Resilience begins with “We”

50 best managed Douglas Reid 2012

I spoke at the last 50 Best Managed companies conference.  My topic was employee engagement. Normally, I avoid topics like this – I'm a strategist, and hence am usually more interested in competitive dynamics, building competence, and business model innovation.
But all of these topics pale when contrasted with one of the most significant problems in business today – the alienation or dis-engagement of many employees from the work they do. 
How did this happen? At the root of this problem is a decades-long shift in the relationship between individuals and the entities they work for.  The smiley face of this shift could best be captured in the classic Fast Company story, Free Agent Nation.  In it, author Daniel Pink positioned the 25 million Americans he said inhabited this charmed land were the ultimate masters of their destiny – affiliated only with their skills, brand and freedom to create – they were on the verge of cementing a permanent transient class of digital ronin as the cool kids of the Internet revolution. 
The ugly face of the relationship was Juliet Schor's book, written a few years earlier, called The Overworked American.  She depicted a world of fewer individual triumphs – one where work managed to invade more crevices of personal life because, in part, societal values emphasized consumption.  Lest peer imitation take too much blame, employers, bluntly, tightened the screws and infused too many workplaces with fear.  Fear worked because the image of foreign cargo ships offloading goods and taking on American jobs to be relocated to lower labour cost countries threatened the shrink-wrapped pledge of self-worth validation offered by serial and often addictive consumption.
Fast forward: employees who once were "members" of companies became "costs".  As the specious dogma of shareholder value maximization took root, abetted by luxe compensation for senior executives, few boardroom inhabitants had the motivation to wonder how the world could be otherwise ordered.
But a curious rebellion started, without an ideology or a leader: the rebellion of indifference on the job. Think of this as the logic of free-agent nation extended to non-believers. Widespread use of incentive-based compensation turned old-school company loyalists into suckers, at least in the eyes of their free-agent peers. So everyone became a free agent, at least in terms of behaviour. The positive externality of engagement – individual discretionary effort – became rare indeed.
That effort was the spine and sinew of resilience, an idea that has gained much currency recently because it represented the antithesis of the highly leveraged, highly optimized, and ultimately frail enterprise that could prosper only in conditions offering predictable variance. 
Low engagement means low resilience. Low resilience means costly survival in novel competitive times. And that's how I joined these ideas: build resilience through building engagement.
Building engagement means accepting that one's time horizon should extend beyond the present quarter. It means making trade-offs to ensure enterprise survival, rather than a series of return-optimized quarters. Since engagement makes a claim on company resources, a manager has to decide the optimal amount of engagement needed to obtain the right quotient of resilience that raises the prospects of survival.  There is no Excel macro that can do this math – it's a pure judgment call . 
And that's why a call to engagement is needed.
I began by outlining a simple definition of strategy – actions taken to raise willingness to pay and lower costs – just to establish a common language. I followed with the remarkable example of Southwest Airlines – a company that has made engagement the centre of their culture (I'll post more about that later).
The essence of an engaged workplace is one that permits its members to experience autonomy, mastery and purpose. How to get there – that was the main part of the talk.  
There are four key tools to build engagement.  The first is choice.  Think of this as the set of choices about thereby enabling control within the scope of an individual's job function or outcome-creating space.
The second is competence. Historically, this was thought of as training. Today it's the recognition that individuals seek to assert and manifest deep expertise in some field of activity in their lives. Companies can channel that desire for advantage, by – among other things – exposing their members to a wide range of skill-stressing and confidence-building assignments – properly coached throughout.
Meaningfulness – number three – answers the "why do I work" question, and contributes to the making of meaning that many people quest for during their lives. Proper corporate attention to relating individual effort to the individual need for meaning-making enables an employee to experience pride in the most difficult conversation of their day: "What did you do at work today, Mom?"
Fourth, progress. This means structuring work, communications, investments, and a host of symbolic and valuable leadership acts towards ensuring every member of the organization understands that the enterprise is making progress. I define progress less as a quantitative response to the demand for returns, than as acts taken to put corporate values into action so that those values are honoured in practice.
I closed on change. Here I was able to cite work done at Queen's on change, and added to it more recent thinking that frames resistance to change in habitual rather than subversive terms.
My summary was simple: more engagement means more resilience. And unless a company can predict its future, it has to worry about surviving in the long term as well as quarter to quarter.

 

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