Jumping the duck: the merit of involving others

Writing about business, like much of business behaviour, tends to shy away from anything that we might classify as cynicism: the power of positive thinking is, perhaps, too pervasive an influence. Monty Python once sang the words “When you’re chewin’ on life’s gristle, don’t grumble give a whistle/And this’ll help things turn out for the best”, and they might not be out of place in The Company Song, if company songs were the kind of thing we still did.

Which is why I was surprised – in a refreshing sort of way – to read Jamie Duck being quoted at Jon Ingham’s Strategic HCM Blog, talking about change management and behavioural change:

By now, the troops have been through so many of these programmes that they’re sceptical.  Companies today are full of ‘change survivors’, cynical people who’ve learned how to live through change programmes without really changing at all.  The new programme is just another management fad in an endless series of management fads.”

You should read the quote – and indeed the blog post – in full to get the entire flavour, but the phrase ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ kept springing to mind. Although that cliché doesn’t quite capture it: ‘exposure breeds understanding’ might be slightly closer. The mental comparison I made was with media-awareness: the more we are exposed to advertorial articles or special offers (insert modern marketing strategies of your choice), the more transparent their sophistications become to us. Some of those yawns we all stifle from time to time aren’t just the exhaustion of living in a world where the competition for our attention is becoming wearingly intense; sometimes the yawns really are because we’ve seen it all before.

But I suspect there’s another element at play here too, and it’s about a difference in communication and engagement styles. And possibly about another perennial business topic: the difference between managing and leading. If we argue that one way of defining the latter is the difference between a) telling someone to do something in a different way and b) inspiring – or even just allowing – them to do something differently, perhaps that missing element gets illuminated a little. Maybe we increase the candlepower a little if we consider another way of expressing that difference: contrast telling someone ‘Be excited!’ with asking them ‘How could we do this differently so that you would find it inspiring?’

Part of that difference perhaps is in the space that exists between change being something broadcast at you and change being something with which you are integrally involved. As Jon Ingham himself wrote, earlier in the same blog posting:

For example, one of the best ways to retain high performers is to involve them in recruiting new employees.”

Indeed, part of me couldn’t help wanting to have the audacity to re-write Gandhi. Surely the management/leadership mantra should be “Let them be part of the change that you want to see”? If engaged employees are more committed to behavioural change and the benefits that it promises to bring, taking steps – through finding ways of actively involving them – to enhance their engagement is surely a positive way forward.

Like the Gandhi quote, the concept that change is something to be done with employees rather than to them is not ground-breaking modern news: The Ivey Business Journal, for example, published a feature article about Engaging Employees Through High-Involvement Work Practices in April 2006. Its author, Alison Konrad, makes it clear that involvement links closely with not just engagement but empowerment, and the logic should be clear – the empowered are those that (are able to) do, rather than those done unto.

And perhaps it helps to stand back a little from specific behaviours and consider human nature more generally, as a final quote – from a Changefirst paper, The importance of involvement when creating a powerful engagement process – illustrates:

In his 1990 book “Hocus Pocus”, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “People are never stronger than when they have thought up their own arguments for believing what they believe. They stand on their own two feet that way.” Somehow there is a simple human truth that people want and like to be involved in issues that affect them. Successful involvement increases ownership and the perception of control, and builds real commitment. Our challenge is to find ways to achieve this in major change.”

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