The Engagement Gap

My good friend and ex-colleague Scott McArthur recently posted a blog on the Engagement Gap. This, he proposed, is “the increasingly wider divide between the expectations of organisations and their employees”, or the mismatch of business values and human values in an organisation (you might say corporate values versus lived values). This, he says, is the critical HR issue of the moment.

I certainly agree that there is such a thing in many organisations, and that it is an important challenge. My fear is that senior leaders, in many cases, just don’t understand their employees and in many cases HR departments are not really equipped to help them.  Firefighting, tactical and operationally focused, many HR departments are don’t really value the kind of critical and strategic analysis that will help them, preferring to kick off a range of initiatives in a scattergun approach, which does nothing to create a clear and consistent employer brand.

This is something I’ll come back to, as well as the inability of conventional employee surveys to provide real diagnostic value, in later posts.

Introduction to Reversal Theory

Reversal Theory is a general theory based on over 30 years of research and application that explains the and indeed emphasizes the inconsistency and changeability of individuals. It has been applied in areas as diverse as management and leadership, psychotherapy, clinical psychology and counselling, smoking cessation, recovery from illness, politics, religion and sports.

The theory specifically focuses on motivational states (or styles, terms that are used interchangeably) –proposing that people regularly reverse between different psychological states, depending upon the meaning and motives felt by in individual in different situations at different times.

These reversals are healthy and necessary, both to ensure that one’s motives are being met, and to appropriately match personal style to the needs of a specific situation or other person.

Reversal Theory proposes that key emotions (such as anger and anxiety) are linked to eight motivational states, which are organised in four opposing pairs. Motivational states are also associated with values (such as achievement and control) which make it a powerful theory for exploring both personal experience and more complex organisational dynamics. As a practitioner I’ve used Reversal Theory with individuals, teams and to explore organisational issues.

I’ll come back to the eight motivational states and their meaning for organisational life, but in the meantime here’s a good introduction to them.

You may also find the Reversal Theory Society website a useful starting point.

Apter, M.J. (Ed.) (2001) Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Floggings will continue until morale improves

Floggings will continue until morale improves

I still remember this comment, among many made in interviews or workshops that I’ve facilitated. I don’t remember who made it, but I remember the context and the tone.

The situation was actually a focus group, part of a project to get under the skin of some poor employee survey results. The client, from a major bank, had realised that the survey results themselves provided very little diagnostic value and was left thinking “what do I do with this?”. You may have been there yourself.

As for the tone of the comment, it was brimming with resentment and cynicism. Resentment at management that seemed to be trying to squeeze more and more from staff for less and less, and cynicism founded on a belief that they only cared that their score had gone down.

Employee engagement is an important, but dare I say it, complex construct and issue. Yet our desire to measure and manage it as a KPI, rather than genuinely foster it, means that it has been reduced to a small number of questions on a survey that represent a “best” predictor of performance in many organisations.

To try to find a neat and simple measure of something like employee engagement risks reducing it beyond the point of usefulness, particularly when the score is more important than what it purports to measure.

Does your employee survey act as a catalyst to change? Do managers feel confident about using the results to do things differently?

Or is it leading to cynicism?

Perhaps business leaders need to start caring more about employee engagement and less about their score.

Welcome to Organisational Life

Ok, so this is my first post. It feels good, and slightly strange…

Professionally, I guess I’d say that I’m a psychologist that works in change management and organisational development. Broadly speaking, that is.  Outside of work I have a beautiful wife and two fantastic kids (or is that a fantastic wife and 2 beautiful kids) and compete in masters swimming. Last year I was British Champion in 3 events and 5th in the world in one.

How I got here: I started off in IT, doing vaguely technical work on big (SAP) systems implementations but that was never going to be me. I took a couple of years out to become a sport psychologist, which was great, but I find organisational issues and dynamics more interesting that individual performance, so I went back into consulting. I worked in People and Change consulting for a few years before joining Apter International – from a 600-ish to a 4 person practice – thanks to my interest in Reversal Theory (which is a general theory of motivation and emotion). There I headed up Employee Research and Psychometrics, did both qualitative and quantitative projects, and became really interested in things like Employee Engagement.

I’m currently managing change at a much bigger company.

I guess the reason I’m blogging now is that I’m a thinker, quite a critical one too and, to be honest, it isn’t something that is valued where I am right now. So I need an outlet.

I’ll be blogging about organisational life – employee engagement, psychology, motivation, leadership and change. As well as a load of other things, I expect. A bog influence on my thinking is Michael Apter’s Reversal Theory, so I’ll blog about that too.

I hope to be quite challenging, so expect to be challenged back. Please leave comments!

Many thanks


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