Can Insight into the Human Condition Help Us With Leadership, Employee Engagement, and Customer Experience?

It occurs to me that “outside in” is being approached with an “inside-out” way of being in the world.  And the people that are doing this are blind to it.  What do I mean by that?  It is best to illustrate it through behaviour.  As such I urge you to read this post by Wim Rampen that points at the gulf between customer-centric rhetoric and company centred behaviour.

Why is it that so many are doing “outside-in” through an “inside-out” lens. And are blind to it?  Why is it that so many talk about employee engagement and collaboration and yet there is so little of it?  Why is it that we talk about social and yet social media used by business folks is anything but social? Why is it that we talk about service and yet so little service is experienced?  How is it that there is so much talk about relationship yet authentic relationship is so rare?

To get at the root, I say one needs to get present to the human condition.  It is the most obvious reality and yet the hardest for us to see, and be truthful about – to ourselves, and to others. Here, I call on the wisdom of David Foster Wallace.  A man who understood existence in a way that so few of us do and shared his profound insight in the following talk which is 23 minutes long.

Here are some nuggets from the speech:

1. “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about..”

2. “The exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience.”

3. “Plus there is the matter of arrogance…. Blind certainty – a close mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up…”

4. “To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties because a huge percentage of stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, as it turns out, totally wrong and deluded…”

5. “Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence…….It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”

6. “….it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.”

7. ““Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

8. “… How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

9. “The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration…”

10. “But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us….”

11. “….. I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations.”

12. “Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.”

13. “But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer…”

14. “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.….You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…..Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

15. “If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough.”

16. “Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.”

17. “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

18.”On one level we all know this stuff already…… The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.”

19. “The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

20. “The really important kind of freedom is involves attention and awareness, and discipline, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them in a myriad petty little unsexy ways every day.”

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.