On engaging the human beings of the organization

On engaging the human beings of the organization

Last week, I wrote that today’s biggest challenge for managers and leaders is inspiring knowledge workers in ways that stimulate their energy, passion and creativity. Of course, this is a concept that many scholars and practitioners have been talking about for years, so it is somewhat surprising that we are simply not better at it.

In fact, it appears that as managers we are not very good at all when it comes to engaging our people. I once heard management expert Gary Hamel speak at the World Business Forum about worker engagement in our society. I do not recall exactly what data he was referencing, but I do remember clearly his conclusion. Hamel expressed shock and dismay that only 10 to 20 percent of workers today can be considered “highly engaged” in their work and their organizations.

At the World Innovation Forum in 2008, Hamel commented that management technology is evolving at a snail’s pace. We are prisoners of our mental models, and these models are seriously out of date.

Hamel imagined that if we brought back CEOs from the 1960s to examine our organizations today, they would find that most everything has changed in dramatic ways. The pace of work, the global, round-the-clock aspect of large organizations, the ubiquity of information and the connectivity of our devices would be a great surprise to the business leaders of fifty years ago.

At the same time, these CEOs of the past would probably find our management rituals, routines and practices reassuringly similar to those of their time. So, one question that we can and should legitimately ask is, “When most everything around us changes at breathtaking speed, why is the technology of management evolving so slowly?” And, why are we still not better at creating organizational climates and management practices that encourage people to contribute more of themselves in the workplace?

If the Age of Information is a time when human capital has emerged as the organization’s most vital resource, why are we not better at treating human beings and their development as our number one concern?

In the coming weeks, I propose to provide some thoughts on how we can get workers more fully engaged in the workplace. Here are some of the points I will discuss.

We can start by giving employees a sense of belonging. In the book Culture Jam, Estonian filmmaker and social activist Kalle Lasn argues that the most powerful narcotic in the world is indeed the promise of belonging. In this vein, I often ask why we are not more effective at using the power of belonging, at crafting the stories of collective identity that align organizations.

Beyond a sense of belonging, we can even give them a sense of meaning. People simply want to be involved in something bigger than their daily work.

I once saw the transcript of an interview with Stephen Hawking, the celebrated theoretical physicist whose 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, stayed on the London Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. According to Hawking, to read and understand the book—a treatise on the search for a unifying theory of the workings of the universe—one would need the level of a PhD student in theoretical physics. In other words, most of the detail of the book’s explanations was simply not accessible to a vast majority of its readers.

When asked to explain the book’s unexpected popularity, Hawking cited the public’s longing to be involved in the discussion of life’s “really big questions.” His explanation causes me to wonder about people and their daily activities. In particular, if we could provide employees with a greater sense of meaning in their work, does it not make sense that they would do it with energy and passion?

And, if we wanted to go beyond belonging and meaning, we could strive to give people a cause, a larger purpose, and even a sense of pride. When people take pride in doing something that has meaning for them, they are capable of remarkable engagement and performance.

Consequently, we should focus on giving them a cause and a larger purpose. In the end, people connect to causes—not to tasks, plans or strategies. What if we could make them feel part of a special group, one with a culture of clear values and principles that they shared? Research has shown that people with the greatest knowledge and clarity about both personal and group values show the highest degree of commitment to their organizations.

Anyway, that is probably enough writing for today. In the weeks to come, I will provide some examples and tell some stories that lend insight about how we might do better at inspiring our most important resource.

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