Engaging a nation: lessons from the Rugby World Cup

In 2005, when New Zealand won hosting rights for the 2011 Rugby World Cup the negotiators had promised the event would be supported by a stadium of 4½  million – New Zealand’s population. They were confident – rugby is embedded into New Zealand culture and for many New Zealanders it is an integral part of who we are. The All Blacks are established as a strong rugby brand, both domestically and internationally.

Economically, New Zealand is marginal as a host country as the population doesn’t support large stadia and the New Zealand Rugby Union is facing a significant financial loss.

image credit: Daily Mail, U.K.

But the World Cup has been a massive success because of the engagement of the nation. In the days leading up to the tournament’s opening flash mob haka happened around New Zealand and other parts of the world. And here’s cell phone video of “flash waiata” as a group of young men make their way to the Fan Zone. The opening ceremony was stunning. For me, even more impressive was the co-ordination of fireworks, container cranes, an orchestra, pipe band, singers and musicians at multiple locations around the Auckland waterfront in a stunning follow up to the opening ceremony. The lyrics of the song “All lit up”, (7.50 minutes into the opening ceremony video) delivered by a choir at the top of a high rise, accompanied by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, speaks to me of a cultural shift in our nation:

I used to try not to stand out.
I used to try not to talk too loud.
Now every one can see
What’s come over me
I’m all lit up…

And fans turned out to neutral games in cities around the country and adopted teams to support.

Working together

The success of the tournament is based on the effective collaboration of a multitude of partners, including the International Rugby Board, the national and local rugby boards, national and local government, and many others. The organisers have forged a network of collaborators and created a range of events to support the tournament. The synergy between the core rugby events and a diverse range of other events throughout the country helped to build excitement, energy and a sense of connection. The Real New Zealand Festival, co-ordinated events throughout the country.

Visitors to the country have been fulsome in their praise of the event and the hospitality experienced in New Zealand.

Lessons for business

From an engagement perspective, what lessons can we learn?

1. Create the story

Rugby is part of the DNA of our nation. The story was already there to be told. We won the inaugural World Cup in 1987, but despite being usually ranked number one in the world, we were unable to secure another win. Stories create meaning. Our impending win is not just about winning a sports tournament – it’s about national redemption. While that might appear a little melodramatic, the lesson for business is that the story generates meaning and motivation. The best businesses engage the hearts of their employees in support of a mission they get to own themselves.

2. Draw on pride

We are a small nation, but we are great at rugby. Three of the four semi-final head coaches are kiwis. Our pride is embedded in the results of the games and also in the quality of our organisation of the tournament and our hospitality. Excessive pride begets arrogance, but moderate doses of pride engage the hearts in a positive manner.

3. Create a stage to draw the diverse together

From an historical perspective, rugby has been a venue for cultural engagement. Rugby provided a cultural space for the two founding cultures of the modern New Zealand nation, Mäori and Pakeha (Europeans, mostly British) to literally rub shoulders and play together. Later arrivals from the Pacific Islands have also been integrated into the game. During decades of the downside of colonisation and assimilation, rugby has continued to provide a space for Mäori culture, with the iconic haka, the bilingual expression of our national anthem and, in this tournament, the diverse expressions of Mäori culture in events and ceremonies.

The integration of rugby and other events throughout the country has juxtaposed sports events with diverse events featuring food, drama, fashion, hunting, music and many others.

Contrast this with the perennial business problem of departmental silos. I don’t want to elaborate with examples, but the challenge is to create the stage, or create spaces for engagement with both internal and external stakeholders.

4. Ride the waves of culture change

Culture builds over time. But it isn’t a steady incline. Events provide surges of cultural influence. The combination of the success of this tournament, the quality of events, especially the opening ceremony and our inevitable victory on Sunday night instils a sense of self-belief and optimism. While we need to be realistic, at the same time, if we ride this cultural wave we can make some gains as a nation. The stories of the cup victory will become part of our cultural fabric.

Wise leaders will recognise the waves of cultural change, highlight them and celebrate them.

5. Learn from a great team

This is possibly the greatest All Black team. After our untimely exit from the previous world cup, the services of the much-maligned coaching team were retained for another four years. They appear to have produced a team environment that is supportive, but also stretches individual capabilities. There is a tangible sense of camaraderie and players ably support one another on the field. They have countered criticisms of the past by being able to change tactics on the field, with evidence of a high degree of cohesiveness between the players.

Go the mighty All Blacks.

image credit: nzbrtours.com


Staff engagement and the failure of HR

The Human Resource (HR) function has a fatal flaw in its very conception. It is a flaw that limits the ability of HR to foster better staff engagement. It is the inherently schizophrenic nature of the role – in that it has two typically contradictory functions, controlling the employment contract on the one hand, and developing the organisation and its staff on the other. These two functions sit on the shoulders of the executive like the good and evil angel, whispering contradictory messages. Keith Hammond of Fast Company is even harsher in his judgement:

The human-resources trade long ago proved itself, at best, a necessary evil – and at worst, a dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules, resists creativity, and impedes constructive change. HR is the corporate function with the greatest potential – the key driver, in theory, of business performance – and also the one that most consistently underdelivers.

The contract role

The dominant HR role in many organisations is the contract role – hiring staff, determining remuneration, and providing the structures for performance management, promotion and rewards. As employees typically represent the greatest expense in organisations, the HR function is focussed on controlling and reducing that expense. This focus engenders a litigious and adversarial mindset. Contracts are nailed down and policy and procedures proliferate. The HR function is the natural adversary for unions, and these two, often get locked into mutually destructive behaviours, as eloquently described by Peter Drucker:

Management and union may be likened to that serpent of the fables who on one body had two heads that fighting each other with poisoned fangs, killed themselves. (Peter Drucker).

I believe this has a broader impact on many organisations in fostering a “theory x” approach to management – perceiving staff as unmotivated and needing to be coerced to perform.

“All the world’s a stage…”

It is not the people themselves. The HR people I know are great people. I am sure they are nice to their children and pets, but in the organisational context, they, like most of us, become, in a Shakespearian sense, actors walking on to a stage. The stage is set, the lines prepared and action roles on from scene to scene. Over time, the financial focus that HR people become fixated on shapes their worldview. Tom Peters suggests HR are “mechanics rather than visionaries”.

Even the name is a problem. A resource is something you store until it is time to use it – like firewood in a shed. In this video Stephen Covey points out, that on balance sheets, people are represented as an expense, while machines are an investment. He calls this the paradigm of the industrial model.

HR and employee engagement

If you access an annual report, or a sustainability report, chances are, that the main strategy for employee engagement is an engagement survey. Look to see if you can find anything behind it. More often that not, in my experience, there is nothing substantial to find.

We know that surveys such as the Gallup poll reveal low levels of engagement worldwide. What would be an effective level of engagement? What percentage of staff would need to be engaged to contribute to high levels of intrinsic motivation and performance?

To improve, we have to learn from those rare companies that exemplify great engagement.

The way forward

Incrementalism won’t do. I believe we need a rethink of the structure of organisations. As outlined in an earlier post, engagement needs be a core organisational capability.  By organising into three main functions, engagement, production and support, organisations are better equipped to engage with stakeholders. The engagement role can include HR, marketing, customer service and communications. Bundling them together, and heading them with an engagement champion will help to balance the contractual and developmental functions of HR.

I would love to know who, in your opinion, are exemplars of employee engagement.

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?

Building capacity for employee engagement

The great thing about building engagement capability is the broad range of benefits. Engagement reshapes the nature of the relationship the organisation has with its stakeholders, be they customers, suppliers, owners, employees or the community. Reshaping the relationship with employees appears to have significant potential.

It doesn’t take long to find a damming array of reports revealing that, in most cases, employee engagement is woeful. Without labouring the point, here are some examples:

Employee engagement by region, from the
2011 BlessingWhite Employee Engagement Report 

The good news is that there appears plenty of scope to improve engagement. The even better news is, that the capabilities required to improve engagement with employees will be beneficial in other stakeholder relationships.

I may be biased, but engagement capability needs to be at the epicentre of organisational development.

Think of it this way; What action would you take if only a third of your vehicle fleet operated reliably, or your core systems rarely achieved their potential? I am sure you would focus your attention on it. So why is it that many organisations are unable to more fully engage their employees?

Engagement capabilities

Some organisations survey employees to learn more about engagement, but these surveys can actually further erode engagement if employees perceive that there is no follow up. Further analysis is probably not useful. Fortunately, the essence of engagement is in one-to-one relationships between people, and therefore capability for engagement can only be enhanced when individuals work on their engagement skills and develop those aspects of character that support engagement. These include integrity and trust. The Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann UK Survey found a clear deficit of these qualities where there was poor engagement.

The engagement spiral

The popular TV series ‘Undercover Boss” week after week demonstrates what happens when company leaders take time to get to know their employees. Typically their employees respond strongly when their boss acknowledges the effort they invest in the company. And as they get to know something of the private lives of their employees, empathy increases.

Of course organisational leaders do not have the time to engage with all employees, but all employees should have the opportunity to engage with someone with a leadership role. A sense of belonging and connection with the wider social group, including its leaders, is a fundamental human drive.

Developing engagement capability

The skills of engagement are simply communication skills, including listening, acknowledging and empathy. These are supported by qualities of character such as integrity and trust. Formally, these skills can be fostered in organisational development programmes in communication, leadership, change and organisational learning. And given the critical role that engagement has in 21st century organisations, they must be regarded as core skills for performance management purposes.

In earlier series of posts I identified engagement as one segment of the communication spectrum. Understanding the distinctive nature of engagement helps us to be more discerning about how we communicate, and helps us aspire to higher expressions of communication.

The tools needed to improve engagement are simple and close at hand. There are no quick fixes – the journey to improving engagement requires constant vigilance, but the returns promise to be significant.  Understanding the communication spectrum is a good place to start.