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.


Attending to Complicatedness

Complexity is hard. It’s hard to work with, it’s hard to be in, it’s just plain hard! But we make it harder on ourselves by adding complicatedness to the complexity.

At work, when we’re stuck on a problem or making a mess of things, try addressing complicatedness before addressing complexity. Get in the habit of asking: Do we have a mess or a mission?

A mess is when we aren’t sure what conversation we are having or what question we are answering.

A mission is when we are already clear about what it is that we are here to do.

  • Which conversation are we having?
  • How many conversations are there actually?
  • Are we having the right conversation?
  • Are we trying to answer more than one question?
  • Do we need to answer more than one question?
  • Are we answering the right question?
  • Is everyone on the same page about that?
  • Do we need to answer a different question?
  • Do we need to answer a bigger question?

We don’t need to have the wording perfect, we just need to agree roughly that we’re all in the same ballpark in order to proceed. If it turns out we were mistaken there’s plenty of room to move later on. We just need to be pretty happy with the idea that we’re sufficiently on the same page: that we are talking about and working on the same thing (even if we’re unclear about how that will unfold).

Once we can pull apart these and set aside the complicatedness, then we can attend to what we hold. And what we hold may be simple, complicated, wicked or complex (or some of each). But if we try and tackle them all at once then we are adding unnecessary stress and frustration.

Deal with complicatedness before dealing with complexity.

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.

A Mess or a Mission

Before every project or meeting we should ask ourselves: do we have a mess or a mission?

A mess is when we aren’t sure what conversation we are having or what question we are answering.

  • Which conversation are we having? Are we on the same page? Are we clear about what mission we’re working on?
  • How many conversations are there actually? Are there multiple missions here?

A mission is what we have when we are clear about what it is that we are here to do.

It’s okay to have multiple missions, we just need to make sure we know which one we’re having a conversation about right now.

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)


Conversations: Which, when and how.

Ultimately, an organization is made up of conversations: who talks to whom, about what. And those conversations get amplified (or ignored) and codified in documents, processes, systems and culture.

Current and future decisions, actions, and sense purpose are grounded in these conversations …”so much so that the conversation is the organization.” (Alan Webber)

The problem is that we have optimised for, rewarded, trained in and been attuned to certain (limited) types of conversations.

A simple example: the cognition and leadership required to be creative (or to extract, allow for and maximise creativity) is very different to the ways of thinking, acting and managing required in a conversation for optimisation.

To succeed in our collaborative enterprises, we need to get better at knowing which conversations we need to have, when to have them and how.

(Hat tip to Fernando Flores, Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, Paul Pangaro and Michael Geoghegan)