What does it take for ’employee engagement’ to show up? (Part VI) v2

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

And finally

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?

 

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

Let’s recap. ‘Employee engagement’ is sought after because engaged employees generate a multitude of benefits that translate into higher revenues and profits.  And I can categorically say that the road to great customer experience travels through the gate of employee engagement.  Yet research shows that only 20% of employees report being engaged the rest are alienated.  This is despite all the talk of empowerment and social business.  What I have argued so far is that the for employee engagement to show up organisational leaders need to create organisational contexts which call forth employee engagement.  And that means letting go of the dominant/ubiquitous ‘concept of persons’ as primarily economic objects and resources and adopting a fuller/richer ‘concept of persons’.  To illustrate kind of results show up when one adopts such a fuller/richer ‘concept of persons’ I shared with you the example of Maria Montessori.

The purpose of this post is to come up with a fuller/richer ‘concept of persons’, one that provides access to generating contexts that allow employee engagement to show up.  If you and I are going to arrive at such a concept, and you are to get value out of this post, then I suggest pondering the following insightful statement:

“To ignore the fact that each thing has a character of its own and not what we wish to demand of it, is in my opinion the real capital sin, which I call the sin of the heart because it derives its nature from lack of love.  There is nothing so illicit as to dwarf the world by means of our manias and blindness, to minimise reality, to suppress mentally fragments of what exists.  This happens when one demands that what is deep should appear in the same way as what is superficial…”  Ortega Y Gasset

‘Concept of persons’: what kind of being is a human being?

I say the being of human being is shaped by the kind of answer that you and I come up with and act on to the question “What kind of a being is a human being?”  Pascal summed it up well when he wrote in his Pensees:

  • “Custom is our nature..” (89)
  • “What are our natural principles but principles of custom?” (92)
  • “Custom is a second nature which destroys the former. But what is nature?  For is custom not natural?” (93)

Ortega Y Gasset said the same thing differently “I am I and my circumstance”.   If you find this goes against the grain of your taken for granted ‘concept of persons’ then I invite you to take a look at the 10 modern cases of feral children.

Why is it the case that the being of human being is so plastic?   Because of a truth that the modern ‘concept of persons’ as rational, autonomous, self-willed individuals does not wish to face:

“..individual selfhood is meaningfully related to others from the beginning.  At the deepest level, human being is relational…… the human spirit arises and develops via the nurture of empathic relationships”  John Firman  and Ann Gila, The Primal Wound

I want to emphasise the central/critical importance of empathic relationships.  There is so much talk about relationships and so little real understanding of the power of relationships – in particular the positive power of empathic relationships and the destructive power of non-empathic relationships.  Think back to the story of the millwright and the question that the folks at Herman Miller ask themselves “Was he a poet who did millwright’s work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?”

I say that the millwright showed up as poet for those who related to him as a poet and thus called him forth as a poet.  And he showed up as a millwright who related to him as a millwright and called him forth as a millwright.  If you have a background in physics you may know of the issue of wave-particle duality:  when the experiment is set up to detect electrons as waves then electrons show up as exhibiting the properties of waves; and when the experiment is set-up to show electrons as being particles, they show up as particles!

What kind of a context calls forth engagement from employees?

Let me be blunt:  command and control or employee engagement? choose!   Yes, I know a whole bunch of ‘charlatans’ have promised you the silver bullet – that you can generate employee engagement in the context of command and control.  How is that working for you?   Not great, if my experience and the research provides an accurate picture of what is so.  Bradford and Cohen have even written a book that indirectly deals with the matter of engagement.  It is called Power Up and its fundamental assertion is that leaders/followers/organisations have to move from a taken for granted ‘heroic leadership model’ to a ‘shared leadership model’ if organisations are to access and make breakthroughs in organisational performance.  That’s right: leadership-power-responsibility-accountability of the whole is shared by all, at all levels in the organisation, in all functions and teams.

If you are to generate the kind of context that calls forth engagement from employees then you need to get, really get, the following:

“Throughout his life a person will experience himself as a cohesive harmonious firm unit in time and space, connected with his past and pointing meaningfully into a creative-productive future, but only as long as, at each stage of his life, he experiences certain representatives of his human surrounding as joyfully responding to him, as available to him as sources of idealised strength and calmness, as being silently present but in essence like him, and, at any rate, able to grasp his inner life more or less accurately so that their responses are attuned to his needs and allow him to grasp their inner life when his is in need of such sustenance.” Kohut

Now compare that with the reality of organisational life which is best summed up by the following statement: “empowerment and trust are the rhetoric… the centralisation of power and control are the reality.”   That gives you an idea of the scale of the challenge and why none of the silver bullets have worked despite empowerment coming on the scene back in the 1990s.  Incidentally, it also explains why organisations have put in place ‘social technologies’ and very few employees are actually using them or being social. 

 How are you doing on delivering these five fundamental human needs?

As Kohut says above, if your employee is to function effectively to make the kind of contribution that he is capable of making then s/he needs to get that you show up as a person/organization “able to grasp his inner life more or less accurately so that their responses are attuned to his need”.  Which begs the question, what are human needs above and beyond mere survival? I say that they are:

  1. The need believe in something and to have hope for the future (meaning/purpose);
  2. The need to be loved (attachment);
  3. The need to belong (home, family, organisation…);
  4. The need to be heard (empathy);
  5. The need for self-expression / achievement (fulfillment).

How many of these needs are even on your radar?  How well are you doing on delivering on these needs? And you wonder why your employees are not engaged with their jobs and the organisational goals!

The Quakers got the kind of employee engagement that we are searching for

If you still haven’t gotten it, really gotten it then I leave you with this quote by Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop:  “I am still looking for the modern equivalent of those Quakers who ran successful businesses, made money because they offered honest products and treated their people decently… This business creed, sadly, seems long forgotten.”

I throughly recommend that you check out this article on the Quaker way of doing business.  Why?  Because if you have the listening then you will get a lot of value out of it.  Once upon time the most successful businesses in the UK were run by Quakers!  Why? The Quakers got and practiced the true meaning of ‘social’: they literally saw each human being as a manifestation of God like themselves and they treated each human being decently: the kind of decency that is deserved by a human being fashioned by God in the image of God!  Which is why they got the kind of engagement they got from their employees, their suppliers, their customers…..

And finally

No human being wishes to see himself or relate to himself merely as a resource or a tool at the command of another.  Each of us has a deep need to live a life that matters.  And to be in an empathic relationship with our fellow human beings.  So the challenge for you and your organisation is to a) stand for something noble rather than being in the game to line your pockets and those of your absent/invisible/illusory shareholders; and b) to treat your people decently respecting the dignity that is so fundamental to the health of the human being.

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.

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

This post is the second one on a series of post that will deal with the human side of the enterprise and in particular ’employee engagement’.  Why? Because you cannot have a customer-centric organisation that ‘stages’ great customer experiences if you do not create the context that enables your people to show up as ‘being great with customers and enabling greatness with customers’.  You can find the first post which introduced the ‘concept of persons’ here.

The idea is the absolute or why the ‘concept of persons’ is crucial

Let’s kick of the conversation with a quote from the Jose Ortega Y Gasset:

“.. the twelve hundred pages of Hegel‘s Logik are just the preparation that enables us to pronounce, in the fullness of its meaning, this sentence: “The idea is the absolute.”  This sentence, so poor in appearance, has in reality an infinite meaning; and when one considers it as one should, the whole treasury of its significance bursts open suddenly and it illuminates for us at once the enormous perspective of the world…”

If this quote occurs as too philosophical for you then let me share the words of a respected management thinker with you.  Here is what Herbert Simon says:

Nothing is more fundamental in setting our research agenda and informing our research methods than our view of the nature of human beings whose behaviours we are studying…. It makes a difference to research, but it also makes a difference to the design of… institutions”

What is the dominant ‘concept of persons’ when it comes to organisations and institutions?

What is the organisational reality that pervades organisations of all kinds?  Command and control is ubiquitous: in government, in public institutions, in businesses… – in organisations of all kinds.  Look at your experience, not the rhetoric, and you will find that just about every organisation has managers who are conditioned to command (issue orders) and then do all that is necessary (control) to make sure that those orders are carried out.  That is the very definition of a good manager – in practice, not in rhetoric.

What does this unconceal (if we leave aside the interpretation that some people love to exercise power over others) about the ‘concept of persons’?    I say it unconceals the assumption that people cannot be trusted to figure out the right course of action nor to execute that course of action.  Peeling the onion further, I say it unconceals a fundamental distrust of persons / gloomy picture of us as human beings.  I call it the negative/diseased ‘concept of persons’.  You could argue that this issue is related to the lack of competence – that people lack competence.  It goes wider than that, let’s take a look at that.

What is the ‘concept of persons’ that economics takes for granted and propagates?  Homo Economicus: the ‘concept of persons’ as rational self-interested maximisers.  Put differently, people are selfish and act always to do what is best for this self interest irrespective of the impact of their actions on others.

Yet, this dominant ‘concept of persons’ is incomplete – we have yet to factor in Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs:

Maslow gave physiological and safety needs primary importance.  In effect arguing that once we have achieved  bodily well being, ensured our survival and accumulated the right property then and only then does the human being concentrate on the meaning of his/her life and spiritual well being.

So the dominant ‘concept of persons’ became and continues to be:

  1. people are intrinsically selfish so they will look out only for their personal self interest;
  2. people lack the competence to figure out what needs to be done;
  3. people cannot be counted on to do what needs to be done as they are lazy and/or selfish (see 1 above); and
  4. the way to get people to do what you want to do is through the right combination of fear (threaten their survival, belonging and self-esteem needs), reward (money and promotion), and training (to increase their competency).

Is the dominant ‘concept of persons’ in accordance with reality?

Leaving aside the issue of competence (which is easy to deal with) I wish to grapple with the ‘concept of persons’ as intrinsically selfish and whose primary needs are around bodily well being and survival.

The ultimatum game clearly shows that the human being is a social being who takes others into account – indeed he has to take others into account.  Put differently, the ultimatum game vividly demonstrates that the human being is not only self-regarding – not just Homo Economicus!  In the real world, the ‘concept of persons’ needs to envisage the person as self regarding AND other regarding AND process regarding.  That is to say people as real human beings-in-the-world consider others (other regarding) and are acutely sensitive to process especially social processes that mediate relationships between people –  acting fairly, punishing cheaters, one good deed deserves another.…. And as such the ultimatum game should make us question that which economics, management theory and organisation practice takes for granted: the ‘concept of persons’ as Homo Economicus.

Now let’s take a look at Maslow and his hierarchy of needs.  I say Maslow’s hierarchy is at best misleading and at worst wrong!  I draw your attention to that which is so, the thing in itself, unclothed from theory:

  • people risk and/or give up their lives to save others including strangers; and
  • people destroy their bodies and/or kill themselves including people who supposedly ‘have it all’.

Let’s listen to Martin Seager (clinican, lecturer and advisor to the government on mental health) and what he says on the matter:

“The selfish gene theory cannot explain the majority of suicides, where no one else is protected.  Nor can it explain the majority of human self-sacrifice which takes place for wider religious and political causes, rather than the protection of small families, groups or tribes who might share genetic material……

All of this means that Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy is, if anything, the wrong way around.  Maslow argues that, once we have achieved bodily wellbeing, we can then concentrate on the meaning of our lives and our spiritual wellbeing.  If this were true, then suicide would be almost unheard of; it would be a fundamental violation of the primary survival instinct.  It is truer to say that if our mental and spiritual needs are not met then a mere physical existence is not enough for our species.  Great physical hardship can be endured if there is a spiritual purpose, but without such a purpose a physical existence is often given up….

And finally

I say that the human being is a being who, at some point or another,  is confronted with the question: “Is this all there is?”  That is to say the human being is a being that has an built need to live a meaningful life (a life that matters) with others.  And that includes an urge to sing his song –  to put his natural self-expression into the world.   I say the access to ’employee engagement’ lies in creating the context that allows the employee to get access to his song, sing it, and to do so in the service of a cause/stand that shows up as worthy, as noble, as meaningful.

In the next post I will take a look at fundamental human needs and will bring in Maria Montessori to show what possibilities open up when one shifts one’s concept of the being of the human being.  For those of you who have made it to the end of the post, I thank you for your listening to my speaking. And I invite you to share your experience, your perspective.