Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Employee engagement and the story of the Sky Maiden

"Employee engagement" is one of the popular concepts in HR these days. Many organizations have launched new initiatives to improve levels of 'employee engagement'. Some of them have dedicated HR staff to 'handle' this important dimension. I fully agree that 'employee engagement' is very important. There is a lot of research that links higher levels of 'employee engagement' with positive outcomes like improved productivity and reduced attrition rates.

What concerns me is the tendency in some organizations to view 'employee engagement' initiatives mainly as a series of employee communication programmes. Here the term 'employee engagement' gets used in the sense of leaders 'engaging with' or 'speaking to' the employees. Now, this is an important part of employee engagement. The problem is that true 'employee engagement' requires much more than this. Another troubling trend is to equate 'employee engagement' with 'fun and games' activities. 'Fun and games' initiatives are also useful. They provide a temporary distraction from work (especially when they are held during office hours, which sadly is not always the case !). They also provide an opportunity to interact with other employees. But all these do not make any significant change in the basic nature of work or in the work context.

The defining feature of employee engagement is 'discretionary effort' put in by the employees. If employees have to get motivated to put in the 'discretionary effort', just speaking to them and telling them what is happening in the organization (and even just listening to them) won't be sufficient. To get discretionary effort, both the hearts and minds of the employees have to be engaged. Often this calls for interventions to improve the person-job fit, the performance management/rewards system and the organization culture. Of course, it is much easier to hold communication meetings than to ensure that employees are in those jobs that leverage and celebrate their key talents/abilities/interests! But if the objective is to have the type of 'employee engagement' that motivates employees to stay on and to put in discretionary effort, peripheral interventions (like communication meetings, 'fun & games HR' etc.) might not be sufficient.

This brings to mind the 'story of the Sky Maiden'. There are many versions of this story. It goes something like this: Once there lived a young farmer. He used to get up early in the morning every day to milk his cows. This went on for quite some time. Then he felt that something strange was happening. The cows seemed to be giving less milk than they used to. He tried many methods to improve this situation. But they did not work. Slowly he became convinced that someone was stealing the milk. So he decided to stay up all night to catch the thief. So he hid behind a bush and waited. For many hours nothing happened and he was feeling very sleepy. Suddenly he noticed something that left him spellbound. A very beautiful woman came down from the sky and started milking the cows. Initially our young farmer was too dazed to react. Then his anger took over and he managed to catch the thief before she could escape. He asked her who she was and why was she stealing the milk. She told him that she was the Sky Maiden, that she belonged to a tribe that lived in the sky, and that the milk was their only food. She pleaded with him to let her go. Our young farmer told her "I will let you go only if you promise to marry me". She said "I will marry you. But you need to give me a few days so that I can go back home and prepare for the marriage". He agreed. So the Sky Maiden left and as promised she returned after a few days. She brought a large box along with her. She said to him "I will be your wife. But you must promise me one thing. You should never open this box. If you open this box, I will have to leave you". He agreed and they got married.

Many months passed. Then one day, while his wife was not in the house, our young farmer could not contain his curiosity anymore and he opened the box. He was surprised to find that he could not see anything in the box. When the Sky Maiden came back she could sense something was wrong. She asked him "Did you open the box?". He said " I am sorry. I opened the box. But there was nothing in it". The Sky Maiden became very sad. She said "I am leaving. I can't live with you any more". He said "Why are you making such a big issue out of this. I told you that the box was empty". She said "I am not leaving you because you opened the box. I knew that you are likely to open it sooner or later. I am leaving you because you said that there was nothing in the box. Actually, the box was not empty. It was full of sky. Before I came to you I had filled the box with sky which is the most precious thing for me. Sky is the core of my real self. It is what makes me special. It is what makes me who I am. How can I stay with you if you can't even see the thing that is the essence of my Self and that makes me special?"

Now there are many important points here. No deep relationship can thrive unless it recognises and celebrates the factors that define the essential nature of the parties involved and that makes them special. Of course, this is more true for personal relationships and the use of this in a work context is an exaggeration to some extent. But I think that the central point remains valid even in a work context.

Any comments?

10 comments:

Cheri said...

A wise and beautiful and correct post Prasad. Thank you.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Cheri.

bombay dosti said...

Agree a thousand times. I have often debated with myself and with a number of people if standardised engagement models actually work. I too agree that its about building that personal relation which is about understanding the essence of the person.But how does that work in a large organization?
How can we ensure discretionary engagement in a large organization?

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you.

I feel that employee engagement can't be mass produced. True engagement is an individual choice and hence it is influenced by the uniqueness of each individual and by the work context for that particular individual. So it has to happen ‘separately’ for each individual employee, though it can happen simultaneously/in parallel for many employees. While the organization can create a climate conducive for employee engagement, the 'real action' happens in small teams (and may be even in one-to-one interactions – especially in those 'human moments' at work). Since even large organizations can be managed as small teams (though it is not always easy to do so), employee engagement could be possible even in large organizations.

shachi said...

very true the employees can't be engaged by peripheral interventions they need to be looked as individuals with distinct needs.What is most important is that they need to be linked with the broader organizational goals.Meaningfulness in work need to be created and resources, tools and procedures should be made available to employees so that they can add their best to the organization.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I am reading this article second time today, you have to be more careful with content leakers. If I will fount it again I will send you a link

sample said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raghu said...

You are absolutely correct. I agree with the story where we need to give that space to an individual and respect that.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thanks Raghu.