Jasmine Gartner is from New York and works primarily in the UK on employee engagement. She has a PhD in social anthropology, and is the author of an insightful and pithy book on engagement: Employee Engagement: A Little Book of Big Ideas.
In this interview we take a closer look at:
- How being an anthropologist influences her view of engagement
- How she views the connection between employee engagement and performance management
- How we begin to engage people at work with the 5 spheres of engagement
- Where engagement and performance management are headed as we approach the year 2020
How does being an anthropologist influence your view of engagement? How could thinking like an anthropologist improve how we approach work and engagement?
Anthropology is a state of mind. It provides you with two things, essentially. The first is a framework for thinking about and understanding the world around us. The second is a set of tools for exploring and analyzing the world in a coherent and systematic way.
This approach can really work in terms of improving the workplace in general and engagement in particular. For example, I provide culture audits to organizations: those organizations can identify a specific issue they’d like me to explore or I can just make a general assessment. Typically, I go in and have a look around the office, read any written material they’re willing to share, and chat with a lot of people, formally and informally. I then write up a report with my recommendations for what they’re doing well and what they could improve. This is just old-school, tried-and-true ethnography. (For the non-anthropologists, ethnography is the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.)
What do you see as the connection between employee engagement and performance management and what can we do to improve both?
Well, I think the obvious connection is that they’re both about people. What’s interesting with business jargon – and both those terms are jargon – is that the people are obscured, even though in both cases, it’s about people.
Both employee engagement and performance management are undermined by unconscious bias. Instead of communicating well, people make assumptions about what other people want. An employee coming back to work after being on parental leave might not get the more challenging projects because managers assume their mind is still focused on the child at home instead of on their work. But it’s an assumption, not a fact. That assumption – especially if it’s wrong! – will have a negative impact on the employee’s performance and their engagement.
To prevent making assumptions about people, remember that all workers are human beings and the basic unit of human interaction is dialogue. If people aren’t good at communicating, get some trainers into your workplace and teach people what to say and how to say it.
You offered a very intriguing comment on a post I wrote in November. You said: “I think surveys may be what people do when they don't really know how to begin engaging people.” Can you elaborate on how we can begin engaging people without a reliance on surveys?
There was a survey done years ago, and unfortunately I can’t remember the source, but I remember being really struck by the responses to two questions. The first was: do you think engagement is important? Something like 70 percent of respondents said yes. The second question was: do you know how to engage your employees? Something like 70 percent of respondents said no. I think surveys are often a fall-back tool when people don’t know where to start. They have good intentions, but they feel unsure of their footing.
There are a couple of alternatives to the annual survey. One that works very well here in the UK is to implement an Employee Representative Forum. This is where a small number of employees are elected as reps and they have conversations with management about the company’s vision and strategy for the future. They then voice employees’ concerns about the company’s direction. It’s a two-way dialogue, and when it works, it works really well.
The other route is to just use one of the many communication channels you have at your disposal and you feel comfortable with. Use them to let your people know that engagement is what happens when there is a two-way dialogue about the company strategy and employee concerns. You can write newsletters, you can blog, you can use YouTube. I would also suggest an in-person approach, such as a town hall meeting. Informally, managers should be walking around the office, shop-floor or whatever form the workplace takes and getting to know people.
What are your five spheres of engagement?
About 5 or 6 years ago, I remember mentioning to a group of managers that they needed to engage people. A woman said, “But what does that mean for us?” As I thought about it, I realised that to make engagement achievable, it’s important to break it down into bite-size pieces.
My five spheres of engagement are all about isolating where engagement happens.
- The company
- The work
- The team
- The network
- Society (or the social environment)
The company is the first sphere – it’s the big picture. Engagement happens here when employees interact with organizational culture and values. After that, you have your second sphere, the work itself, which helps when thinking about how employees feel about whether their work is valued or necessary.
I think managers need to start with engagement in the areas I’ve described above and help employees understand the company strategy so they can then plug themselves into that bigger picture (the first sphere). Performance management rather neatly fits into the second sphere. This is where managers can help employees to achieve their potential and simultaneously improve business.
The third and fourth spheres are the team and the network, which help us understand company culture. They can help a manager understand what kind of culture their organization has, which will help them make better choices in how they communicate with their employees and all those in the wide world beyond the walls of the workplace.
The fifth and final sphere ties in the world outside the organization. Managers must be cognizant of politics, legislation and general cultural values when thinking about keeping employees engaged.
Where do you think engagement and performance management are headed as we move closer to the year 2020?
You know, I’m worried about employee engagement. The number of engaged staff has hovered at around 33 percent for over a decade. To figure out where we’ll be in a few years’ time we should reflect on what hasn’t been working thus far.
That said, I think that we can expect to see even more digitization of HR processes, such as engagement and performance management apps. Where this works well, they will be precursors to meaningful dialogue. Where they fail, they’ll just be another example – much like that much-maligned survey – of how companies don’t really care.
What I genuinely hope to see is some critical thinking and a whole lot of reflection around these processes: I hope we’ll look at our mistakes and our failures and learn from them.
In fact, I hope there is some disillusionment with the way things are now and new ideas about how we run our companies – and our society – will rise from the ashes of that disillusionment. As you can see, I’m a short-term pessimist, long-term optimist!