I’ll be honest before I type anything more: this isn’t the most fully-thought through contribution I’ve made to this blog. But the thoughts that are swimming around here have lurked at the margins of several recent posts, particularly those exploring new approaches to working, the nature of our changing relationship with work, and that chestnut du jour – employee engagement. If there’s a single trigger for this half-baked piece, it’s a review by John Lanchester in The Guardian of Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy. Sandel, as Lanchester points out, is no kneejerk anti-marketeer: his primary concerns are morality and justice and – by extension – the moral impact of market-based thinking and behaviour. As Lanchester quotes him, from what he takes pains to point out is neither an angry nor a simplistic book:

The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

As the reviewer explains, the book is an assault on the idea that ‘the economic approach to “utility maximisation” explains all human behaviour.’ I’m not about to wax either philosophical (I lack the mental apparatus) nor political (at least not intentionally – this is not the place), but I saw echoes of this pondering the place of marketisation in other recent articles and writing, more directly related to work, employee loyalty and so on – areas that are much more the ‘home turf’ of this blog.

Sharlyn Lauby, or HR Bartender as more of you may know her, consciously or unconsciously hints at the fringes of this issue in a recent post, Happy Employees are not Engaged Employees. Drawing a diagram of three overlapping circles – happy, motivated and engaged – that she referred to as ‘the trifecta of employee success’, she triggered an on-going debate as to whether we can belong in the first two circles without belonging in the third. She argues that those that belong in the first two can be delivering great performance and giving everything that’s asked of them, but they’re not moving the company to the next level.

As a blogger whose writing and thinking I’ve always respected, I was surprised to find myself thinking “Yes, but …” a few times. Where, for example, were those people who feel engaged but are neither happy (perhaps by concerns about organisational direction and its impact on them, or wrestling with work-life balance) nor motivated (surely I’m not the only person who’s ever worked long hours on something that I fully recognise is important to the organisation without feeling personally enthused)? What reads as positive motivation to others may be driven by what the individual feels as drivers that register more negatively – fear of dismissal or rebuke, personal financial necessity. Motivated and driven aren’t quite the same thing: I don’t recall anyone being described as motivated by demons.

I couldn’t help but think that there was also a missing thread – something that is sometimes referred to as affective labour. There was an unspoken sense of an additional obligation on the employee’s behalf: as well as working hard and cheerfully, there is now a requirement to demonstrate engagement. Affective labour is sometimes – ironically cheerfully, perhaps – referred to as providing ‘service with a smile’. In the sense – so far as there is any – of this piece, the ‘smile’ is too superficial a metaphor: we’re closer to the territory of George Burn’s oft-quoted witticism:

The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

If work is a deal struck between company and employee, then we need to recognise that the nature of the deal has changed. Loyalty and engagement aren’t what they were, because work isn’t what it was either. It’s not a matter of which came first: both the chicken and the egg have evolved. As a Knowledge @ Wharton article pointed out, however, the chicken has an important upper hand on the negotiating front:

My loyalty to the firm is contingent on my firm’s loyalty to me. But there is one party in that exchange which has tremendously more power, and that is the firm.”

We may all have traditionally clearly understood that bad times meant lay-offs and redundancies, but over the last few decades the equation has been more complex. As the article points out, the 1980s saw the start of healthy businesses reducing headcounts to increase shareholder value or profitability: the literal contract may have been unchanged, but the psychological contract had started to shift. And what is the difference between a happy, high quality performance and a fully engaged one (to use Sharlyn Lauby’s categorisations) if not psychological?

Given trends in the nature of longevity of roles or durations of employment with a single organisation, why does it surprise anyone that Wharton found that managers see little difference in the commitment of employees and contractors? Viewed through the lens of reciprocity, the employees’ written contracts may indicate a longer term commitment on the organisation’s part but their experience of observations of the labour market are likely to tell them a different story. In a way that parallels what John Lanchester has seen as what we might call ‘market creep’, employees who are obliged to view themselves as portfolio workers are surely being sensible if they not so much divide their attentions as spread their bets. As hedge funds go they may be small, but the principle is not so different.

What was illuminating in the Wharton article were the findings about our triggers for commitment: a sense of loyalty in relationships to colleagues, the value derived from positive workplace relationships and an appreciation of ‘procedural fairness’. We remain social creatures and human nature endures through changing circumstances – the things we broadly lump under a heading of ‘common decency’ continue to matter to us. Financial incentives are, it was found, seen more as a contractual agreement than a loyalty inducing factor, with the exception – ironically – of defined benefit pension plans. (Stock options only work where the individual can see any direct link between their own contribution and the value of the stock – although the difficulty in seeing this fuller picture is arguably something that organisations could go to greater lengths to help even low level employees to visualise and comprehend.)

I’m almost reminded of Barbara Cartland, more famous for her voluminous cache of engagements than her marriages (two, it seems – despite her fame, I’d been ignorant of both till earlier today): I would imagine a reputation for turning down 50 expressions of romantic intent would discourage others from even offering. Like many organisations who see commitment as something only to be offered to them, Dame Cartland seems to have a romantic notion or two that was more attractive than the reality. I was amused to discover from her obituary that, in 1919:

[…] a libidinous major invited her to his bedroom in order to show her “how his revolver worked”.

The Major might have served the married lives of many romantically deluded couples rather better had he followed through on the offer and shot her, but you can only take an analogy so far. And the obituary’s suggestion that – at least in private – “she was fascinating on the subject of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s private parts” does at least hint at a firmer grounding in human realities that normally emerged from the mountains of pink taffeta. If only in being undeniably her own brand, she was ahead of her times.

In this light, it’s worth pausing to read a recent CIPD Press Release that launched a research report exploring the difference between transactional and emotional engagement. ‘Transactional’ seems to equate roughly to Sharlyn Lauby’s ‘happy + motivated’: the concern is what is doing the motivating – effectively self-interest rather than the long-term health of the bigger picture. Emotional engagement – as opposed to smiling through gritted teeth – is derived partly from those human relationship angles, as well as a sense of identification with the bigger cause, the ‘mission’.

Jason Averbrook’s Knowledge Infuser article, Employee Loyalty is Dead. Long Live Employee Loyalty references the Wharton piece but suggests a way forward. Much like our other relationships, we remain committed as we are working to something greater than ourselves or each other – there is an ‘us’ that is potentially greater than the sum of the parts. It, like other relationships, will take honesty and openness, and a lack of retribution, or – as he puts it:

I believe that if you show your employees exactly where you’re company is headed, what it will take to get there, and how they contribute to that success in specific, transparent detail you’ll experience a new kind of employee loyalty – not to you, but to the cause. Not only that, but if each of you come to the conclusion that the worker either can’t, or no longer wants to participate in meeting the goal, breaking up isn’t hard to do, and neither side questions the other’s loyalty.”

There’s an important maturity here that goes beyond “your loyalty is indispensible; your presence isn’t”, which effectively makes an affective demand that the chequebook has no intention of honouring. Making people’s lives riskier and making them feel less valued is not a way to win their hearts, as Adam Cobb points out. (The recent debate about making it easier for small companies to dismiss ‘at will’ has not been one-sided, as The Guardian and HR Magazine, among others, illustrate, leaving aside some comments I’ve heard querying quite how we shrink our way into growth.) And as the CIPD research alludes, transactional engagement is overly concerned with meeting requirements and making a living: if this kind of engagement is damaging, organisations would do well to help employees overcome these concerns and engage more fully.

Ultimately, as Averbrook points out, the landscape has changed and human nature hasn’t. The things that lie in the middle ground – interpersonal behaviours, organisational processes and practices – are the ones that must adapt to the new circumstances to bridge the divide. Organisational culture moves slowly, but human nature is unlikely to outrun evolution any day soon.

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