organisations think about how to turn their square pegs into round pegs so that they fit the system that has been set up. That assumes that the system is right.

    Surely, a consideration of how the organisation can change the shape of the holes to better fit with the skills and experiences of their employees is worth as much time and effort.

    Adrian

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    1. Hello Adrian
      I say that even if my speaking/writing touches/makes a contribution to a single fellow human being then it was worth me speaking/writing it. So I am delighted that you are getting value from this series. And I thank you for letting me know.

      Maz

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    1. Hello James

      I am delighted that you found it that interesting. Interesting that the story of the breadcrumbs grabbed you the way that it grabbed me. Fascinating that you have the same event/situation and yet such radically different interpretations about the events. The physician sees the desperate search for the human organism to engage with the world, to interact, to be develop, to be what it is, to become what it can become. And the other, simply looks down upon the children because it is not the done thing – it goes against the conventions of society!

      So when employee engagement does not show up. That is the event as it were. What is the interpretation? The employee is bad. Or the employee is behaving in the most natural way given the way that the context of work shows up for him?

      Maz

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