What does it take to generate ‘employee engagement’? (Part V – the ‘dark side’ of the being of human beings)

We are only falsehood, duplicity, contradiction; we both conceal and disguise ourselves from ourselves.”  Pascal

Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is still greater evil to be full of them and be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of voluntary illusions”  Pascal

I have a confession to make.  So far (part Ipart IIpart IIIpart IV) I have deliberately given you a one sided – positive – picture of the being of human beings and thus your employees.  If you have read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels (especially The Brothers Karamazov) you will get the true richness of the being of human beings.  And that includes the dark side – a side that the enlightenment and the humanistic philosophers and psychologists do not address adequately if at all.   In this post I want to address this darker side of being human in our age, in our organisations.

Why is it so hard to call forth ’employee engagement’?

To create a contexts which calls forth ’employee engagement’ is one of the hardest feats in traditional organisations.  Why?  There are two key reasons.

First, people – leaders, managers, employees – who have worked for more than a couple of years in command & control organisation have accepted and habituated in a particular mode of being and behaviour.  And it is difficult for them to change.  Why?  Because, contrary to accepted wisdom, human beings don’t have behaviours; behaviours have them!  When I write this I am thinking of both categories of people in organisations:  the managers and those who are managed and have come to expect to be managed – one category cannot exist without the other as they co-create one another.

The headmistress of the local Montessori children never takes on teachers that have gone through the traditional system and taught in traditional schools. Why?  Because she has found from experience that it is too hard to arrive at a place where these teachers embody the Montessori philosophy in their way of being in the classroom and the world.  After teachers have been teaching for some time in the traditional system it is practically impossible to get them to leave behind their way of being and making the shift to the Montessori way of being.  In a lots of ways these long timers experience the same kind of experience and success rates of feral children.

The second reason that it is so hard to get ’employee engagement’ to show up is to do with the ‘dark side’ of being human that is always present and which we, with our obsession with the rational image of man, fail to acknowledge, accept and work with.  Let’s take a look at this ‘dark side’  – the shadow that is always with each of us.

The dark side: is this what really drives how human beings show up in the workplace, in the world? 

Peel back the onion to examine human behaviour and you might just find that the ‘machinery of being human’ seems to work to the following ‘four prime directives’ when it comes to dwelling with fellow human beings:

  1. Look good, avoid looking bad;
  2. Be right, avoid being wrong;
  3. Strive for control and dominate, avoid losing control and being dominated;
  4. Justify self, invalidate others.

It is worth pointing out that these four prime directives work at the level of the individual and the level of the tribe.   It is also worth pointing out that the root driver of these prime directives is most likely to be fear.  Fear of being excluded/ostracised like the lepers were.  Fear of being ridiculed.  Fear of being victimized/oppressed…..

How the drive for ’employee engagement’ tends to play out

If these ‘four prime directives’ are not acknowledged and dealt with then the drive for ’employee engagement’ tends to be a wasted effort at best and most often just a sham.  Why?  Because just about everyone in the organisation is first and foremost protecting himself.  That means those in manager roles don’t really let go of control – if they do then things might not work out and this will reflect badly on the manager and put his reputation/future at stake.  On the other hand those in the role of taking orders (including managers – junior managers take order from middle managers…) do not rise up and take responsibility for the fear of being setup to fail, being ridiculed…..  Now this dynamic does not just work at the individual level it also applies at the team level: marketing, sales, customer service, logistics…..  And it applies at the business unit level.  If you want a detailed understanding of the mechanics of this mutually reinforcing behaviour works then I recommend reading Power Up by Bradford & Cohen or The Responsibility Virus by Roger Martin.

In the next post I will share with you an effective process for generating employee engagement that has been used successfully by the corporate arm of Landmark Education.  It has a lot to do with ‘truth telling’ in the context of ‘creating a future that works for all parties at the table, none excluded’.

And finally

It is worth remembering that customers are human beings.  And as such they are also subject to these ‘four prime directives’.  Once you get this, really get it, then you have an access to all the stuff that you are doing as a corporation that is driving your customers nuts.  And how/why they are responding as they are responding.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

4 thoughts on “What does it take to generate ‘employee engagement’? (Part V – the ‘dark side’ of the being of human beings)”

  1. Maz,

    Your four rules:

    1. Look good, avoid looking bad;
    2. Be right, avoid being wrong;
    3. Strive for control and dominate, avoid losing control and being dominated;
    4. Justify self, invalidate others.

    Aren’t they simply an expression of lack of trust in others?



    1. Hello James
      A great question.

      I do not know the answer as to what drives this modes of behaviour. It could be that most of us engage in this simply because we brought up by and live with people who practice these rule or put more precisely are run by these rules. And so these rules run us. Without us even seeing that we are run by these rules.

      How did these rules arise? It occurs to me that human beings are essential to the survival of human beings – think of the young baby and how many years it takes to be able to fend for itself. Think about individuals and how they are powerless against groups of people working as one team – the tribe. It also occurs to me that in tribes some people have more power/status/wealth than others…..

      If you take the fundamental driver “look good, avoid looking bad” and think of lepers and how they were treated you get it. I, the “leper” cannot take the risk as showing up as “leper” to the tribe that I am part of. Why? I will be banished. I will lose EVERYTHING. My relationships, my property, my “secure bases”…. my existing way of life. Think about the Spanish Inquisition – what was done to heretics. Or think about the slaughter of protestants in catholic France…..

      Man can be incredibly generous to those that fit in with man, his story about life, his way of being/living. And man can be incredibly cruel to those that do not fit in with man his story about life, his way of being/living. Man is fundamentally intolerant of those who do not validate/agree with him. And man has every reason to fear man: man is an existential threat always to man – that threat can simply be that man refuses simply to acknowledge the existence of man and simply look man in the eye, smile and say “hello!”. Put differently, man can and does annihilate man without killing him.

      I thank you for inviting me to this conversation.

      With my love and gratitude: I am grateful that you exist and that we are in communication, in conversation.



  2. Hi Maz,
    Employee engagement is a bit like profit….it is an outcome of a whole series of activities that are particular to your business.

    Many people are looking for clues and answers outside of their businesses when in actual fact they should look more closely inside and at themselves.



    1. Hello Adrian
      And these series of activities are well known. They are not practiced because they go against the dominant logic and the interests of the powerful. They go against command and control and the exploitation/dehumanisation of man by man.

      Thanks for the opening. My next post on Employee Engagement will centre on sharing my personal experience of engagement and non-engagement. The Landmark method can wait to a later post.

      I hope that all is well with you. Be great. I look forward to our next encounter.



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