Morale < satisfaction < motivation < engagement < justice

Morale < satisfaction < motivation < engagement < justice

I’ve just read yet another post about engagement at work and this particular one irritated me enough to post a general reply here.

The successive movements from workplace morale, to motivation, satisfaction and engagement all speak to this frame: “you have more to give! We could be extracting more from you slackers!”

This is unjust.

There is nothing wrong with our intent or effort – we don’t come to work to be bastards.

There is nothing wrong with the worker.

It is the work that is broken.

Where engagement (and the movements before it) is concerned with how we think or feel about work, justice is actually concerned with the work.

If we fix the work then people will be able participate meaningfully in the work that matters to them and their role. They will be able to see themselves as being meaningful – who they are, what they think and what they bring – to the organisation and to the world.

It’s a shift away from asking “how do we access a person’s utility?” to “how do we address the systemic ways that we obstruct people from being able to bring their true selves – their identity?”

Stop getting distracted by engagement. Focus on fixing the systems of work. People aren’t withholding their full capacity – they are being constrained from being able to bring the best of themselves by the systems of work they participate in.


Change the Conversation

Conversations are how we get things done in the world. Whether they’re simple ones like describing how to bake a cake, complicated ones like launching a rocket, or a complex reimagining the future for a nation, all work is conversation.

Sometimes we come away from conversations feeling satisfied and having got things done. Other times things don’t go as planned, and we’re left wondering what went wrong.

Our meetings (the people in them and the work they are trying to do) are too often misdirected or misaligned. And as a result, our outcomes are poor and we’re unable to move or change together, and we often walk away disheartened, disillusioned, confused, angry or wrecked.

If all work is conversation, then how do conversations work? How are they organised, and why do we fail or succeed? If we could address the misalignment of our conversations what would be different? And how do we get people to bring their best to the conversation, not through their utility – as a cog in the machine – but as a unique contribution?

Our enterprise conversations can be wiser, more effective, and more human.

When we change the conversations people contribute to, we change the way they think and what gets done. And in changing the conversation we provide people with new skills; they are better equipped for the further, inevitable changes of the future.

Change the conversation.

Nothing wrong with our people

How many of our team members, do you suppose, drove to work this morning, thinking, “I will come to work today and be lousy at my job”?


When things go wrong in work teams it’s tempting to blame the individuals.

We look to psychology. We try to address individual misbehaviour; we work on personalities and attitudes.

But there is nothing wrong with our people.

We have good people, with good intent and adequate resources.

Rather than asking “why is this person a bastard?” we should ask “what have we done to make them that way?”

The issue isn’t with how people think or behave (psychology), the issue lies in how people interact (sociology).

Many problems appear to show up in the form of individual misbehaviour, but decades of work on the personalities and attitudes of our people (greater personal insight, personality profiling, task matching) hasn’t delivered much in the way of organisational improvement or leadership effectiveness.

The problem is that our work is so badly designed as to defeat the best efforts even of psychologically insightful individuals.


(Hat tip to Elliot Jacques: In Praise of Hierarchy)


Justice and the bottom line

morale < job satisfaction < employee engagement < justice

All too often, we break our people. We do injustices to the people in our teams; we send them home frustrated, disillusioned, dispirited, distressed, and damaged.

And all too often, the source of the damage is our conversations: we find we are misaligned, our efforts are misdirected, our efforts are wasted, our understandings clash, and so much more.

When we get our conversations right – when we do justice to the good people with good intent in our teams – we not only produce happy and healthy employees, we drive performance.