Read an Excerpt
Getting to the Heart of Employee EngagementThe Power and Purpose of Imagination and Free Will in the Workplace
By Les Landes
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Les Landes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Makes People Work
"Okay. Elemental truths," Tom muttered to himself as he walked down the hall to his office the next morning. "Is that what I've been missing? Is that really why it's been so tough to get people fully on board? What does that mean, anyway?"
"If you take a breath for a second, I might be able to help with those questions," came a reply from out of the blue.
Tom jumped in surprise. He looked up and saw someone standing at the door of a nearby office. The man seemed vaguely familiar, but Tom couldn't place him. He was embarrassed to discover he had been talking loudly enough for someone to hear him.
"Sorry," Tom said, "I didn't know anybody else was around. My name's Tom Payton."
"I know," the man said, reaching out to shake Tom's hand.
"Have we met before?" Tom asked.
"I'm David Kay. I'm a consultant here on a short-term assignment.
I'll just be here for a few days." David continued before Tom could ask him what he was working on. "And by the way ... no apologies necessary. Sometimes, a thought is just too big to keep locked up inside your head."
"Isn't that the truth!" said Tom.
"Mind if I ask what you're puzzled about?" asked David.
"Oh, it's just people stuff," replied Tom.
"From my experience, that's the biggest stuff of all in most companies," said David. "It can get pretty complicated."
"You can say that again," said Tom. Maybe it was the mood of the moment or maybe it was something about David, but Tom suddenly found himself eager to open up and talk about the employee engagement challenges he was facing.
"Right now, I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed, to be honest with you," he continued. "I'm in the human resources and employee communication department, and we've got some big changes in front of us. We just started working on an organization-wide performance improvement effort. It looks promising, but the head of HR and communication who's been leading the project—she's my boss—just told me she's leaving. It's going to be a big shock for everyone."
"So, what are you planning to do now?" asked David as he turned and started down the hall. Tom fell in easily beside him.
"I'm not sure," Tom replied. "I've been here for about ten years, and when the CEO gave us the green light to put together a new employee engagement plan, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Now with Marie quitting, I feel like I'm headed the other direction—if you know what I mean."
"So when Marie leaves, where does that leave you and the plan?" asked David.
"I don't know," said Tom. "Marie is a heavy hitter in HR and communication circles, and she carries a lot of weight with senior management. She did a great job of convincing them that we had to do some pretty dramatic things if we were going to stay competitive in the industry."
"Do you think they're going to change their minds now that Marie's leaving?" David asked.
"I doubt it," said Tom. "But they're going to be looking for someone very strong to fill her shoes, and you know what it's like—someone new comes in, and he feels like he has to make his own mark. He brings in his own ideas, and everything we've been working on gets shoved aside. It's the old NIH syndrome. Know what I mean?"
"Not invented here," David said with a smile, nodding thoughtfully.
"I guess you can't blame a person for doing that. I'd probably do the same thing if I was brought in to lead a big change effort."
"Any chance of that happening?" asked David.
"What's that?" Tom asked in return.
"You taking over and leading the change effort," David replied.
"Well, I am throwing my hat in the ring," said Tom hesitantly.
"Marie likes my work, and she's encouraged me to go for it. She even put in a good word to management for me."
"That sounds pretty encouraging," said David. "But you don't sound like a guy who's just been given a great opportunity and a strong endorsement to boot."
"Yeah, I know," said Tom. "That's actually what I was muttering about a few minutes ago. I've been in HR and employee communication for quite a while—most of it right here with this company. Marie hired me, and we've done some good work together. But ..."
Tom hesitated, appearing to struggle for the right words.
"But," he continued, "I just haven't felt like we were getting to the core of what it's going to take to produce some major breakthroughs in employee performance and development."
"Well, what made you think you needed to make any changes in the first place?" asked David.
"Mainly, it's because our productivity and profitability are lagging behind the industry trends," Tom answered.
"You hear that from a lot of companies these days," said David. He spoke casually but with a let's-cut-to-the-chase look. "I'm sure there was more behind it than that."
Tom was surprised at David's comment. It had hit a nerve, but he still wanted to continue the conversation. Suddenly, David stopped in front of an office that was virtually empty except for a desk, a chair, and a phone.
"Is this where you're going to be hanging out?" Tom asked.
"It's not fancy, but it's home for now," David replied with a smile.
"Mind if I come in for a few minutes?" Tom asked. "If you've got some time, I'd like to tell you more about the plan we're working on and get your reaction to it."
"Grab a seat," David offered. He sat down and waited quietly for Tom to continue.
"So, back to your question ... I guess one of my personal reasons for the new engagement plan is because every year I pore over those lists,—you know, like the 100 Best Companies to Work For—and I wonder what they're doing that we're not," Tom said. "Makes you feel a bit jealous, especially when you're in HR."
"I know what you mean," David acknowledged.
"What's more," Tom continued, "most of those companies must've managed to crack the code on how to bring out the best in employee performance because they are also the toughest competitors in the marketplace. That's a potent combination, and it would be great to be part of a company like that. I'm hoping we're on the right path to duplicate that performance, but I'm not sure. Fact is, we've tried some things in the past that haven't worked very well."
"Any idea why?" asked David.
"Why we tried them? Or why they didn't work?"
David laughed. "Both, actually."
"Well, we look around at those high-performance companies—we see how they're operating, how they're working with people. Then we say we need to step up and do what those guys are doing," Tom said. He paused, reflecting for a moment before he continued.
"Actually, I'm not sure I can put my finger on any single reason why we haven't gotten the same results here," said Tom thoughtfully. "But it's pretty easy to see the symptoms. We start doubting that their results are due to people factors, or we don't understand how to do it, or it looks like too much work, or who knows what. So we keep stumbling along, doing basically the same things, just trying to work harder and faster to catch up. Then instead of getting better performance, people get upset—they feel pushed and pressured, and things start to fall apart. That's when management comes out and pronounces that everyone has to rally around the company flag and give 110 percent if they want the company to survive and keep their jobs. It's become a pretty predictable pattern."
"You know, Tom, you're not the only company struggling with that dilemma," said David. "It's fairly common, and almost every one of those organizations has people like you, scratching their heads and asking themselves why people won't get on board."
"Got some ideas about why that might be?" asked Tom.
"Oh, I might have a thought or two," David replied.
"I'm all ears," said Tom eagerly.
"Do you mind if I start by asking you a question?" asked David.
"Fire away," Tom replied.
"What do you think makes human beings distinct from other living creatures on the planet?" asked David. "What sets us apart?"
Tom wasn't sure where David was going with his question, but he was intrigued. "Lots of things," Tom responded quickly. "One of them has to be our intelligence. We're smarter than other animals."
"What makes you so sure about that?" asked David.
"What do you mean?" Tom shot back. "When was the last time you saw a chimp read a novel or balance a checkbook?"
"I'd be careful about that checkbook comparison," David replied, smiling. "I haven't managed to get mine squared away for quite a few years." Both men laughed as David continued.
"Seriously, though, you can look at intelligence a lot of different ways," David said. "Think about it. No one but Spider-Man has been able to figure out how to make anything so fine and strong as a spider's web. Have you ever watched a dog work a herd of livestock? Sure looks pretty intelligent to me."
"Okay, then, how about this one?" asked Tom. "Surely you don't believe that animals have souls—that good ones go to heaven and bad ones go to ... well, you know."
"I'm not going to speculate about where animals go when they die," said David. "But do animals have souls? I dare you to get into a debate about that with die-hard animal lovers."
"Okay, I give up," said Tom with a smile of resignation. "You're obviously trying to make a point. So what is it? What do you think makes humans different from other animals?"
"Do you have any kids, Tom?" asked David.
"Three of them," Tom replied. "Five, eight, and thirteen."
"That's great," said David. "Are any of them into Barney the purple dinosaur? I know he's not as big with kids these days, but he used to be wildly popular."
Tom rolled his eyes. "You have no idea," he said. "I have to admit I'm not a big fan, but our five-year-old, DJ, is absolutely mesmerized by him. The other two were just as bad when they were his age."
"What do you think Barney's big appeal is with kids? What does he talk about all the time that's so captivating to them?" asked David.
"I can't imagine," said Tom.
"Yes, you can," said David. "In fact, that's the answer."
"What's the answer?" asked Tom.
"The answer to both questions—what's different about human beings, and why kids love Barney," said David.
"You're losing me, David," said Tom with a puzzled look.
David smiled and said softly, almost with a tone of reverence, "It's ... imagination. Human beings are uniquely endowed with the capacity to create or process imaginary experiences. We have the gift to imagine things that never were and create things that have never been. All other animals basically take the world the way it comes. They can demonstrate tremendous intelligence—even use rudimentary tools. And they have most of the same basic needs that people do—for food, shelter, love, and affection. But all you have to do is look at something as simple as a pencil, and you realize that the source of almost everything distinctive that human beings have ever achieved is imagination."
"Okay, so humans are like Barney—they have imagination," said Tom with a touch of sarcasm. "Now, what does a purple dinosaur's imagination have to do with employee engagement in a corporation that employs twenty thousand people?"
"More than you think—but not more than you might imagine," said David. "Let me ask you another question: How important is innovation to this company's business strategy in the next few years?"
"It's critical," replied Tom. "And I get your point. Without imagination, it's hard to have innovation, right?"
"Yeah, that's pretty obvious, isn't it?" said David. "But that's only half the story. Imagination only provides the spark for innovation. It takes more than that to get a real fire started. Any idea what that is?"
"Well, you need people to take action on the ideas that their imaginations generate," said Tom.
"That's right," said David. "Otherwise you've got a bunch of ideas with no place to go. Now what does it take for people to get into action?"
"Lots of things," replied Tom. "They need direction and resources; support and encouragement are important, too."
"You're heading down the right path," said David. "But there's something else that comes into play first—something else about people that sets them apart from other animals."
"I'm not sure," said Tom. "Does it have something to do with motivation?"
"You're close," said David. "Do something for me. Finish this phrase: free as a ..."
"Bird," Tom replied quickly.
"It never fails. I always get the same answer from people," said David. "Now let me ask you this. What is a bird free to do?"
"Just about anything it wants to do, I guess," replied Tom.
"Are you sure?" David asked with a smile.
"Well, I was until you asked the question," Tom replied, chuckling.
"The truth is, a bird is only free to do one thing, and that's to do what birds are designed to do," said David. "It may look like they're flying around free to do whatever they want, but they're actually programmed to do what they have to do—hunt for food, build nests, and make baby birds. That's basically it."
"I think they're also programmed to leave their droppings all over my car," said Tom with a smile.
"Trust me," said David. "They're not picking on you. They unload on all of us once in a while. But it's nothing personal. They're just responding to nature's call, and that's an important difference between people and other animals. People can make choices—choices that may or may not be in tune with the natural order of things. And they're able to do that because of one thing—free will."
"I think I know where you're heading," said Tom. "If people don't feel free to act on their imaginations, you won't get innovation, right?"
"Sounds simple," said David. "But here's something very important about imagination and free will that a lot of people don't think about: one without the other is useless."
"Think about it, Tom," replied David. "Free will without imagination has no purpose. Imagination without free will has no power."
Tom was speechless as he reflected on what David had just said. Was that the elemental truth that he had been searching for?
"That's a powerful idea," Tom said finally after a moment of silence. "I'm struck by how something so simple can be so profound. It makes you realize just how vital it is to give people the space they need to be ... well ... people."
"It actually goes deeper than that," said David. "If you don't give people room to maneuver, if you don't give them the freedom to take initiative, you'll not only restrict their free will, you'll eventually snuff out their imagination, too. They'll hang up their brains on the coat rack when they walk into work—and they'll pick them up again when they leave at the end of the day. It's just too frustrating for people to have their imaginations churning all day if they have no place to go with the ideas they generate. So they just put their imaginations in park, and once they do, it can be mighty difficult to get them moving again. And, of course, it's their choice to do that if they want."
Tom knew exactly what David was talking about. The company had tried several times during the past couple of years to get employees more engaged in making improvements in the organization. They could see how much impact it was having in other companies. But despite their efforts, he knew that most managers in the company were only giving token acknowledgment to the value of employee ideas for improvement. He hoped David was about to tell him how to get over the hump.
"You've got my attention," said Tom. "Please tell me you're going to give me some ideas on how to break the logjam and keep people's brains engaged."
"Actually, I've got some work to do right now," said David, looking at his watch. "But if you want to come back tomorrow, I'll give you a few examples of how these ideas play out with people in the workplace."
"Sounds great," said Tom. "But can you at least give me a clue about what you mean? You've got me feeling pretty hungry."
"All right, you asked for it," said David. "I'm going to give you an assignment. When you get home tonight, I want you to watch one of your kid's Barney videos."
Tom laughed and grimaced as David continued. "You already know what to look for, right?"
"I can only imagine," replied Tom with a knowing wink. "Okay, I'll do it," he added with a feigned tone of resignation. "And by the way, thanks, David. I've really enjoyed talking with you. This is the first time in a long time that I've felt like I'm cutting through the clutter and getting a clearer idea about what may work here."
"Listen, Tom, this stuff is already in here." David tapped his temple. "It's just a matter of working through it until it all comes together. In the meantime, I'll be around for a while if you need me."
"I don't know what to say other than thank you," Tom replied earnestly, mildly curious about why David was making himself so available. "I hope I'm not taking you away from your assignment."
"My time is your time."
"I really appreciate it, David," Tom said. "This is very important to me—not just because I'd love a shot at Marie's job, but because it is important to the company. I know we really need to get the people puzzle right, and I know it's not easy. So, I'm going to go home tonight and plop down on the floor beside DJ and watch Barney." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement by Les Landes Copyright © 2012 by Les Landes. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.