Research regularly finds that people are unhappy at work – just 13% are engaged. (See, for example, ‘How to work with someone who is disengaged’ Harvard Business Review: March 2020). Surely everyone is tired of these depressing statistics and tired of seeing the same old solutions dragged out.
So, here’s a different approach to solving the problem of employee engagement. It’s worth thinking about - as it’s grounded in biology.
Let’s start with two really odd questions:
Who has ever seen an unhappy dolphin going about its business - sullen and bored and quiet and sad?
Given that humans are unhappy at work, why are dolphins always so incredibly happy at their work?
Dolphins are bouncy and smiley and full of energy and fun. Who wouldn’t want a few dolphins in their team? You could even take them home to play with the kids. They would love it. Perhaps the answer to increased employee engagement is to give everyone a ball to balance on their nose.
And dolphins are interesting creatures. Like humans, dolphins have individual personalities.
In an article ‘Yes, dolphins have personalities and personality is more important than looks,’ Dr.Bruno Lopez describes how dolphins are either bold or shy, extrovert or introvert. Bold dolphins have better feeding opportunities and greater mating success. Bold dolphins are curious when they see new objects. Shy dolphins are cautious. (CetusGeo magazine, Spain: April 2020).
Every dolphin is unique. It should even be possible to put together a team of diverse dolphins.
What about humans?
Well, diversity of background, experience and personality is, of course, a hot topic. Take a mix of males and females and older and younger people and so forth and performance will improve.
‘Striving to increase workplace diversity is not an empty slogan – it’s a good business decision. A report by McKinsey showed that those companies in the top quartile for diversity were more likely to have financial returns above their industry norm. (‘Why Diverse Teams are Smarter’ Harvard Business Review: November 2016).
The detail needs thinking through though: all males have different personalities as do all females: older people aren’t all the same nor are younger people. So, it’s possible to have a mix of individuals from each group and still not have a diverse team at all ( ‘On Diversity’ Jordan Peterson: YouTube ).
But, putting this aside – and assuming a diverse workforce has been recruited, bringing with them their unique backgrounds, experiences and personalities – what do companies do?
They do everything possible to remove the very thing about people that brings the diversity – their uniqueness.
They do this by introducing people policies designed to:
Achieve uniform cultures
Cascade goals from the top - because everyone has to be aligned
Produce career frameworks - so everyone develops in the same way
Define how each employee has to do their job so they all do it the same - in terms of competencies and behaviors, measuring where each individual is now so the gaps can be plugged and all the team move to the same levels.
Companies talk about innovation and agility and entrepreneurship and then do everything they can to restrict people’s ability to act in these ways. Everywhere you look, people policies designed to create homogeneity - designed to reduce diversity - designed to remove everything that is precious and powerful about an individual - namely their uniqueness.
We have built all of our people systems around the assumption that human uniqueness is a bug to be fixed, not a feature to be maximized. Companies do this because they see uniqueness as inefficient or uncontrolled. ( ‘9 Lies About Work’ Marcus Buckingham).
There can’t be a company in the land who hasn’t defined what it takes to be a leader. The assumption is that leadership is definable in advance, as a list of qualities and traits that all good leaders should have.
But every leader achieves success in their own way – look around in your own company. No leader exhibits all the qualities required and, even if two have strengths in a certain area, they’ll be doing things in truly different ways.
Everything about an employee is unique – interests, aspirations, abilities, what motivates them – they’re far better playing to their strengths and interests than being assigned to categories and boxes.
Have you built learning and development approaches on the core assumption that each individual is unique?
Have the jobs and projects in your company been designed to play to peoples strengths and interests?
Have you built teams where each person’s uniqueness compliments their colleague’s to build high performing teams?
Have you designed your people policies, not around the premise that ‘one size fits all,’ but ‘one size fits one.’
It’s by thinking in these ways and taking action that employee engagement is increased.
Perhaps the reason dolphins are happy at their work is that they haven’t been subjected to uniform cultures or aligned objective or career management frameworks or competency models - they just get on being themselves - enjoying their uniqueness.
One final point, the leadership traits needed to be successful have recently been defined. In an article in ‘Forbes’ magazine ‘Leading With Humanity: Six Traits For Successful Leadership’(8th September 2020), they are identified as: courage, clear vision, creative thinking, communication, collaboration and calm resilience.
Take two of these and have a look at this short video of one of England’s most successful soccer managers; a true titan of leadership.
Would you say he exhibits the following qualities that are taken from the article?
Communication (‘transparency and clarity are key when communicating in a high stress situation’).
Calm resilience (‘be mindful of the emotional health of the people around you. Show you care and offer relevant support to help alleviate their stress.’).