Simon Terry

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The Engagement Organisation

Want to create engagement? Make engagement in a common purpose the only thing holding your company together. Let people choose to stay. People who choose to engage are always more committed. Importantly, opening that choice will keep you accountable to creating a great team and place to work.

Make People Choose

In traditional organisations, hiring is a marketing function. The difference is well summarised by an old joke that highlights the difference between the treatment of candidates and staff.  The objective is to make the job look good so that candidates will join the organisation and submit to its constraints.

Zappos is famous for its offer to pay new hires to leave. The expressed logic is that anyone who will take a small amount of money to leave is not that committed. Psychology tells us the commitment to stay is potentially more valuable to Zappos than losing a few uncommitted people. All the staff that stay chose their jobs over money and psychology tells us that we make decisions to be consistent with our earlier decisions.

Discuss purpose openly in your recruiting. Highlight the difficulties, challenges and work involved. Discuss these things more than status, money or the likelihood of success. People who choose purpose over money or status will be more engaged. Would you rather have someone who joined for the mission or the money?

How do start-ups ever have high engagement when the work is hard, the pay is poor and success unlikely? They make the choice to work in these conditions explicit. People are engaged because they sign up for hardship to be part of the extraordinary. People participate for experiences and learning not available elsewhere.

The approach is not new. This advertisement is a mock-up and the story of Shackleton’s ad may be apocryphal. However, throughout history people have been choosing to commit to purposeful work over money and comfort.

Remove Barriers

Remove the barriers to your talented people leaving the organisation.  They will value you more when they can’t see restraints.

Traditional organisations are full of all sorts of explicit to subtle restraints on employees. Non-competes, non-solicitation clauses, no-part time work, requirements other projects or other positions must be approved are just some of the explicit restrictions. The subtler forms are the design of bonus schemes, long term incentives, career paths, etc that reward those who respect the invisible handcuffs. Then there is the policy guidelines: discouragement of networking; media, speaking and communication policies; and guidelines on interactions with competitors or the community – requirements that employees remain isolated, invisible, anonymous and silent. I have even known organisations that celebrate their employees taking car leases or large mortgages because they believe that they will need to stay around for financial reasons.

Encourage people to network. Connect them with each other, your customers, your competitors and anyone who might be of help in the success of your business. Make sure they know everyone that they should know (It will help later in your succession planning). Your business will benefit as they know more. If networking alone will see them leave, then they will leave anyway in a modern networked economy.

Encourage people to share. Help your team to build reputations as leaders in your industry. They will thank you for the profile and the recognition of your contributions. They will bring back clients, amazing connections and insights from their engagements. If sharing their insights leads your team members to leave, then it is a signal that you are missing an opportunity to better use their talents.

Foster the career development of people. Make them the most attractive and best connected talent in the market. As another joke goes:

“If it is dangerous to invest in our people because they might leave, what is the danger if we don’t invest in them and they stay”
Make them the heroes and heroines of your organisation. Like Zappos, you will lose a few but your will gain far more from those who remain and understand the value you place on their development and their success. Many more will be attracted to work for you.

Let people go and you will encourage them to return. The ultimate recognition of people’s autonomy is the recognition that they are always free to leave.

Purely Engaged.

I am participating in an experiment of a pure engagement organisation at the moment with the Change Agents Worldwide network. As a network of independent agents, Change Agents Worldwide has no requirements of its members other than they commit to its purpose and they participate occasionally in the community.

Members come and go without restraint, based on their needs and their choices. There is no ability to require people to work or to do any particular thing. Everyone is independent and their choices are respected. People participate in activities because they chose to do so. The challenge for Change Agents Worldwide is to make activities attractive enough that people stay around and the work valuable enough that people collaborate to deliver it.

There is no exclusivity. When we are trying to learn more about the practices that foster the future of work, exclusivity would be counter-productive. All members do the same work under their own names or for the organisations where they work. Members participate and even lead other networks, communities and conversations on similar topics.

Still the members are the only way Change Agents Worldwide does anything. Any client consulting or other opportunities in Change Agents Worldwide are referred to members to realise together.

Because of the freedom, what the members of Change Agents Worldwide do best is that they gather in conversations, swarms and pods to work and learn together. The heart of a pure engagement organisation is collaboration for a purpose. When people choose to work together, they choose to be engaged.

Respect Choices

Most importantly, always respect the choices and the commitment of those who work with you. The sad part of all the subtle restraints in the traditional organisation is that it leads to a mindset that “we can do what we want, they can’t go anywhere”.  When you don’t respect and support the commitment of others you will surrender their support. It is little surprise that engagement is so low in organisations with all those restraints and a mechanistic view of employees.

By letting people go when their needs are not being met, you will be more accountable to create a great organisation, great team and great individual contributors. You will be forced to treat each person as an individual, to respect their goals and to focus on realising their potential. The future of work is human.


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