Why, in Transformation, the Real Battle is For Hearts, not Minds

Employee engagement really is the poor relation in many digital transformation programmes and yet it couldn’t be more critical to enabling and sustaining real and lasting change. Transformation in the digital age sits at the cross-section of customer and employee experience. Happy staff in touch with their end users create great customer experiences. You can’t expect change programmes to change anything if you don’t bring your people on the journey with you.

And yet we pay so little attention to employee engagement. Gallup have long undertaken comprehensive research into this area (I use it a lot in my work with clients) which consistently demonstrates the terrible levels of staff engagement globally. Figures released only last month show that only 8% of workers in the UK for example, feel engaged or enthusiastic about their work.  73% are ‘not engaged’ (psychologically unattached, putting little energy or passion into the work), and 19% ‘actively disengaged’ (resentful that needs are not being met). And the figures for many other countries are not much better.

This is not a new story, and yet it continues to get worse. Gallup note from the UK figures, for example, that employees who were surveyed in 2016 were 20% less likely than those surveyed in 2012 to strongly agree that they have the opportunity to do what they do best at work, and were also 25% less likely to strongly agree there is someone at work who encourages their development.

This matters for many reasons but not least because it affects not just intrinsic motivation but productivity. The 2016 meta-analysis which Gallup did (covering more than 82,000 business units in 73 countries across 49 industries) found that those business units that were in the top quartile of engagements scores were 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile.

What the Gallup work shows is that traditional approaches to work and to leadership need to change. A big clue to how they need to change comes in Bruce Daisley’s interview with Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (and author of the upcoming book Alive at Work), in this recent episode of the EatSleepWorkRepeat podcast.

Dan Cable’s work focuses on the power of work environments which enable employees to bring their ‘best selves’ to work. People, he says, bring different things into the workplace. Some bring hands to do the work (where leaders write the script, come up with the game plan). Some bring brains (innovation, trying new things, emergent value). The heart (empathy, passion, desire to make a difference) is perhaps the most difficult, yet is more important than ever – empathising with a customer, taking risks to try new things, being authentic when dealing with clients, is difficult to do when you’re not feeling it yourself. It’s more critical than ever that we bring our whole self into the work environment.

Yet this clearly isn’t happening in many workplaces. Dan quotes another stark statistic from a survey that the Gallup institute undertook which covered 1.7m employees across 63 countries and 101 companies and which found that 80% of people go to work to ‘shut off’ (in other words they hide their true selves).

This has never been more important. Many of our working norms and practices come from an industrial age where standardisation and replicability was what was required. In a modern era where creativity, problem-solving and invention play a much bigger role, we need people to apply their unique strengths to tasks and problems, and we need them to feel like they don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not as soon as they get to work. We need more personalisation of work.

In the context of leadership, traditional hierarchically-driven ideas about answers only existing at the senior-most levels of the organisation gives way to leaders who are able to nurture the kind of environments in which answers can emerge. As Dan says:

‘The leader doesn’t have to have all the answers…you have to engage people to find the answers’

In the context of change, modern transformation should be less about the idea of fear-driven change from a ‘burning platform’, and more about missionaries and volunteers that can support change emerging organically. Scripted calls to arms and motivation through fear creates rigidity. And in an age when adaptability is so key, investing in people who are truly able to be their best selves allows for the kind of flexibility needed to thrive.

Dan talks about two dominant systems within our brains – the fear system and the seeking system. The former is based on cortisol and the response that we have to stressful situations, the latter is based on dopamine and is more a response to exploration, curiousity and play. When organisations create fear, that fear comes from within the group and so, just at the point when we most need different thinking and ideas, our response is to want to conform. Conformity is fine when you have the right rules but as Dan says, ‘there is no more important time to stimulate the right answer than when we don’t know the right answer’. It’s all too easy for fear to dominate, and stifle the kind of creativity, exploration and energy we need to find those right answers and survive and thrive.

There are some simple hacks that Dan talks about as ways to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work including changing the on-boarding process. He gives the example of some research they did with Wipro where enabling new employees to describe examples of when they’ve done their very best work made them 57% less likely to quit, and also resulted in customers becoming 11% happier. Greater engagement came from employees simply feeling that other people at work knew who they really were.

But this is really about the environment that we enable as leaders and the type of leadership that allows for more personalised approaches. It’s impossible for change to happen if we don’t bring our staff on the journey with us. It’s impossible to bring our staff on the journey us if they’re not engaged in their work and the direction that we’re taking. Transformation cannot happen without it. It’s time that we paid far greater attention to how we can truly change those Gallup figures. The future of your business depends on it.

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Neil Perkin

Author Neil Perkin

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