I have just had the pleasure of reading David Bowles and Cary Cooper’s latest book, The High Engagement Work Culture, Balancing Me and We, and a super book it is. Not only does it contain up-to-date information on the latest research, and that not just from academic publications but widely sourced from the Internet too, but as the word ‘balancing’ in the title indicates their approach is balanced, is ‘fair’ (to use one of their favourite words), and so one can be confident in reading the book that one is not listening to evangelists babbling on about road to Damascus experiences, and wouldn’t the world just be a better place if we all followed them. No, the information and the ideas are measured, and yet passionately presented too; for at stake, and it would no understatement to say it from their perspective, is the future, if future there be, of Western capitalism. And finally, it is worth saying: this is an extremely well written book; it may sound obvious but many academics cannot write, or at least submerge themselves in impenetrable jargon that makes huge demands on the reader, and renders their real meaning unclear or ambiguous. This is not the case here: the prose is fluent, easy and accessible. They want to be understood and they want debate on their core ideas.
What then are they saying? Firstly, they survey the Crash of 2008 and locate some of the causes down to factors within organisations, specifically financial ones in this instance. They show that the culture of me-first, of individualistic heroes, of winning per se without any regard to the wider consequences eventually and inevitably leads to losing! That competition on its own is not enough to create a vibrant organisation, culture, or society; that collaboration is necessary too, and that when you marry competition to collaboration you do get one piece of jargon, but one that is easy to accept: "co-opetition".
Further they demonstrate through detailed research that engagement and high morale (values is perhaps their third most important word) are crucial to performance: individually and in terms of the profitability and longevity of an organisation. They are candid: "Engagement is a choice, and not everyone is capable of making it, no matter how great the environment" and for them Engagement is "a behaviour". Morale, on the other hand, is "an inner state of well-being belonging to an individual or group". But like a hand in a glove, these two elements – external and internal – are related: "high morale makes it much more likely that people will engage with the organisation and their jobs".
So, they make the critical point that engagement is not something that can be done to staff; on the contrary, management can only "create an environment that is sufficiently attractive to their workers that these people will choose to engage". Clearly, then, as they candidly admit, recruitment is essential in getting the right people in the first place. Also, they show what can be done in two excellent case studies of the leadership at BMW (Germany) and at Whole Foods Market (USA). These are both fascinating case studies, showing how the highest levels of company performance are possible through engagement and co-opetition. The Whole Foods Market is especially interesting as there is a lot about its founder, John Mackey, whom I had not encountered before, and who is obviously a major thought-leader in this field.
The best chapter of all, though, in my opinion, is Chapter 3, which deals with the Ego at Work - which they rightly call the elephant in the room; for we all know what this is about. This is possibly the best short analysis of ego problems in the work place that I have ever read – and I read a lot! It’s so clear, so a-ha, and so quotable: "ego acts like a psychological virus" – brilliant! And it goes on to make to crucial points in dealing with this, although it admits that perhaps ‘mitigating’ its effects may be the best we can do.
Much more could be said, but in this brief review what critique could be made about their position on Engagement? I think there are two major points I would bring to their attention.
The first is their own unease about an anomaly in the data. Quite simply, Germany has one of the lowest engagement levels in the West – 13% versus 29% in the USA. Yet Germany consistently outperforms other Western countries. Bowles and Cooper put this anomaly down to "management" and suggest just how much more profitable German companies could be if they engaged more – but there is no getting away from an awful fact. Here is the most successful country in Europe and their staff are not engaged! All the other data seems special pleading in the light of this admitted anomaly.
My other charge, however, is even more serious. It is the omission of the word ‘motivate’ or its derivatives (motivation, etc.) from the text. Or, to be precise, the word is not in their Index, but does occur 6 times in actual fact. The first four uses of it, though, are simply in quotations or extracts from their two stars from BMW and Whole Foods Markets. Finally, in the last 3 pages of the book they talk of "preserving individual imitative and motivation" and speak of the need for "fun and motivation" in the work environments. In short, the nebulous concept of ‘high morale’ has high-jacked the much more specific language and metric of motivation. Their whole issue of performance being linked to engagement and motivation would be so much more powerful with the accompanying metrics that motivation supplied – and this itself would obviate the need for too many ‘surveys’; instead staff could receive motivational reports which directly benefited them, as well as the organisation – what the morale was would be obvious from the scores.
These caveats aside, this is a book that is superbly written, will repay much re-reading and should be every CEOs and HR directors’ bible as they contemplate change that is going to be meaningful in the future of their organisation.