Organisational Culture

Your biggest engagement challenge: you don’t think for yourself

The biggest threat to the survival of your business in the next ten years could be your inability to think for yourself when it comes to matters of culture, and how it drives employee engagement.

In my experience, it’s a typical point of view that organisations that excel in this area are fascinating but risky; circus sideshows that thrill and inspire marvel, but offer nothing in terms of real-world practical example.

We know some of their names because their successes are well documented. Zappos.com, Google, and the Virgin companies come immediately to mind. Yet, despite all we know about them, the average company response is to seek safe harbour in old world thinking.

Since, in particular, large organisations naturally gravitate towards bureaucracy, their thinking on how to create change is all too regularly strapped to the glacial-paced processes and policies that should be the targets for change in the first place. Because they’re not learning, trusting or listening organisations, they’re unable to apply those philosophical hallmarks in the pursuit of those aims. It’s the ultimate Catch-22.

We want our people to love their work, their employer, their colleagues and their customers, but the moment they walk through the front door on a Monday morning, it’s 1983 inside. The bosses do the bossing, the workers do the working and there’s a tight blanket of control, however dysfunctional it may have repeatedly been proven to be, tainting the air they breathe. Engagement improvement programmes have the same air flowing through them, lending them the spectre of another short-lived management Mexican Wave, with the appropriate lack of long-term enthusiasm those evoke.

Communication around engagement is steeped in disengaging language. Activities around engagement are unremarkable, albeit shoehorned into a fresh box.

Collectively, corporate South Africa has grown up on the point of view that more analysis always trumps intuitive, swift action. In that belief lies the fundamental challenge to creating great people environments.

The simplest truth is that most companies already know what to do if they dare to think for themselves. You can test responses within your own environment before making wholesale changes, but you don’t need six months of discussion to work out how to get started. If you do, you’re not serious about it.

Why do companies persist with Theory X policy-making?

I’ve had a mixed bag of conversations this week, alternating between organisations I would classify as progressive, by which I mean they have the philosophical chops to be able to move forward, and those that are so steeply mired in a Theory X-based bully culture that they can’t even see why they’re limiting their own way ahead.

I feel so naive at times; I am literally baffled why a group of people would be able to operate for more than a day under the emotional and intellectual strain that some companies slather themselves with so lavishly.

It has been 55 years since professor Douglas McGregor of the MIT Sloan School of Management wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in which he described his Theory X (in which people need to be controlled if they’re to achieve anything at all) and Theory Y (in which people are ambitious and self-motivated and thrive well under a high degree of freedom) hypotheses.

That’s one hell of a long time. Long enough for the ideas to have spread. This was after all, a best-selling book.

But ideas have to fire up a receptive mind if they’re to grow into anything and as I keep discovering, there aren’t enough of those out there.

A large part of the work that we do at Happy Sandpit, my organisational culture consultancy, is helping companies to formulate a set of deep-seated Core Values that fully describe them. Not the total bloody nonsense most companies have on their walls, but Values that are inherent and important and worth defending with blood if necessary.

The process of getting to them is one of uncovering the true philosophical mindset that guides that particular organisation and the quickest way to get to that, because it’s clear that most organisations have no idea how misaligned their words and actions actually are, is to examine the company through the artefact of its policies.

Most company policies are just so much protectionist bullshit they shouldn’t exist at all. They were written into law for that particular company not because they felt they were under siege and needed to protect themselves against threatening behaviour, but because some Theory X-fuelled jerk was given the right to start making amendments.

Enforced laws become habits and over time, Theory X companies watch with perplexity as innovators, free-thinkers, and really talented personnel fail to stick around more than a few months without a ridiculous package of salary and perks to keep them chained down.

But to me the reason is simple. I’ve always been a Theory Y thinker. People are good and want to do good things. Where management of individual transgressors can resolve a problem, there’s no need to create a policy to restrict the movement of the entire group.

It’s a more challenging response, because it means you actually have to do some work in understanding how the individuals that comprise your organisation can play out their best role. And I believe it is as clear as daylight that organisations that do this, are the magnets for real talent.

Is your organisation Theory X or Theory Y? Are you sure? Read the policy book. You could be in for a shock.

Integrity is massively overrated

You may never have heard of Jack MacLean, but during the 1970s and 1980s, through his relentless pursuit of excellence, he became incredibly wealthy. One could say he was in the jewellery business. Perhaps you’d call him an entrepreneur with a very niche set of skills. He didn’t seek praise or celebrity, nor even recognition. In fact he avoided it. He was happy to know that what he was doing was always done to an exceptionally high standard and that his end result was consistent.

Jack MacLean wasn’t a man of integrity in everything he did. He routinely carried a change of clothes in case he was spotted near his work and needed to create a disguise. He carried a police scanner so he could eavesdrop on nearby police cars to make sure he wouldn’t be interrupted while he worked on one of his projects. He needed these, because he was a cat burglar who stole over $133-million in jewels from Florida apartments in a 20-year career.

He never damaged property, using lock picks instead of forced entry. He never resorted to violence. His methods were so meticulous that it often appeared that items that were stolen had simply been misplaced since there was no reason to assume a theft had taken place. In his work, integrity of purpose was a non-negotiable.

55% of all Fortune 500 Companies list ‘Integrity’ as one of their Core Values. In its day, so did Enron. All it really says is that those companies have something in common with a jewel thief, which of course is not at all the point they’re trying to make.

Values such as Integrity are what we at Happy Sandpit call entry-level Values. They’re philosophies that shouldn’t need to be expressed, because without at least a modicum of integrity, you don’t have a business of any worth. In other words, they should be a given. There is absolutely no way you’re ever going to convince me that’s the deepest thing you can reveal about the personality of your business. It doesn’t tell me anything that enables me to differentiate you from anyone else.

And it doesn’t give your employees anything like enough guidance.

Core Values are not things that can be so glibly expressed, and the appearance of words such as integrity is all the evidence that is needed that you haven’t applied the correct measure of thought to what it is that you cherish most dearly. In a personal sense, Values are not chosen, they evolve very individually so that even siblings may have a very different set of inherent philosophies. In an organisational sense, Values are best stitched into the fabric when a limited subset of leaders and super-committed employees agree on what will cause them to lose sleep at night or to throw up their hands in glee.

Having Integrity isn’t one of those things.