Retrofitting Relationships at Work

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The amazing thing about the social sciences is how we find things to research and extrapolate 5-point rules from, for living better and more successful lives and make lots of money in the process.

Firstly there’s the leadership industry.   Leadership has become so complex there are thousands of writers making money off book sales on the secret formulae for becoming a successful leader. Clearly we are able to sell more books and training programmes if we uphold the notion that leadership is not genetic and can be learnt. I don’t disagree with that: certainly there are improvements to be made in the ways in which we think and communicate and how we take action on things we consider to be important, and those are skills that can be learnt. We aren’t all equally equipped to visualise or to inspire though.   Some talents simply are inherent.

Then there’s employee engagement: The writers on this topic are not quite as prolific, and I’ve certainly done my own share of questionnaire design, data analysis and formula formulation; and read too many articles on why engagement is so low, in which categories of employees.

It has become a fundamental principle (a principle from which other truths can be derived) that engaged employees do take care of your customers, bring in hard cash, and uphold the highest quality standards you can afford. There is a great deal of overlap in what are deemed to be the best questions to get the best answers, but it has not made much of a difference: the number of ‘engaged employees’ seems to stick at 30% according to various studies spanning at least a decade.

I have at least one former colleague who believes that we’re not placing sufficient importance on fear as a motivator. Someone terrified out of his/her mind of the boss/losing the only remaining job in the community/ having the house and car repo’d, having their spouse leave them and their children growing up in a trailer park may be so deeply engaged in their survival that they would go an extra six miles, rather than the standard one. By contrast, so he argues, someone who is so well cared for – lovely ergonomically appropriate workspace, scope for innovation in the job, good pay and benefits, nice people to work with, clarity regarding the employer’s long term vision and strategic goals, tends to settle into a comfort zone that removes the adrenalin and other anxiety-responsive hormones from the picture. Such a person toes the line; works nicely within the box; hides their boredom at the mandatory social events and lies on the employee engagement surveys.

There may be some validity to this latter point, but it certainly does not fit with the ‘better world’ philosophy that underpins positive psychology and post-modern approaches to management.   My own experience is that I am innovative and exceptionally focused when I face a problem of significance and feel under threat in some way. I used to think that I am more strongly moved by my fear of social embarrassment and impecunity than by opportunity and a general positive and supportive work environment. However, I spend more and more time thinking about human evolution and wondering how we can move forward as a species, rather than being driven, always, by our reptile brain.

It seems to me that it is quite OK to acknowledge that the amygdala provides us with instincts that have been honed for our survival over millions of years of evolution, and to say ‘there’s got to be a way in which I can step out of my reptilian responses and become a better, nicer and more constructive human being’. It seems to me we are on a species quest to be better than we’ve been. It is an upward battle because we’re so mentally and culturally (if not genetically) diverse.   War and destruction, fight or flight still seems to be a preferred option, particularly if you have the jobs and armaments production capacity to maintain, or a new take on foisting an old ideology on others.

Then, the lightbulb went on: it is all about the struggle between our prefrontal cortex: our ‘modern’ brain vs. our ‘primitive’ one.   Instead of bemoaning the primitive nature of the amygdala and its propensity to propel us into fight or flight, we should perhaps be bemoaning the propensity that our prefrontal lobes have to lead us into greater and greater abstraction and complexity.

Folks, we’re OVERTHINKING this stuff. The engagement of employees is not a formula or a standard. It is a process that starts from a first introduction, to finding areas of common interest, discovering qualities that we like, sharing information, building trust, and finding things to do together. It’s a process that continues. It is a process that can be broken, through distance, time, breach of trust.   And, as for ‘leadership’: To me, the only difference is that one person would be more of a leader than the next because they have an inherent leadership quality: initiative. They do not wait to be told, encouraged, recognised, or rewarded. They do not like going it alone. So a leader provides the first burst of energy and vision that breaks the inertia we are all so prone to; and then the rest of us engage, because we’re in real relationships with real people – ‘leaders’ and ’employees’.

We’ll keep getting it wrong for as long as we think there is some kind of Rosetta Stone that has these things encoded. We’ll start getting it right when we allow our instincts to tell us whether or not to trust someone, whether we like them or not. And, if we find there are people in the organisation we work for whom we like and trust, guess what happens next?

We get engaged.

And then things start happening.


© Delphine du Toit August 2014

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