Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Flow, Flee or Fight revisited

I had a media inquiry regarding my manifesto (a link to the manifesto is on the left if you want to see it). Here's the questions and my answers. I hope you enjoy it.

1. You say that: The vast majority of employees sit on the fence. They’re not completely gone, but they’re not completely there, either. I think this is a dismal story of how our businesses and our economy exists. What is the best way to stop people sitting on the fence?

I am going to point you to another resource for a better answer for this one. The Canadian Management Centre wrote The Perfect Storm. I've attached it. Following my read of that, I wrote on my whiteboard at work, "The environment engages and retains." That's it. Give them an environment that allows them to be creative, insightful and passionate. They'll do the rest. People sit on the fence because they don't believe their effort will make a difference. Give them an environment that is open and responsive, they'll see opportunity and get engaged.

My manifesto implicitly suggests that the creation of such an environment is not commonly done. If that's true, I'm suggesting an employee could say, "I don't care if they don't want to create a welcoming, engaging environment. I'm going to get engaged anyway." I'd say that's option 2, after it's clear the employer isn't going to make the right kind of environment in the first place.

2. Have you ever been the mastermind behind a big employee engagement strategy?

No. I've worked to get my own direct reports engaged, with moderate success. That was a staff of eight. Unfortunately, I work in one of those big bureaucracies that just doesn't have the impetus to create the kind of environment the Canadian Management Centre talks about. I may have created an environment that encouraged ideas, engagement, risk-taking and innovation, but I think there is always a level of distrust... staff know our ideas can and will get overruled. I am not the ultimate authority in that organization. This really spawned my vision for Flow, Flee or Fight. At some point, it becomes a very personal choice to instigate change from within your own circle of influence. Here comes option 2...

3. You make the important point that individuals within a company can instigate change. Have people written to you since your piece was published, to tell you they have done this successfully?

No. I get emails from people identifying with the article. They say that they tried fighting for a while, then they burnt out and switched to flee. That's what I do, too. I think we're not going to find that example of one person that changes the entire culture single-handedly, unless maybe they're the ultimate decision-maker. More likely, you're going to find subtle cultural shifts that happened because one, two or a dozen individuals make the decision to fight.

4. You cite a survey that has found that only one in five employees choose to undertake the discretionary effort required to resolve a new challenge. What does that say about modern workplaces?

It says that they are overwhelmingly inefficient. An employer could get so much more value out of employees, if only they made the investment necessary to create an engaging environment. I'm willing to wager that workers on the floors at GM have ideas and energy to reinvent that company... for real. Unfortunately, whatever environmental measures are in place have made an "us vs. them" environment. Employees are disempowered and disengaged. There's no incentive to dive in and innovate, so employees watch the company flounder and cash their paycheques.
There is a school of thought that suggests the GFC simply accelerates a much-needed change in the way work environments are designed. Modern workplaces aren't modern at all. They're clinging on to a "command and control" paradigm that doesn't motivate knowledge workers and is too inefficient. I suspect that most workplaces won't respond to this accelerated requirement for an engaging workplace. They'll keep clinging on to an old management philosophy while upstarts or progressive organizations figure it out and eat their lunch.

5. A lot of employees want to see change in an organisation, see the need to boost morale. Why do so few of these people ever do anything about it?

Fear. For every action they could take, there is a fear or social norm that they have to come to terms with.

The creation of an alternate culture requires leadership. It requires someone to say "I don't believe in our practices. I want to get to the same place as you, but I believe there's a better way to get there." At minimum, they will be labelled a heretic. They'll also be quietly encouraged to get back in line, to stop making the boss look bad and quit stressing everybody out. If an environment doesn't encourage a challenge to the status quo, this takes a lot of self-confidence and conviction.

6. A lot of employees will not be happy with your perspective, preferring to pass the buck to “management”. What is your response to that?

OK. How's that working out for you?

I'm talking about pursuing satisfaction and even happiness at work. I would be surprised to hear that someone is finding satisfaction through passing the buck. More likely, they're finding validation and a moral righteousness but things still suck. I'm open to alternatives that give people a sense of control and engagement, but complaining about the boss, by itself, has never seemed very satisfying.

We spend all too much time worrying about the dissenters. I'm more interested in the huge majority of employees that are "on the fence" or are inclined to put some work in to becoming engaged. You don't need 100 percent buy-in to change the environment.


deannie said...

I promise to read this post BUT I just had to tell you: your blog is almost UNREADABLE in google reader because the font is white so it appears as this ghostly grey. ACK!

deannie said...

Regarding "You make the important point that individuals within a company can instigate change. Have people written to you since your piece was published, to tell you they have done this successfully?"

I wish I had told you how I did instigate change once where I worked instead of just telling you how I identified with your Manifesto. Just by being me. I worked for a company that manufactured Plywood and Engineered Hardwood Flooring and let me tell you, what a male dominated world that microcosm is! So, I took it upon myself to begin to speak up, assert my opinions and encourage the females around me to do the same. I don't mean in that ball busting kind of way either. Do you know what happened next? Suddenly, leadership classes were organized, lots of women, including myself were invited to go and we were mentored by senior managers. I saw gals on the production line get promoted to supervisors, then managers. I myself increased in my creativity and contributed strongly to a project that I would never have been a part of because I wouldn't have been seen as a "player".

Because I took action, eventually I was able to make changes that took me to a new city, newer challenges. You just never know what will happen till you TRY. So make your choice: Flow, flee or FIGHT. But DO something.

Nevin Danielson said...

Thanks for the comments deannie! Sorry about the font colour. Because I c&p'ed the responses out of my email, some formatting came with it. I tried to make it look normal in a browser, but obviously it doesn't work for Google Reader. Lesson: only cut and paste from a basic text editor with no formatting... or figure out how to use blogger editing tools appropriately.