There’s been seismic shift in the dynamics driving today’s most successful organisations that is being led by HR practitioners using the technology of our highly networked age. It’s the shift from management by engagement to leadership by involvement, a move that is changing the way we think about everything from the war for talent, to how we build organisational culture.
Management by engagement is all about creating a culture where your staff are happy to be instructed what to do. In this old way of working, managers are solely responsible for issuing the orders that improve organisational performance.
Leadership by involvement is about creating cultures where team members work out what’s the best thing to do next without needing to be told. In organisational cultures like this, leaders create an environment where every worker feels empowered to make the decisions that will improve performance. These are the types of organisation that today’s best talent seeks out.
The risk of not creating an empowering culture of involvement is a living staff retention nightmare. The best people in today’s workplace will leave if they are not allowed to develop a sense of ownership around their job, to have some level of autonomy over their own actions and a genuine say in the running of the business.
The greatest symptom of the shift from engagement to involvement is the increasing replacement of annual employee engagement surveys with a new technology-enabled approaches to involving employees in running an organisation.
One of these is a New Zealand developed system AskYourTeam, which calls itself Continuous Involvement System. It aims to provide leaders with a continuous stream of insights into how to improve performance from the team members on the frontline doing the work.
In the AskYourTeam survey, employees rate the organisation's performance in 64 specific areas. Employee responses are anonymous, which encourages honesty and produces responses that workers would be reluctant to deliver to their bosses face-to-face. The result is a rich source of insights for an organisation's leadership team that tells them not only how engaged their teams are, but also where leaders need to put their energy most urgently, and what they need to do to lift the organisation's performance.
Using the insights generated by AskYourTeam, leaders can formulate specific action plans that pinpoint action most effectively to improve performance of the organisation. The system captures ideas from people all over the organisation and ensures all ideas are treated on merit because they are anonymous. This contributes genuine diversity of thought to decision making in the organisation and removes as far as possible, any unconscious bias.
AskYourTeam CEO, Chris O’Reilly, says that the contrast to a traditional engagement survey is stark. He uses medical analogies to make his point.
“An engagement survey is like a thermometer. It takes an organisation’s temperature, it tells you if everything’s OK or if something’s wrong. But it doesn’t help with telling you why it’s wrong.
“Continuous Involvement systems like AskYourTeam are more like an MRI scan that give a constant read on the performance of the organisation and show where an organisation's leaders should direct their energy to have the greatest impact on performance,” he says.
O’Reilly says the Continuous Involvement philosophy evolved out of employee engagement systems, and reflects broader shifts in workplace relationships that has seen empowerment become a primary purpose of workplace leadership over the past decade.
“It’s evolving from asking people how they feel to asking them what they think,” he says.
Yet many organisations continue to use the annual engagement survey. In some cases this is due to senior management contracts that include engagement survey KPIs. In others it’s because conventional wisdom holds that engagement drives performance - a workforce that scores higher on the engagement survey will outperform a lower performing workforce.
But even this one ironclad rule is being questioned today. Thinkers such as KPMG’s London-based partner Robert Bolton are producing studies that flip conventional wisdom on its head, suggesting that it may well be the ability to perform within an organisational culture that drives high levels of employee engagement. A chicken or egg argument like this is probably never able to be definitively resolved. What it does suggest though, is that perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions.
Most leading international thinkers agree, discussions about engagement should be replaced with discussions about organisational culture. Deloitte USA’s HR futurologist Josh Bersin says the language of the engagement survey industry has held back HR professionals for too long.
“I would suggest that using the word ‘engagement’ often limits our thinking. It's assumes that our job is to reach out and ‘engage’ people, rather than to build an organisation that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and fun,” he says.
KPMG’s Bolton goes even further - suggesting that it’s time we shifted the focus of HR away from individuals and dispensed with the prevailing notion that high performing organisations are built around “rock star employees”. According to Bolton, individuals will mean increasingly less than culture in the future.
“There is no such thing as ‘talented’ individuals in the workforce of the future. It’s actually about talented organisations and talent ecosystems.”
It’s a thought perhaps most persuasively articulated by Harvard Business School leadership guru Linda Hill. She says business leadership is no longer about the visionary guru leading the charge. Hill describes the greatest business leaders of today as “social architects”. They don’t dictate orders, they build organisations that are collaborative places, where everyone feels empowered to participate in running the business. As Linda Hill puts it, today’s great leader sees their primary role as “building the stage, not necessarily performing on it”.
When the leader is able to unleash the power of the many, he or she creates what Hill calls “collective genius” – and that’s when organisations become truly innovative and can achieve their peak performance.
In many ways, leadership by involvement is a direct reflection of the era in which we live. We are undeniably highly networked and social media has created the expectation among most of us that we have to right to like, dislike and provide a rating on just about everything we encounter in our lives. The most involving work cultures learn from this and use technology like Ask Your Team to create rich cultures of deep involvement.
Linda Hill says leadership in the future will be about building a stage. That’s something every HR practitioner should take note of. In an era when workplace cultures will be increasingly dictated by HR technology like Ask Your Team, perhaps it’s time for HR to take on the starring role?
*Original article: Employment Today, issue 214.
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