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A while ago I posted my views on Employee Engagement. Since this has become an industry in its own right, and is taking over a lot of air time, I want to ‘elevate the confusion to a higher level’. Not really! But I think we all in the Human Capital business should put our cards on the table. A bit risky, though. Some truths may make us uncomfortable. Hope that many friends will still be friends after these mini series starting today. We have so many Emperors With No Clothes who may catch a cold!

Let me launch today the six frameworks that are around, one way or another, competing with each other. These are the six models that stand up form my research and consulting practice.

1. ‘Air time’: This is a ‘voice model’. Employees are told, also listened to. A dialogue is supposed to be established. What ‘they’ say counts. Management listens to ‘them’. Surveys and rankings dominate this model. The measurement tools tend to take over the narrative. ‘Employee voice’ acquires a jargon of its own. ‘Giving voice’ seems to be the aim, more than what to do with that voice. It all looks like surveys and Town Halls.

2. ‘Happy Cows’. I did not invent the term! There is a book with this title. ‘Happy cows (employees) deliver better mil (productivity)’ This is a machine model. Provide good input, you’ll get a good output. Employee Happiness and satisfaction deliver better… results. The machine is oiled with good working conditions and rewards. Cows are happy, milk is good. The whole employee satisfaction and ‘happiness industry’ sits here. This is input/output model. Narrative such as ‘the extra mile’ and ‘discretional effort’ sit here.

3. ‘Cause’. Employees are engaged within the company on noble causes that the company either has or adopts. It’s often a ‘NGO inside’ model. People’s engagement provides meaning, sense of worth and a glue. And this is good for everybody. Bring green and sustainability stuff inside, engage the employees and, alas!, you’ll have ‘employee engagement’. Entire NGO business are sponsored by Big Consultancies and Big Companies as a way to ‘bring the cause inside’ and provide an ‘engagement glue’ for employees. It’s a lucrative business

4. ‘The Investors metaphor’. In this model, the employee is an investor of his/her own human capital. At year end, there is either good or bad investment! HR people and management are ‘Human Capital Investment Fund Managers’. This is an underestimated model. It gives power to the employee, as ‘investor’. This model had a timid attempt a few years ago and then it lost steam. A bit of a revolutionary gem in waiting. But the waiting is longer than one may have expected years ago. It tells us that ‘employee power’ is still low.

5. ‘Moral Drive’. Employee engagement is… because it’s morally good, regardless. It has to do with human dignity and the power of work as enhancement of the individual. Don’t look in the MBA manual, but in the Catholic Social Teaching documents, for example, for inspiration. Not many people will identify this as a model of any kind. After all, some people may say, organisations and business are ‘amoral’. Darwinian capitalism has a bit of a lough with this model. Moral what?

6. ‘Activism’. Employees take charge in a progressive, self-managed way. They are active in a peer-to-peer environment. They are engaged with the company not just within the company. Doing is greater than talking or advocating. Activists do. There is an ‘act’ in the word. They figure out what to do and how. They do. Leadership gains control by loosing control. This model states that ‘the ultimate goal of employee engagement’ is self-management. This concept of ‘activism’ has little to do with the one used by the consultancy Weber Shandwick (Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism) which proposes to convert the employees into ‘Brand Advocates.

First port of reflection: where are you on this? Which one(s) represent your organization? It’s bound to be a mixture, but, can you recognised the models?

Next: Giving employees voice. So, now we have a choir. And then what?

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  1. Morag McGil

    Interesting as always Leandro and we do need to go beyond all the hype. What do you think about the model Homman and Co propose in The Alliance? Somwehere between Investor and Activist? I like it for the “Tours of Duty” concept (unhappy expression but great paradigm) and the accent on the reciprocality of the relationship. Morag

    • Leandro Herrero

      Hi Morag. I’m reading this stuff right now. There are many good things. I am not 100% about the Tours of Duty but there is value in establishing rules of the game. Organizational models are fascinating. Business should look outside more. More to come

  2. Deborah Hinton

    Thanks for this great overview Leandro. I see these models, or most of them, in virtually every organization I’ve ever worked in. All of them are based on the assumption that:
    – left to their own devises employees will not be adequately involved in the business.
    – adequate – as in meeting the job requirements – isn’t good enough.
    – at some level all employees in an organization are the same.

    All of these models are:
    – adopted on top of existing, often broken, systems?
    – some form of manipulation of employees [BTW – most managers are also employees, so it’s being done unto them as well]. Manipulation is never the basis for a good relationship.

    So, as you say Leandro whole industries have been built on employee engagement. Why? Are we seeing a general improvement in how effective our organizations are? What is it that we are really trying to do? How do we create environments that support employees in doing their best work? And if we’re not, why do we think these engagement models are the answer?

    • Leandro Herrero

      Deborah. We need people like you with relentless pursue of the good things in the orgaqnization to keep asking the right questions. One of these days we will get together and we will start a bit of revolution. Promise! 😉 🙂

      • Deborah Hinton

        I’m in Leandro. It’s time. Now for a first conspiratorial step.

      • Deborah Hinton

        Oh and blushing. Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. Jennifer Leake

    Leandro – Do they REALLY call employees “Happy Cows” – Yikes! With all the talk of engagement and the use of surveys, little progress seems to be made on this. As I read your 6 models, I can see why that is so. Getting employees to come to work each day with a desire and willingness to give 100% is an internal motivation, while most of the models seem to stress external motivation.

    As an Employee Engagement Champion, I strive to help companies hire people for job fit, build teams that work well together, and develop leaders (especially direct supervisors) who value their employees, and know how to offer feedback and career direction and help employees understand their role and how to do it. Hence, my mission: “Be an organization where people love what they do, enjoy who they work with, and respect who they work for.”

    Looking forward to more of your information.

  4. Deborah Hinton

    For some reason my thanks for the encouragement message didn’t get through, so thanks Leandro… Now to read Debunking [2]!

  5. Ivana Moretti

    Agree that there are a lot of naked emperors out there, but what are your ‘revolutionary’ alternatives – am dying to know!
    There’s another very basic reason why “happy cows” is the most stupid metaphor ever. Happy cows don’t give more milk they give less. Because happy cows make just enough milk to feed their own young, not another species that relentlessly keeps them pregnant, takes away their offspring to turn into veal and pumps them full of drugs to increase their milk production. The world is mad.

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