Are Our Change Initiatives Suffering from Engagement Fatigue?

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful

– Mae West

In this day and age of questionable employee engagement, can there be such a thing as “too much engagement”? Are employees and staff suffering from engagement fatigue? Or is it akin to communications where you could never over-communicate?

What I’ve heard

The level of engagement question is especially pertinent when it comes to introducing change into an organization. There’s an old adage “if you plan the battle, you won’t battle the plan”. Agile practitioners and Organizational Change Management (OCM) professionals in general can appreciate this adage. They encourage the wisdom of the crowd in shaping the path of change. In the 1990’s it was known as Participatory Management. John Kotter referred to the importance of a “volunteer army” for sustaining change. Engaging the people on the floor to participate in planning the change makes a lot of sense, but then reality sets in. Here’s a sample of what I’ve heard:

  • “We need to consider the number of co-creation engagements we’re involving the staff in. We don’t want to overdo it.”
  • “People are spending more time on the change initiative than getting the real work done!”
  • “My manager says these change meetings are “optional” but I’m worried they’re mandatory if I want to get ahead”
  •  “Just because I didn’t show up and provide feedback doesn’t mean I’m not interested”

What the data shows

When I look at the data on employee engagement from the latest Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report, I can’t help but think of W. Edward Deming’s original 85/15 rule.

Engagement vs. System

In Deming’s experience, 85% to 97% of the problems in an organization are due to the organization’s systems and only 3% to 15% of the problems are due to the organization’s people. Coincidentally, the 2017 Gallup Report shows 85% of employees worldwide are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their job. Is there a correlation between engagement and the system? Would an employee’s level of engagement grow if we started to fix the system? Or is it just my cognitive biases at play?

E vs S

What we mean by the “system”

Deming used this diagram below to define a system as a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system.

Engagement vs. System 1

What aspects of the system could be adversely impacting engagement? Here’s my list of top candidates.

  • A focus on productivity and output efficiency versus learning and outcome effectiveness. Our Gantt charts level all resources to be 100% utilized. If everyone just focuses on doing their individual part to the best of their ability, the rest will take care of itself. There’s no time to be engaged in anything except the job at hand. Not even for feedback from our consumers.
  • Performance appraisal processes that reward and recognize individual accomplishment over team accomplishment. It’s great the team succeeded but what specifically did *you* do? Playing the hero is a sign of strength. Asking for help is a sign of weakness.
  • Talent development processes that stress vanilla uniformity of career progression and fungibility of resources. There’s little incentive to veer off the safe, well-worn path to career success even if it doesn’t align with your personal aspirations. And we wonder why people start hating their jobs.
  • Managers who rule by fear and sap the life out of any extra-curricular engagement. Top-down management plans are meant to be followed not questioned.
  • Policies and controls that have been weaponized to deal with the worse case Armageddon scenario. So much effort spent on policing and dictating what shouldn’t be done and not enough effort spent enabling what should be done. It’s far easier to just comply and trudge along.

Goldilocks Engagement

As change is introduced into an organization, I’ve observed people initially respond in one of three ways depending on the way the change is introduced. I liken it to Goldilocks visiting the Three Bear’s family cabin in the woods and sampling their morning porridge.

  1. Low engagement. The change is concocted top-down by management with little to no involvement from employees. It’s not clear why the change is necessary. The only level of employee engagement expected is compliance. Sticks and carrots are used to drag engagement out of people. This level of engagement is too cold.
  2. Over-engagement. The change is initiated top-down by management with a desire to involve everyone in planning the change. Everyone wants to get involved for fear of missing out. Only problem is it’s still not clear why the change is necessary, what the aim of the change is, or what’s in it for each person. There’s lots of activity with very little finish. This level of engagement is too hot.
  3. High engagement.  The change addresses a clear and present urgency evident to management and employees alike. There’s a desire and recognized need to change at all levels in their own way. Engagement is based on collective ownership of a common problem and sets of unique opportunities for everyone. This level of engagement tastes just right.

What if we change the system?

If a correlation exists between engagement and the system, what if we change the system? What if we were to experiment changing each of the system aspects affecting engagement? Here’s a few thought experiments to get us started.

  • What if we found a few courageous managers who understood their job is to continually change and improve the system, not to accept, tolerate or rationalize it? Would they be able to convince other managers to be the same?
  • What if these same managers were to spend more quality time building relationships and being very present with their teams especially when things are going well? How would the resulting safety and trust affect future engagement?
  • What if we were to focus our engagement efforts outwards towards our interdependent components in the system like HR? How could they help us change the system and why would they want to do so?
  • What if we were to abolish the annual individual performance appraisals? Would the sky fall? Could we at least start by valuing individual *and* team performance equally?
  • What if managers were to encourage pairing and mobbing the solving of problems over individual acts of heroism? Encouraging their employees to ask for help and to offer help?
  • What if our focus on productivity and output efficiency was leading us off a cliff? Would we run faster to catch up or would we slow down and ask some questions? There’s a difference between challenging authority and seeking to understand. As a knowledge worker, if you don’t care to understand then go ahead and join the rest off the cliff.
  • What if we were to curb our enthusiasm and let others catch-up? Change is a many-splendoured thing and can be very exciting. However, we need to be mindful that everyone will be at different stages of their personal change journey and engage them appropriately. Engagement will be less effective as a one-size-fits-all strategy.

How does your level of engagement taste? Cold, hot or, just right?

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