Outsourcing Engagement

Your boss swoops into your office, and plops a pile of material onto your desk. You look up quizzically as her perfume hits you in a pretentious wave, “Look, this is really last minute, please follow the detailed instructions provided, and have the report on my desk by tomorrow lunch.” You glance up at the clock, then at the long list of instructions, and back at your boss. “Do you have what you need?”, she asks expectantly. You say, “I guess so”, with a shrug. She nods with a terse smile and exits.

So far so good, you have kept all the swearing in your head, and you think you did a pretty good job of keeping your face emotionless during the encounter. You slump back in your chair and pick up the list of instructions.

If this kind of experience happens to you on rare occasion, you can remind yourself that this is part of having a job, and a boss, or even be happy that detailed instructions were provided due to the short timeline. On the other hand, if this is status quo you are probably spending a lot of your time on http://www.monster.ca/, http://jobbank.gc.ca/, or the like.

People, especially capable, experienced & smart people, need a level of autonomy to be motivated and engaged in their work.

In search of efficiency, many top executives look to outsourcing to help reduce personnel costs, and leverage economies of scale, by using industry specialists for a variety of tasks from manufacturing to sales. And often, they throw out the baby with the bathwater, when they inadvertently revoke autonomy from their most engaged and creative employees.

A recent conversation highlighted this beautifully for me: A friend in the publishing business –a very energetic, motivated, and creative individual– described to me their elation at having previously outsourced elements of their business re-integrated into their operations. In order to streamline operations in a tough market segment, key elements of layout and design were outsourced, and roles that previously included a creative input into these elements were relegated to filling in templates. Not surprisingly, my friend described this period as some of their darkest days with the business. With their level of autonomy regained, you can see the excitement & motivation they have at the opportunities it presents (albeit, probably more excited than before they lost the autonomy in the first place!).

This isn’t a diatribe against outsourcing –I often see cases where it is preferable to rampant hiring– but a warning to consider the level of motivation that might be lost by functions, and functions adjacent to those, subject to outsourcing.

Because frankly, employee engagement can’t be outsourced.

The Employee Engagement ‘Bermuda Triangle’

Introduction: Morale is failing, performance is flagging, attrition is high, you have entered the Employee Engagement Bermuda Triangle. Your instruments are failing you, you can’t tell if you are about to get out, or just travelling deeper in, try as you might, you can’t find a way out. How to avoid such a fate?

The stories of the Bermuda Triangle include ships and planes being lost without a trace, and those that survived having experienced failures in critical systems and navigational equipment. The real Bermuda triangle is bounded by 3 disputed points: Bermuda, Miami, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico. While mostly a fictitious example of the paranormal, it provides a useful metaphor for mystery, misdirection and disaster.

Gallup's 2008 Study on Why Employees Leave their Employers

For managers, one of the clearest signs they have entered their own ‘Bermuda Triangle’ is a high turn-over rate. Their compass is likely pointing in the direction of ‘pay or better benefits’ as being the primary cause, but they will be surprised to find  isn’t the top reason. In fact, managers themselves have a part to play in at least 70% of the top cited causes.

According to a 2008 Gallup study, ‘career advancement/promotional opportunities’ is much more often cited as a reason for high turnover, and ‘lack of fit to job’ and ‘management/general work environment’ are cited nearly as often as pay/benefits. If we ignore pay and benefits (somewhat out of a line managers control), we can see that the manager has a significant part to play in an employee’s career advancement, their job fit (or the job’s fit to the employee), and certainly ‘management’.

Now to explain the genesis of the ‘EE Bermuda Triangle’: It comes from an unlikely source*, a comic strip. Hugh MacLeod, describes a metaphor about the ‘white pebble’ which helped provide a simple model to illustrate one of Psyche’s primary roles in our client organizations:

You have three selves: [1] The person that you think you are, [2] the person that other people think you are, and [3] the person that God[**] thinks you are. The white pebble represents the latter. And of the three, it is by far the most important…When life gets really tough, just remember the white pebble. Just remember who you really are. Just remember the person that only God[**] can see…[**]Whatever your thoughts on God or Religion may be, positive or negative, the white pebble is a very simple metaphor that audaciously asks the question: “Who are you, really?”

Not only did this provide three points for our own ‘Engagement Bermuda Triangle’ but also helped us find an accurate compass to plot our escape.

As you can see from the diagram, the top of the triangle is the ‘person you really are’ (the ‘White Pebble’). A triangle is created by joining the green and brown pebbles to this white pebble. The length of each of these lines are significant, representing the delta between who you think you are, and who you really are (green to white), the delta between your self-concept and others concept of you (green to brown), and finally, the delta between your true self and others’ perception of you (white to brown). The larger these deltas are, the larger the size of the ‘Employee Engagement Bermuda Triangle’; in this case bigger is not better.

So far you are being very patient to understand how this triangle relates to why people leave organizations of their own free will, and what managers can do about it. Lets get to it:

White – Green = Poor Job Fit: To a great extent, people end up in unrewarding jobs that don’t suit them because of a blurry self-perception of what they are –or are not– supposed to be doing with their lives. There are unhappy doctors with happy parents, non-starving-but-unfulfilled engineers that wanted to be artists, and unhappy managers that used to be great individual contributors (ICs). Whether it was your parents, money, job security, or even promotion (or a combination) that got you to your present state, there is likely an element of not being true to your white pebble. When you aren’t aware of yourself, your motivators and talents, finding rewarding work with a good ‘job fit’ is pure trial and error.

White – Brown = ‘Management’ Challenges: Here is the case of the employee, who has proven their capability at solving detail oriented problems, getting a new pile of such work from their manager who doesn’t realize that it is the employees diligence –not their passion– that leads to repeat positive outcomes. With time, this employee gets sick of doing to the same draining work, and spends days searching the job boards. Meanwhile, a perfectly capable employee, who loves this kind of detail oriented work, is feeling like a failure, because he is asked to solve problems that require considerable creativity, which is not his forte. When the manager can shorten the line between the employee’s true motivators and talents, they can better fit roles to the right employees.

Green – Brown = Career Opportunity Misalignment: The delta between between self-deception and reality is the most significant when it comes to career aspirations (x2 in fact, because two people are involved). Imagine the employee that wants to move up the ladder, and sees becoming a manager as the only way to progress, but doesn’t realize that they aren’t suited to management. Everyone has experienced the scenario of a manager being promoted as a reward for good service as an IC, not for leadership talent. Now, the senior manager becomes complicit in the disengagement, when they see that the manager’s capabilities don’t warrant further promotion in a leadership role, but fail to recognize that their real capabilities and potential may lie elsewhere as an IC. In this case, much is to be gained by both the manager, and senior manager, getting to a better level of understanding of the individuals white pebble.

Including these deltas, the diagram starts to look more like this:

Unfortunately this problem is an epidemic fostered by the following dynamics:

  • A still common concept of the worker –borne of the industrial revolution– as an interchangeable cog that does the same job the same way
  • An education system that focuses on measuring capabilities not motivators, and drives people to specialize on existing training tracks instead of exploring their unique areas of interest
  • The majority of companies hire based on experience and qualifications, not on passion and intrinsic motivators
  • No standard lexicon exists to discuss the concept of motivators and talents (you need to have a commonly understood language to have a conversation, or be really good at mime)

Clearly this is simplistic –not holistic– view of engagement, nor will it completely eliminate employee attrition (nor should it), but it provides a generative metaphor to illustrate one great method for improving the engagement of employees: talent  & motivation awareness. Any process that will help create a better understanding between employees, their peers and their managers on their underlying motivators and talents helps to reduce the size and negative impact of this ‘Employee Engagement Bermuda Triangle’. Employees better understand the kind of functions that will help them contribute and grow the most, managers can better tailor roles to fit each individuals talents and motivators, and a meaningful dialogue can occur between the manager and the employee on a realistic and fulfilling career development path.

Psyche’s approach to employee engagement focuses on reducing the size of this triangle through interactive team-centric approaches. In our next post on the EE Bermuda Triangle, we will further explore how this triangle can help us understand manager-employee dynamics.

*If you have read Hugh’s great book ‘Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity‘, or are a fan of his comics, this will not surprise you at all.