Transactional Engagement vs. Transformational Engagement

We have heard the federal government engagement refrain so many times; we can repeat it in our sleep. It goes something like this according to engagement consultants Lior Arussy and Ed Murphy.

Management says:
• Let’s do an engagement survey.
• We need hard data.
• Let’s share the data with employees; they will know what to do.
• After all, they are professionals, they can handle it.
• Our scores were bad but at least we were pretty close to similar agencies.

Employees say:
• What is in it for me?
• What will be the repercussions?
• Not again, another engagement survey?
• Why should I cooperate this time?
• What happened to the last survey?
• Why didn’t anything change from last year?

You have just read the playbook for transactional engagement in the federal government according to engagement expert David McLeod. They establish targets to be achieved by certain activities focused on engagement survey results. The primary focus is one of control through a series of aligned tasks. They create a culture of dependency by making employees feel like they are the problem.

It is obvious this 20th century transactional engagement model does not work. In the 21st century, McLeod thinks the name of game is transformational engagement where management permits their employees to find their own engagement paths by discovering purpose in their work. A transformational workplace organizes itself.

What will a transformational workplace look like?

Engagement specialist Julie Clow claims that in a transformational workplace, work will move:
• From activities to the impact of those activities.
• From a job slot to playing to your strengths.
• From focusing on everything to focusing on the right thing.
• From a place to be to a state of mind.

Engagement consultants Judith Katz and Frederick Miller point out in a transformational workplace, inclusion and shared power will reign. Work moves:
• From working with others slows me down to I do my best work with others involved.
• From everyone being in agreement on the direction of the organization to people with diverse views bring valuable perspectives to the workplace.
• From the leader leads and everyone follows to the leader who recognizes they are not the only source of power in the workplace.

Emotional intelligence guru Relly Nadler claims that in a transformational workplace, employees will transition:
• From a talking culture to a listening culture.
• From a compliance mindset to a commitment mindset.

Engagement authorities David Facer, Susan Fowler and Drea Zigarmi predict that in a transformational workplace, motivation will change:
• From a performance mentality to a competence mentality.
• From getting buy-in to asking for participation.
• From incentives motivation to meaning and rationale motivation.
• From emphasis on quantity of work to emphasis on quality of work.

Innovation advisors Sarah Calicott and Robyn Clark, foresee a transformational workplace where change is embraced:
• From focus on tasks to focus on a discovery mindset.
• From focus on implementation and execution to a focus on adaptability and flexibility.

Leadership change agent Sherry Perkins envisions a transformational workplace where managers move:
• From authoritarian leadership to participative leadership.
• From a leader based culture to a team based culture.
• From a single perspective to multiple perspectives.

Emotional intelligence guide David Corey forecasts a transformational workplace of servant leadership where leaders move:
• From dominant leadership to partnerships.
• From compliance to creativity.
• From one-way communication to dialogue.
• From hierarchy to collaboration.

Leadership professional Liz Wiseman predicts in a transformational workplace, leaders will move from diminishers to multipliers as leadership moves:
• From hoarding talent to attracting talent.
• From creating stress to creating space.
• From micromanagement to instilling ownership.

Performance expert Marla Hetzel projects a transformational workplace where leaders move from:
• Advocates to inquirers.
• Competitors to collaborative problem solvers.
• Lobbyists to evaluators.
• From spokespersons to critical thinkers.
• From defenders of positions to presenters of balanced arguments.
• From a critic of weaknesses to a discoverer of strengths.
• From one who dismisses minority views to someone who cultivates minority views.
• From winner take all leaders to collective ownership outcome sponsors.

Thought leader Rajev Peshawaria claims a transformational workplace will require fewer bosses and more leaders:
• From bosses who do not like to share authority to leaders who recruit co-leaders and share responsibility and authority.
• From bosses who are fixated on I to leaders who are fixated on We.

Mike Hyter asserts that a transformational workplace will demand a different development mindset:
• From some have it and some don’t to most people are capable.
• From favoritism and exclusion to development of all.
• From role to soul.
• From what you do to why you do it.
• From recognizing results to appreciating people for who they are.

Transformational workplaces are flatter, inclusive, transparent, innovative, empowered and engaged. Doesn’t that sound like a great organization? As a federal government employee, let’s hope we don’t have to wait until the 22nd century to experience it.

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Mark Hammer

1) Rule #1 for organizational surveys is that you don’t ask about anything you either can’t change, or have no intention of changing. One of the corollaries is that you don’t ask about something *again* if you haven’t allowed enough time for it to be addressed. Some survey questions should not be asked every year.

2) The impact and life of an employee survey, whether “engagement” or some other term, depends on the meta-model the organization intends for it to follow/adopt/serve. I distinguish between an “accountability” agenda and a “corporate intelligence” agenda.

In the former, the purpose is to identify which managers are holding up their end by achieving positive results on select indicators, and which ones are “in trouble”. In the latter, the goal is to understand the organization and its internal dynamics better. The former usually engenders shallower analysis, often on a %-positive item-by-item basis, to see who is better and worse. The latter engenders deeper analysis, and examination of what circumstances are predictive of what outcomes, irrespective of whether someone is doing better than anyone else. For the former, the lifespan of the exercise is generally pretty short: find out you’re not in trouble and you can simply forget about the exercise and move on. For the latter, the lifespan can be extended, often well past the next survey, since it is an intelligence resource that can inform future decisions, especially when supplemented with information about whatever interventions/initiatives have occurred between time 1 and time 2.

3) I adopt the view that managers do not and cannot *create* engagement. Never have, and never will. They can certainly stand in the way, or otherwise erode it, and occasionally they can work miracles and restore it after it has been damaged, but they do not create it from scratch. The employee brought all the engagement they’re ever going to have when they started. All this “transformational” stuff is management-speak for some instrumental role they are presumed to be able to have. They may have it for other things, but not when it comes to the engagement file.

4) I find that a lot of the discourse about engagement is often minimally cogniscent about how human behaviour works. I like to describe engagement as consisting of two perspectives. From the manager/employer’s perspective, it is “merit maintenance”. That is, as an employee you’re still delivering the goods in precisely the way I inferred/predicted/hoped you would when I hired you, based on the signs and omens I looked for. How anyone could be *more* enthusiastic than when they started the job is beyond me.

From the employee’s perspective, such maintenance of merit is contingent on the perception of “justified effort”. That is, the answer to the daily question “Why bother?”. I think a Skinnerian interpretation is quite appropos, but it involves more than mere reward. The perception of justified effort is something based on the overall “truth value” of the landscape the employee encounters. That is, individual actions intended to reward may be congruent with what the employee regards as true overall…but they may not be.

Certainly part of what allows for a check-mark in the “true” box is a congruence between what the employee *thought* they were being hired to do, and what they end up being asked to do. You can reward and award them up the wazoo, but if it doesn’t seem like they are being valued for what they thought they would be valued for, they lose motivation pretty fast. There is much to be said for role clarity, and assigning tasks to people based on their strengths.

The justification of effort doesn’t come only from external rewards and acknowledgement. Even where motivation is provided by intrinsic reward, people can get easily burnt out when they feel like they are not making nearly enough, or indeed any, progress in a personally valued area or challenge. If 5 years later, the social problems you were hoping to put a dent in remain unaffected, then what’s the point in trying, right? The perceived impact on one’s efforts is important in keeping them going.

One of the added dimensions in the public sector is that we are subject to changes in political administration and objectives, and senior appointees. When whatever was front and center on Friday afternoon becomes back-burner on Monday morning when the new folks in charge come in – especially if what stopped being important on Friday had a long time-arc and still wasn’t completed – it can be hard to remain engaged. After all, it fit isn’t necessarily going anywhere, or likely to complete its journey, even IF I have framed awards handed to me, when I wasn’t able to accomplish anything of value…why bother? How can I find tasks compelling if even the stuff I was told was critical was abandoned by those above me?

The role that the manager can play is in ensuring that the expectations of the employee are met, that they are utilized in a manner that makes them feel valued and plays to their strengths, and that they are rewarded and acknowledged for the things they thought they would be valued for when hired. The manager can make sure the human and material resources are there to get things accomplished, make sure all directions and goals are *clearly* conveyed so that people can work independently and not have to go back to the drawing board because the mission wasn’t clearly conveyed. They can help that by demanding clear and comprehensible directives from those above them. They can also fight for the employee, rather than yield to things that will undermine the employee’s sense of justified effort.

If the employee can feel like there is a point and purpose to delivering on all the strengths and added value they thought they were bringing to the organization, they’ll come to work with a smile. If there is no justification for being the person you thought you were hiring, they’ll work to rule.

It’s that simple. No transformation required.