Staff engagement – more evidence

The evidence for the vital role of staff engagement continues to mount. The July/August 2011 Harvard Business Review includes a series of articles on collaboration. Yochai Benkler’s article The Unselfish Gene explores the fundamentals of human nature, challenging concepts of rational self-interest promulgated for so long. Scientists, psychologists and economists are now stating that people are less selfish than previously assumed. There is also “neural and, possibly genetic evidence of a human predisposition to co-operate”.

These findings support Jeremy Rifkin’s vision of an empathic civilisation, based on our inherent capacity to empathise. Jeremy Rifkin asserts:

We have to rethink the human narrative…If we are truly Homo empathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature, …if it is repressed by our parenting, our educational system our business practice and government, the secondary drives come, the narcissism, the materialism, the violence, the aggression.

Benkler’s HBR article presents the command and control systems that still dominate the business landscape as an emanation of the assumption of dominant self-interest. As our inherent collaborative nature is fostered, organisations will benefit from building cooperative systems encouraging communication and, “fostering empathy and solidarity”.

Other articles in the issue emphasise:

  • the need for collaborative leadership
  • create space for collaboration
  • building community
  • creating a culture of trust and teamwork.

Déjà vu?

While the biological basis of our empathy and cooperative nature have only been determined over the last decade, much of what is written will be familiar to those who have studied business. It’s over 50 years ago now that Douglas McGregor articulated theory x and theory y in his book The Human Side of Enterprise. There is a tidy correlation between the theory x position that people are inherently lazy and need to be coerced to work, and the assumption of people driven by self-interested. And the theory y position – that people can enjoy work and are intrinsically motivated aligns with the assumption that people are wired for cooperation and empathy, and want to belong.

So why, after 50 years does command and control remain the default management practice? I suspect it is because these practices have dominated human relations for millenia – such patterns of behaviour will not atrophy easily.  Jeremy Rifkin’s insightful observation that the secondary drives will dominate, reinforces the need to rehabilitate our social institutions and allow our inherent cooperative, empathetic nature to emerge.

Among the business writers to champion our higher nature is Stephen Covey. In this video, he traces human history and the legacy of command and control.

Engagement emerges as an essential pre-requisite to build the relationships that embed cultures of trust and teamwork. Engagement practices are generic, enabling them to be used for the full range of stakeholders, internal and external, that businesses need to co-create their futures with. Yochai Benkler, in his HBR article provides at once pragmatic and aspirational “levers” to achieve this:

“encouraging communication, ensuring authentic framing, fostering empathy and solidarity, guaranteeing fairness and morality, using rewards and punishments that appeal to intrinsic motivations, relying on reputation and reciprocity, and ensuring flexibility”

What do you think?

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