Sunday, 5 July 2009

You can’t demand engagement, only court it.

A tweet and email from my colleague Stephen Lynch about a 26 June article in Forbes on employee engagement triggered this post. The story’s about Douglas Conant turning Campbell Soup Co around by engaging the employees!

Successfully turning the organisation around is news in itself, but it’s the way he did it that grabs me. He did it by seeking engagement, not alignment! Maybe this means that “engagement” is superseding “alignment”. Alleluia!

To me it’s no surprise that Conant’s engagement-focused leadership achieved amazing results. What particularly interests me is that he apparently had to get rid of 300 out of 350 Campbell’s managers to do it. I wonder why?

My guess is that that was the quickest way to interrupt the established patterns of communication: to create room for changed organisational communication. That would generate enough organisational uncertainty and anxiety for the long-believed unspeakable to be spoken and heard; for people to discover that their opinions matter and for them to experience, perhaps for the 1st time ever, the spirit of doing good things together– to experience release from the psychic prison of defensive manipulation.

But what’s the difference between Conant’s approach and conventional restructuring, which almost always fails to improve productivity? Was he just a lucky bastard? Or is there magic in this engagement thing?

I reckon there’s much more to it than luck. I reckon that Conant somehow had the sense to break the Managerial spell to free employees to begin to figure out together how to do Campbell Soup Co better. I reckon he had faith that Campbell’s employees could do great things together if only they could get a chance to begin to really experience collaboration.

That contrasts with most restructures which are effectively exercises in defensive manipulation based on the assumption that, if allowed, employees will hijack any freedom for their selfish, ignorant, if not downright destructive purposes. Managers know this from hard-won experience of trying to get inevitably reluctant employees to do what managers want (know best). Result: “plus la change” (more of the same).

Actual organisational change begins in crisis so if there is no crisis, create one. Then it’s not so much what you do with the crisis, but the way that you do it.

Conant restructured, but the way that he did it was inspired. Effectively his purpose in restructuring and in the attendant uncertainty was to enable new communication, new interrelationships, and attendant insight. In short: engagement. You can’t demand engagement - only court it.

Marcus Buckingham gave “engagement” wings with the Gallup research that defined it and identified 12 reliable indicators and drivers of it. That led Buckingham on to his work in strengths-focused education and management: the complete opposite of conventional weakness-focused education and management.

To gauge whether your organisation is engaging or not ask your employees to rate these 12 statements (1, low – 5, high). If the mean score is better than 4 you’re getting close.

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