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Engagement, Transparency and the Human Brain

Glass Orb

Let’s face it: HR has engagement-fever. If you and your organizations haven’t been infected yet, it’s only a matter of time (or maybe a matter of one more headline trumpeting yet another study correlating ‘engagement’ with organizational performance and even profit margins). Combine this incessant stream of engagement coverage with the current abysmal employee engagement numbers (such as those presented by the recent Ipsos Reid study I discussed in my last post), and you have a recipe for organizational hysteria.

But let’s put aside (for a minute), the need for a much clearer definition of what everybody means (and does not mean) by “employee engagement”, and the need for an increased understanding of the relationship between engagement and the other organizational data it has been correlated with. Put that aside, and jump on the bandwagon with me for a short ride to consider engagement, transparency, and the human brain…

Low Engagement/Lack of Trust

If you read my last post, you know that the recent Ipsos Reid study on Canadian employee engagement indicated a strong correlation between low employee engagement, and a lack of trust and confidence in senior leaders. The same study showed much higher levels of trust and confidence in senior leaders (as well as engagement) amongst HR professionals. I wondered in-post if this might have something to do with HR professionals often having more “inside information” than the average employee about why certain changes and decisions were made as they’re happening (I was thinking especially in terms of more unsettling changes like restructuring, lay-offs etc.). I don’t know if this is the case, but I think that it’s an interesting possibility.

Increased Communication Needed?

At the event where the Ipsos study was presented, John Wright of the Canadian Management Centre expressed the belief that clear and continuous communication from the top is a key component of addressing the lack of employee trust and confidence in senior leaders, and by extension low employee engagement. Could it be true then, that increased access to more information about potentially threatening changes is a factor responsible for HR’s professionals higher ratings on engagement and trust in leaders? If so, then it follows that increasing the flow of that information to employees could result in a positive change to their engagement levels also.

Uncertainty and the Human Brain

Curiously, neuroscience offers some support to this theory. This week I attended a webinar presented by i4CP and the Neuroleadership Institute entitled: “The Neuroscience of Growing Talent” (which was as amazing as it sounds. You can, and should, watch it for free here). David Rock, President of the NeuroLeadership Institute, spoke about what happens in our brain when it’s presented with ambiguity and uncertainty, even in small amounts. Basically, our brain’s threat centers light up the same way it does in a dark, unfamiliar alley. As it turns out, as a species we are truly not inclined to enjoy uncertainty. In contrast, the brain’s reaction to certainty (even if that certainty is about a fairly negative fact), can be seen in its reward centers. These are the same areas that light up in response to perceived fairness and progress (both big winners with our brains).

Increased Transparency = Increased Trust and Engagement?

So based on this information, we could surmise that increased transparency and communication within an organization are more likely to produce positive responses (even if the information being shared is of a negative nature), than limiting the availability of that same information on a “need to know” basis only, which is likely to create uncertainty.

So, more transparency is good, yes? I know- this is not ground-breaking. In fact, the majority of the currently prescribed antidotes to low engagement (and there are no shortage of these), sound like no-brainers. The problem is that saying “let’s be really transparent with our employees” and actually doing that are vastly different endeavours. Actually adopting a culture of transparency and openness sounds like the type of thing your whole organization could agree on over coffee and have implemented by lunch time. But actually doing that would be a terrifying and alien experience….at least at first.

Start Small

So maybe this is a ‘start small’ kind of thing then…maybe, as Jon Wright from the Canadian Management Centre suggests, organizations would be well-served to focus on getting information from the top decks of senior management down to front-line managers for quick dispersal to employees, before their brains’ threat centres light up, and they assume the worst. Maybe we can recommend that our organizations focus on explaining why changes are made, not just what those changes are. For many of us, these present big enough challenges. Perhaps I can make them seem less daunting by offering you a few examples of what transparency taken to the nth degree might look like:

Or Be Radical…

In that NeuroLeadership webinar, David Rock referenced an example of Qualtrics, a company that has made all its data, about every employee, available to everyone, all the time. Individual sales numbers, how much year end bonuses were, expense submissions….everything. These articles, about Open Book Management, or “Radical Transparency” describe other organizations taking a similar approach. Extreme? Absolutely. But managed correctly, and assuming an organization is acting in an equitable manner, could it not (theoretically at least) reduce uncertainty about whether rules are being applied to everyone equally, and eliminate some major sources of distrust? Don’t get me wrong; I realize that even in the age of Wiki Leaks, the idea of such utter transparency is unlikely to appeal to many business leaders, or even employees. But given that examples exist of such an extreme form of transparency existing in functioning organizations, perhaps we can perservere in tackling the small steps needed to start sharing more in our own, less radical, organizations…

What do you think? Is transparency a potential solution to the employee engagement ‘problem’ we face? Would you work for a radically transparent organization?

Image from Dave Lea via Flickr

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Great Post Jane!
    While being sufficiently transparent about what’s happening in our organization to support trust, we also spend significant time and effort becoming clear and transparent about how differently each of us THINKS about our roles, our teams, and the business. Company-wide transparency about our filters and motivations, a supporting vocabulary, and lots of coaching are enabling us to appreciate and optimize the contribution of those differences. We are seeing clear improvements in our engagment ratings, but most of all, it’s simply a lot more rewarding and satisfying to work here.

    January 11, 2013

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