Article (October-2018)


Move from engagement to employee bonding

Dr. Virendra P. Singh

Designation : -   Advisor & Distinguished Professor

Organization : -  Gurugram


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"You bond with family, friends and loved ones; and you engage with enemies". My friend Swami Virbhadra has been saying this more often than I can remember. My friend has been never associated with any corporate entity, except when he visits some corporate offices once in a while for seeking alms for the cause he has dedicated his time, wisdom and life. Yet Swami Virbhadra has a point for both the commoner and the wise that dispenses counsel on employee experience management. Possibly, the mendicants and soldiers have better handle on this simple-made-complex subject.
Bonding With Prisoners of War
Let's turn to a soldier, a super soldier for that matter, now. Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw post 1971 Indo Pak War decided to inspect detention camps, where 80000 plus Pak Army POW were kept in custody. In course of one such inspection, he met a Pakistani JCO in charge of a small camp. Sam in his inimical style took JCO around the camp and checked various facilities and installations created for habitation of POW inmates. Field Marshall enquired this junior Pakistani officer if food served in that particular camp was in order. JCO confirmed that mess staff made the right kind of food and served them with respect. Field Marshall went on with his list of enquiring questions : Are your beds free of bugs? Are toilets clean? The list of questions encompassed all matters relating to welfare, wellbeing and wellness of soldiers who had fought war with Sam's troop. Pakistani JCO by this time had experienced a high degree of care and empathy for a bunch of vanquished enemy soldiers from the enemy army commander. He could sense that celebrated General was not doing a routine drill of enquiry and engagement with a battalion of vanquished, demoralized and ashamed army men. General was simply concerned about their wellbeing as if they were his troop.
At the end of the inspection, JCO requested Sam's permission to speak his mind. When Sam assured, the experienced Pakistani JCO to speak fearlessly, this is what JCO said: "General Sahib. Now, I know why our army lost and why your army won."
Neither Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw nor my mendicant friend Virbhadra had ever glossed over to check connotations of the word engagement. If they ever did, they would have found that the word engagement has also been defined as "an encounter, conflict or battle". Other definitions range from 'an appointment or arrangement' to 'a pledge, an obligation or agreement'. Modern practitioners of employee engagement, I surmise, aim something nobler, not encounter or conflict. They plan and organize interventions which purportedly aim to 'bind or hold' employees together with the organization. But they rarely experience success. We propose that their lack of success lies in their choice of a defective 'word vehicle'.
We chose, often unconsciously, wrong and inadequate words in our speech and writing, and expect correct understanding and positive outcomes. Engagement, especially employee engagement, is one such word. We expect team integration and mission fulfilment as an outcome of such 'engagement initiatives' costing huge resources in terms of time and money. Of course, this doesn't happen. It doesn't happen because integration results from unification and bonding, not engagement.
Engagement Scorecard
  • Employee engagement practices, no wonder therefore, have mostly failed to deliver. Sample a few nuggets of reality check :
  • 26% employees are 'actively disengaged' 13% employees are 'highly engaged'. (Gallup 2014)
  • Half of the most advanced users (read CHROs) of engagement survey don't know how to build a culture of engagement. (Aon Hewitt Report 2012)
  • High technology companies throw benefits (free food, unlimited vacation, health club, parties, stock options and fun offices) to employees to see which one (would) stick! (Aon Hewitt 2012)
If our engagement practices leave us befuddled in terms of giving us a less than healthy ROI, it's explicable and obvious. We are using negative word vibrations to achieve positive end results. So what should you do?
Say no to superficial engagement practices. Say yes to vitals of human bonding. Your parents, your teachers always bonded with you. Follow them. So, try out the following recipe :
  • Provide physical & emotional safety to your colleagues. Eat last like an army commander. Let your troop eat first. Watch plus practice what Simon Sinek says : Why good leaders make you feel safe.
  • Use core wisdom of Gallup Q12 minus all fanfare. Just drive those 12 deliverables, not all of them at a time. Do it from heart, not mind.
  • Connect with team's families. Hear their voice.
This should be good enough to a kick-off. Cut jargons. Be simple and honest. Bond like an old chum. Connect like a long lost friend. Care like a teacher, pastor and/or parent.
It is easy said than done. Hear your inner voice. Overlook Big 4. Allow the magic of bond word play. You bond with family; and you engage with enemies.