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January 2013

High Engagement at Work - David Bowles and Cary Cooper

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.

Belief, the Ideal Self and Alexander the Great

As a Quaker committed to peace, the thought of saying anything good about Alexander the Great may seem odd. It’s fashionable after the event to speak well of conquering tyrants (Hitler excepted): what a splendid leader Napoleon was, and how amazing Julius Caesar was – why he even came to England, the first wave, and wasn’t that civilising for us all (apart from the dead)? And Alexander stands supreme in this genre; but we need to bear in mind that in his magisterial book, Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox quotes estimates of some 750,000 people dying in Asia alone as a result of Alexander’s progress – his triumphs. And that isn’t even as if they died through taking a sleeping-tablet. After the siege of Tyre, Alexander, to teach his enemies a lesson, had two thousand men crucified.

And yet when we speak of him, truly, there was something great about him that outside of his very greatest opposites, namely, spiritual leaders – Jesus, David, Moses, Buddha and so on – does the deserve the epithet ‘Great’. Yes, he seems to have been a psychopathic nut-job, but so much else besides - so complex, and so driven that few compare with him.

He was widely educated – Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, was his tutor; he loved poetry and indeed he not only loved poetry, he lived poetry. My all-time favourite story about Alexander was when a messenger, breathless, and excited with some good news he was anxious to relay to Alexander, doubtless with the expectation of reward, was cut short.

"What can you tell me that deserves such excitement," mocked Alexander, "except perhaps that Homer has come back to life?" Except that Homer had come back to life … the hairs go up on the back of my neck – to value the poet and his work so highly and in such a way that it seemed even more significant than news of his empire. He slept every night with two things under his pillow: a dagger and a copy of Homer.

Michael Woods in his epic TV documentary following in the footsteps of Alexander commented on how ‘lucky’ Alexander was. Time and again Alexander put himself in the very frontline of the military action or of the danger – he should have died long before he did at the age of 32, but ‘luck’ again and again was with him. But was it luck?

And so we come to the really interesting aspect of his story, the bit that all of us can take something from. He believed in himself – way beyond any measure of modern day personal development where people talk about ‘believing in themselves’ – nudging themselves into some false psyched-up state. No, Alexander believed in himself: he believed he was descended from Heracles, the great son of Zeus; ultimately, he came to believe he was the son of Zeus/Ammon – God – himself. As such, and with such a belief, what would be impossible?

Then, more amazingly still – we have his birthright – now the environment kicks in: the poetry weaves its magic spell. For of all things that Alexander aspired to be, first and foremost, his ideal self was Achilles, the great Achilles, the horse-tamer, the man-slayer, the fleet of foot, the one who knew no fear, ferocious, implacable, invulnerable until … the gods decreed his fate was otherwise. And all that he most knew about Achilles was contained in Homer’s Illiad. That was his measure – that his ideal self to which he aspired and by which he judged himself, and really did judge himself.

What is breathtaking is how deeply the belief he was the son of god and how profoundly the ideal self of Achilles permeated his consciousness and his whole being. With that as his core he became – he achieved – what the world can still scarcely believe: dominion and conquest of a kind not seen before and probably not equaled since. He was never beaten in battle and he faced and defeated overwhelming odds time and time again.

And the luck? Ah, the luck. Was it luck? There was another corollary that went with such extraordinary beliefs: namely, if you were a son of god, then gods exist. Call it superstition if you will, but I won’t: he sacrified to the gods at all times, prayed to them at all times, invoked their power and support. For him they were real – and as Christ once said: wisdom is vindicated by her children. Was he lucky or did the very universe itself respond to his devotion, his belief in the divine ultimate reality? Some might say, yes, the devil protected him. Whatever – until he died, his life was charmed.

Who do we believe we are, then: accidents, random collocations of molecules or sons and daughters of the divine spark? And who is our ideal self? To what height are we aspiring – or what default mediocrity? On such questions and such answers hangs our own capacity to be great whoever we are and whatever we do.



Conversation and Insight

There are many benefits from talking to someone: friendship, support, encouragement to mention only three, and they and all the others are extremely important.  But one benefit seems to me especially important, and that is the benefit of insight. When we talk to someone else do we get insight? Insight into what? Many things, but essentially into the nature of reality – that is the most exciting prospect of all.

And there are two ways we get insight. The first, quite simply, is that we get it directly. The person speaking to us has insight into some aspect of reality and consciously or not (usually the former) they communicate this to us. It’s what they believe, what they think, and what they hold dear. Sometimes it is almost said with the exasperation of someone who’s thinking, And did you not realise this?

Meeting people who can provide such insight is wonderful. Often these people are gurus or experts in their field; and sometimes not. Sometimes they are just ‘ordinary’ and wise people who have lived a lot and reflected on their living and this has given them a percipience they share with you.

The second way of getting the insight in a conversation is indirectly. This time the person isn’t necessarily being insightful, wise or learned, but they say something which resonates particularly with you. This resonance can come about for a number of reasons. It can be because of something else you know and suddenly you make the connection, you join the dots, and the a-ha moment emerges; they may be particularly unaware of this, although if relevant we may share what suddenly occurs to us. Alternatively, they say or even do something and in that saying or doing more is apparent than they are aware of. For example, they have said something to you before and now they repeat it. Before it was a harmless remark; now its significance becomes obvious. Or their words start revealing, unbeknown to them, their personality and character, perhaps in a way that they would never intend. As Ben Jonson observed long ago: ‘Words most show a man: speak, that I may see thee’.

And insight, we must remember, is like its cousin, sight. To have sight we need illumination, and to have illumination we need light. So it is with insight: it depends on the light. This is why all the great religions of the world emphasise the importance of light. The book of Genesis, for example, starts with God creating light: ‘Let there be light’; and there was light … the light was good’ (Genesis 1 v. 3-4) and without it no good thing can exist or, it would seem, be perceived to exist.

Thus meditation is a form of waiting in silence, in stillness, and in that stillness, what? The turbulence of our lives is quieted, the storms are hushed, and the light of insight begins to shine its order. How much healthier and happier we feel.

So as we go into 2013 let’s look for more insight in our conversations with others as well in the deep meditations that restore us; for both can be a source of light and order in our busy lives.