Engagement and the Locus of Control.

Businessman dangling on threadsCustomer engagement and employee engagement have become industries in their own right. They have spawned consultancies, reports, surveys and methodologies.

I’d hate to spoil that, but I’m going to suggest that at the heart of engagement is a really simple construct, one we can do something about, but which may prove a challenge for many.

It’s about the “locus of control”. It’s the extent to which people believe they have power over events in their lives. A person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes, while someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything.

Many of the things we do as organizations to achieve efficiency encourages those to whom they are applied an external locus of control. Levels of authority, permissions, fixed processes. In a previous blog I mentioned the five neural domains of engagement (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) and when you think about it, many systems designed to improve consistency and control put significant dents in these.

An internal locus of control on the other hand can enable extraordinary performance, and is at the heart of high performance organizations – the Toyota Production System, W.L. Gore, Special Forces teams. All of these effectively reverse the control process and puts authority in the hands of whoever is closest to the action. It features in those domains where uncertainty is at maximum – war at one end (no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy) and evolution (natural selection favours the most adaptable)

Relying on “programmes” to improve engagement is a bit like trying to learn to ride a bike by reading a book. Engagement if a contact sport, and visceral.

We are in a period of chronic uncertainty. If your systems rely on direction, compliance and control, rather than trust and delegated authority, not only will your engagement suffer, you’re probably in for a very rough ride.

The answer (almost certainly not the only one, but the best one I’ve encountered) is to adopt agile approaches – to strategy, development and operations. Focus on getting the right people, be clear about where you want to get to (far more than telling them how to get there) and support them to do what they need to do.

It can be a challenge for many of us brought up in a different era, but one we have to learn if we don’t want to fall prey to natural selection.

Engagement – the power of the other

shadowWe have become accustomed to thinking about “engagement” in terms of numbers and formulas. We are told that only 20% or so of employees are “positively engaged” and that around the same number are “actively disengaged”. (I guess the remainder just turn up). These statistics are useful, but I find them “cold”. I can graph them, but not feel them. Engagement is a visceral subject – it’s all about how we feel.

In his book, “The power of the other” Henry Cloud takes a long and deep look at the effect other people have on us – on our health, the way we think, and the way we perform. I can’t think of a much better definition of engagement.

He identifies four types of relationship, and the impact they have. I think we can look at them at both a human, and a technology level. He talks of four “Corners”

Corner 1 is where we don’t really engage at all. We keep others at arm’s length for a variety of reasons, from fear, or uncertainty, or sometimes just because we can’t be bothered. It’s isolating, and we don’t learn much. It enables us to exist in our own little bubble, and see the world the way it suits us. At a human level, we’ve all experienced this type of customer service, or relationship at work. At a technology level, it’s the “ All our operators are very busy at the moment. Your call is very important to us, please stay on the line etc….”. You will have your own favourite examples. Let’s not even talk about trying to call your bank.

Corner 2 is where there is a relationship, but very one sided, and often one based on domination. We have all experienced what that is like at work at some point, and it seems to me it’s also far too prevalent in many customer relationships. From the tone of the TV license renewal advertisements which are not very thinly veiled threats, to communications from utility companies, these convey the clear impression that as customers, we are fairly powerless, and we can take it or leave it. They are clearly not engaged with us – what on earth would cause us to be engaged with them?

Corner 3 is where the relationship is positive but false. Full of bonhomie, and “have a nice day”, it seeks engagement, but is not backed by genuine intent. Some of the efforts are good, and fool us for a while, but always surface. There is an excellent HBR article by Jacob Morgan “Why the Millions We Spend on Employee Engagement Buy Us So Little” that highlight many of these “corner 3” activities. They include, at a human level, those “episodic”, “topic of the month” initiatives, and insincere relationships with busy managers and colleagues. We can often see the same in consumer relationships. At a technology level, badly designed or complex to navigate web pages, and customer service programs can give the impression that “the lights are on, but nobody’s home”

Corner 4, You’ll recognise this is where the action is, the most difficult to do, and where the huge returns are. Honest, open, interested relationships, where the genuine intent is for the joy of all stakeholders. It’s the world of Zappo’s, where staff have unlimited time to make sure the customer is happy, or the Ritz Carlton, where any member of staff has the authority, on their own initiative to spend up to $2000 to solve a customer problem. The same trends can be seen in any of the “best companies to work for” surveys.

It’s all about culture, purpose and intent, and it can’t be faked. At a technology level, the same is evident – technology that changes and adapts, and learns what customers want. It feels like technology that listens. The potential for Machine Learning and Artificial intelligence, used with intent, is huge here.

Engagement is a corner 4 game, and transformational. Anything else is transactional. The equivalent of the around 60% of employees who just turn up.

The good news is that great engagement can be designed. It’s not a process or a formula, it’s a human activity. It’s personal, unique, and uncopiable. At it’s best, to borrow from an old Ford advertisement, it’s humans and technology in perfect harmony. Technology in the service of people.

People, ideas, technology – in that order.

Image:Gabriel Isak Photography – The Shadow and the Self

Richard Merrick a coach / catalyst specialising in agile approaches to strategy, innovation and operations. 



The Engagement Revolution

revolutionIt’s said that the problem with revolutions is that we don’t know that we’re in one until it’s almost over. Well. I think we’re in one. It can be difficult to detect the signal amidst the noise of the current Brexit climate, but look for it, and it’s there.

The evidence is both factual and anecdotal. In a report published in March, PwC forecasts that 25% of jobs in the accommodation and food service sector will be automated by the early 2030’s, whilst at the same time research from the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) and CV-Library indicates that automation and AI are, so far, not putting UK jobs at risk.

We can be confident when both sides of the concern are being argued, that something is happening, even if we’re not entirely sure what.

Anecdotally, my clients who have employees and partners who feel impacted by the implications of Brexit – from food service employees to veterinary neurosurgeons (a very rare and valuable skill) are seeing them pre-emptively create their own certainty by leaving the UK.

Which brings me to engagement. Every report I see indicates chronically low levels of employee engagement and average customer engagement is little better. The causes are many and varied, but all seem to centre around a lack of connection.

Neuroscience  indicates that are five domains that critically affect our sense of engagement – our perceived levels of our status, and our senses of certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. In the current climate, all of those are likely to be bubbling away merrily for most of us, regardless which side of the Brexit fence we are on.

The implications are significant and far reaching. We know that engagement in the hospitality sector is a critical issue, both for staff and customers, and that engagement is the pivot around which service, reputation and brand image turn.

This is where technology becomes vital – it is a critical source of both data, and support. We know that in the end it’s not the technology alone that makes the difference, it’s how it informs and enables the people in the business.

Engagement is a contact sport.

Technology will inevitably replace many jobs, many of them routine and of low added value, but offers a huge opportunity for us to harness it and use it in harmony with those who really drive engagement – real, live humans.

I experienced a great example this morning. It’s Spring, so we’re been sorting the garden, and ordered some new garden furniture from Amazon.  Amazon’s robots sprang into action, with instant acknowledgement, and a few moments later, another mail with a scheduled delivery date and tracking. Great – but the best bit was a call this morning from the vendor:

Hi. I’m Sue. You’ll know we’re delivering your furniture today, and I thought I’d call just to make sure you were going to be in. Your driver’s name is Jim, and he’ll call you 30 mins before he is due to arrive. If you have any problems with assembly, or any other questions, my number is xxx, please don’t hesitate to call me. I really hope you like it”

Wow! I am very engaged with this company. Amazon turns from supplier to intermediary.

I think this captures the opportunity we have well. To use technology to set the stage, on which we, as suppliers and brands can perform.

It’s not a process, or a formula, but something altogether more visceral, more human. Technology providing augmented customer and staff relationships.

There is a saying in Agile that if it works, it’s obsolete. Engagement is like that – it’s dynamic, alive and evolving.  It’s a means, not and end. It’s certainly not a number.

The changes we are in the middle of are accelerating, and it will be too late to take how we work with technology to increase engagement via technology seriously when the revolution is over.

I think we should decide whether to be on the stage, or watching from the stalls as the actors take a bow.


Richard Merrick a coach / catalyst specialising in agile approaches to strategy, innovation and operations.