Rituals engage staff

It’s no surprise that employee engagement is a hot topic right now in the wake of cutbacks, pay freezes, and redundancies (and the survivor guilt and loss of productivity that goes with that).

According to a Towers Perrin worldwide survey (2007), only 21% of employees feeling fully engaged, compared to almost twice as many feeling disengaged.

Discretionary effort is still the holy grail for many companies but looking at some of the approaches being adopted to engage staff they seem to be as focussed on well-being as on motivation. Not much mention of Stress, Quality of Working Life or Work-Life Balance any more but what’s in a name anyway.

Sony’s Energy Project, reported in the June 2010 Harvard Business Review: “The Productivity Paradox. How Sony pictures get more by demanding less” started by looking at employee burnout and employee performance 10 years ago. As in many organisations they found that once employees completed training sessions and went back into the work place they faced resistance from the organisation – the re-entry crisis.

They eventually realised that for organisational change to endure the top leaders had to be involved and fundamental shifts made in the way they managed people. First by stopping assuming people can operate like computers – continuously, at high speeds, and multi-tasking (See my earlier post: Multi-tasking addiction makes you stupider than smoking pot) and by  recognising that employees work better when periods of intense activity are interspersed with opportunities for renewal.

Secondly by systematically meeting the employees’ 4 core needs so that they are refreshed and inspired to go to work each day. The 4 needs are: physical health (nutrition, sleep, exercise, and day-time renewal); emotional well-being (through being appreciated and valued); mental clarity (the ability to focus intensely, think creatively, and prioritise); and spiritual significance (the feeling of serving a mission that goes beyond just making a profit).

Crucially Sony’s co-chairs agreed to look at their own leadership behaviours and the way they did things, and how that impacted upon staff. Two critical changes were that the introvert chair discovered people didn’t realise what he was feeling so he started calling and writing personal notes of appreciation to people, and that the other chair was conflict-averse which left uncertainty amongst her staff. Which is where rituals come into it.

Rituals are practices you carry out at certain times to do highly specific activities. In this way they eventually become automatic and don’t require conscious will or discipline.  So to stop avoiding conflict th chair learned to ask herself; “what’s the right thing to do here for the company?”. Other rituals included taking a walk when people felt frustrated, self-talk, learning to pause and respond rather than react.

To help be more focussed one executive turned off e-mails at certain times, one committed to ignoring e-mails when on the phone, another spent 5 minutes every evening reflecting on his top 3 tasks for the following day and then set aside an uninterrupted 60-90 minutes the following day to deal with them.

They also introduced rituals to increase collaboration and open-ness but reduce groupthink. They also agreed to ban e-mails during meetings and when that meant people working on them in the evenings they banned that too outside an 0800-2000 time frame. Any urgent stuff had to be handled by a personal call instead.

Reading the case study some of these ideas seem obvious – but that’s always the case with hindsight. But there is nothing really new here. They are  mixture of behavioural interventions, including assertiveness and active listening, time management, and common courtesy.

Some of the highlighted Dos and Don’ts are:

  • Do take a lunch break and encourage others to do the same
  • Do communicate your values by writing notes of appreciation
  • Do set aside an informal space to promote creative thinking and brainstorming
  • Do share your passion
  • Don’t avoid conflict. Enter difficult conversations with a spirit of openness and curiosity
  • Don’t try to multi-task. Give people your full attention and active listening
  • Don’t be self-absorbed. It’s not all about you. Serve the needs of people you lead.

Now a book by Tom Shwartz et al: “The way we’re working isn’t working: the four forgotten needs that energise great performance”, sets these out in more detail using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a structure for the book. Advice to sleep more, eat more healthily, only work in 90 minute bursts, and take regular exercise is complemented by case study examples from Sony, Ernst & Young, and Barclays Wealth.

Updated 2 July 2010.

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