The Great Transaction

A while back, I worked at a place where an employee engagement survey made it clear that there were things that management could do to make the environment more appealing for those doing the work of the organization. I supported the management team in putting together a process to figure out the possible moves they could make, ensuring to get the direct input from the staff. Over the course of a couple of weeks, ideas were surfaced and voted on. A prioritized list was revealed.

At the top of it - with a far distant second - was...put a coffee machine on the floor. That was it. Coffee. Also on the list, with far fewer votes, were things related to increased responsibility for decision making, training to increase staff's expertise in their roles, and approaches to processes that would increase the participation of staff in the way work was done in the day-to-day. But number one (by a lot) was coffee.

The director bought, out of their own pocket, an industrial grade Keurig machine, and enough coffee pods to last a month. An employee volunteered to buy pods on a regular basis, and put out a cup to collect money for that. The office had coffee. And that was that. The thing is, I didn't notice any discernible difference in the office. There was some work done on figuring out how to implement some of the other suggestions that were made, but nothing was really done that would impact the overall culture of the office. After a couple of months, report outs on progress being made on the survey suggestions fell away. Things in the office moved along. I left before there was another engagement survey. I'd be curious to see what it had to say when it was done again.

So, what was going on here? Why would people put coffee down as their #1 priority over, say, increased autonomy or mastery? My take is this: it's what is at the center of the relationship between the director and their employees. A better way to say this might be that it's what is at the center of a relationship between an an organization and its employees[1]. Here's another frame: there is a story that we are living in about what it means to be in relationship with our superiors, or the organization we work for. One way to look at that story: we are in a transactional relationship.

When we are in a transaction mindset, we are always in a negotiation. If I give you a coffee maker, will you do your jobs just a little better? Will you give a higher score on the survey next time? That's the deal that the director was making. A little bit of coffee means increased productivity (I mean, that's ultimately what we mean when we say engagement, right? Productivity?).

When it isn't coffee, it's generally the "basic things": raises and benefits. Without going too far into the organization we were working in, let's just say it's an environment where those sorts of things are pretty controlled, so it's unlikely any wiggle room could be found there. My colleague Shannon and I recently met with a small company that was looking to improve the dynamics in their organization, and they were telling us about how the staff was saying that they are upset about being underpaid. There is likely some truth to this. Yet, from what we heard, the owners were doing their best to pay as much as they could (including to themselves...they made far less than you'd expect an owner of a company of this sort to make). I was left with the question "what is it that they, the staff, really want?"

I've been thinking a lot about this lately. What is at the center of these things that we talk about in organizations? Gallup has been doing surveys on employee engagement for 20 years. It's not changing. Yet, people hire consultants to come and help on a regular basis. Over those 20 years, I'd be surprised if the dollars spent were less than in the billions. Not to mention time spent. Not to mention how initiatives often don't work. What happens then? Well, the next time, things are taken a bit less seriously.

So, what's at the center?

What I suspect is that what's at the center are things that are quantifiable, and only things that are quantifiable. Money. ROI. Widgets produced per hour (where widgets represents whatever it is that your organization "does"). Cut costs. FTEs. An on and on. It makes sense that we are working with what is quantifiable. I mean, what can't be measured cant be done, right? Well...maybe.

One of my favorite authors and thinkers, Charles Eisenstein, has a fantastic new book[2] out (like came out on Tuesday). It's called Climate: A New Story. It's about climate change, which might seem a bit off topic. I'd leave it to you to go check out the book to see how it's related to what I'm discussing here (it really is). That said, check out this bit, from p. 30:

The totalizing quest to capture the world in number never succeeds. Something always escapes the metrics and the models: the unmeasureable the qualatative, and what seems irrelevant. Usually, the judgment as to what is relevant encodes the intellectual biases of those doing the measuring, and often the economic and political biases too. You might say that what is left out is our shadow. Like many things we ignore or suppress, it roars back in the form of perverse, unforeseeable consequences. Thus, although it is the epitome of rationality to make decisions by the numbers, the results often appear to be insane.

The thing is, those things that are unmeasurable, the qualitative, are often the things we have come to refer to in our world as "soft" and/or "touchy-feely". They are things that we have decided aren't necessary in the workplace. I mean, what's the first thing that gets cut when there's a downturn? Just as people need to do the work of navigating the rocky waters, we get rid of coaches, Organizational Development, etc. The problem is, it's these "touchy-feely" things that are the very things that make us human. We can't leave them at the door. We can't decide to turn them on and off. We are just as human at work as we are at home or out with friends.

There's certainly a movement afoot that is bringing this idea into the mainstream. It's true. But there is still and issue I take with this movement: it still keeps the quantifiable in the center. It elevates it to primary. We want to bring in mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Great! I love it! But, why? Well, the intention (what's at the center) is so often productivity, revenue, etc. Tapping into our humanity for the sole reason of increasing productivity is not going to work. Why? Because we still haven't looked at that shadow. We are acting from a story that places our humanity below the productivity we can get from a person. We are still seeing a machine (which is, ultimately, how the industrial revolution taught us to see each other).

I'm not here to propose any grand solutions. I don't really know how we take the next step. What I do know is that it's time to step out of the story that puts the quantitative in the center, and replaces it with the unmeasurable, the qualitative, and what seems irrelevant[3]. Perhaps we can start to upend the questions we typically ask about employee engagement, and start asking questions that get to these more tricky ideas. What if we were more interested in better questions, and less in answers? What if we became more interested in a story that was about relationship, rather than transaction? What might we experience?

[1]: The idea that there can actually be a difference between an organization and its employees is one that deserves its own write up. Heck, it probably deserves a book. I'll say this about my perspective on it: organizations can only exist if there are people working together to do work. In other words, there is no difference.
[2]: No, I haven't finished reading it just yet. But it's fantastic so far!
[3]: I'm not (fully) naive...I know that there are definitely things that are irrelevant. Sheesh.