Welcome to my Blog…….

P1010098_8X6Hello I’m David Bowles and I want to welcome you to my blog on morale/engagement, culture, emotional intelligence and performance, the themes of two books published worldwide by Palgrave-Macmillan (see tabs above and pictures below), which I co-authored with Professor Sir Cary Cooper.  Instead of just focusing in the first book on “what to do on Monday morning” to improve morale and engagement, Cary and I have looked in depth at the performance connections with morale and engagement…the things which are the answer to the question: “why should I care about this touchy-feely stuff”?  As we say in the book, performance is the reason why you should care and why organizations large and small see their cultures and the resulting  levels of engagement as “mission critical“. 

Cary and I also strongly believe that worker morale and engagement is part of the way in which we can….we MUST….change our capitalist system, a system to which we are passionately committed.  We extend our insights from the first book into the second, suggesting that the Crash of 2008-9 has demonstrated just how much our capitalist system….and the work cultures which underlie the way the system operates…..need to change, and how that change can occur

I look forward to sharing with you here the research-based data we feature in the books and discussing your reactions to, and experience with, what I have to say.  Whether you are interested in productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction, worker health or innovation…all are affected by, and our data show, driven by, high morale and engagement.  Coming at a time of unprecedented stress and upheaval in organizational life, the drive towards high morale and the workforce engagement which results from it, can be our way towards success in the tough, globalized world which is our future.  It can surely be a part of the way towards a more “conscious” form of capitalism which works for everyone, not just the few. I look forward to sharing this journey with you and hope you will contribute your ideas and thoughts.


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Posted in employee engagement, employee morale, morale and customer satisfaction, morale and employee health, morale and performance, morale and productivity, morale and profitability, morale as "mission critical", morale as competitive edge, morale myths, myths of morale, sustainable business culture, sustainable management, sustainable management practices, work performance and employee morale | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Memo to the Engagement Survey Haters: Here is Why You’re Mistaken


It had to happen:  the backlash against employee opinion surveys, engagement surveys, morale surveys, call them what you will.  The sound you hear on the blogosphere in places such as HR Capitalist and Employee Engagement Network is a crescendo of voices saying that surveys are just so 1990, they are done with, finished, they never were that useful anyway.  We read of the thud of massive survey result feedback books arriving on organizations’ doormats once each year and everyone groaning that they have to, once again, wade through all this data.

As I look at the people who are saying this, there is a mix.  Some have done quite a bit of surveying and got sick and tired of it over time or had a bad experience once or twice.   Others seem to have no experience at all and yet wish to pontificate about surveys anyway.   Common themes are that:

nothing was ever done with it

–it didn’t relate to morale or engagement “on the ground”, in other words a really engaged team might come across as disengaged in a survey

–it took too much time

–it replaced one-to-one contact which is what workers really wanted

–surveys are “unscientific” in any case

This is a shame, but it is understandable.  The survey industry certainly has made some mistakes and in some cases failed to adapt to the times.  However, to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to discontinue surveying or decide not to do this if you have never done it, is a mistake.  The reason is that surveys are the ONLY method of collecting information about morale or engagement which meets all of the criteria shown in the table below.   Those criteria are:

  •  Providing a full “census” of all your people and not a sample.  You don’t want to sample because of one good reason, you leave out people who want to express their opinions.  Sampling also has myriad statistical issues which have to be resolved in order for the sample to be ……
  •  Generalizable to the whole;  you need to be able to say, the information we have here truly represents our whole organization or that part of it in which we are interested.
  •  Providing quantitative data.  As a result of having zero or minimal quantitative data, one cannot do crucial things like compare results to the past and see change (or lack thereof), make a benchmark for where things stand now, internally rank groups and find “centers of excellence” within your own organization and so on.  These are all incredibly valuable, if done by a knowledgeable practitioner with the right tools.

So let’s look at various methods of finding out the key question:  “how are our people doing?  Whether you are interested in engagement, morale, satisfaction, culture or climate, this is the basis of what you need to know.  Several methods exist for doing this:

  •  Ambush survey:  the boss (or boss’s boss) arrives in the elevator at the same time as you and quizzes you on how things are for the 30 seconds it takes to reach your floor.  Of course ambush surveys can happen anywhere, including on the phone.
  •  Casual chat:   your boss sees you in the cafeteria and sits down for a talk.
  •  Group/Team meeting:  more structured, focused on issues, etc.  May be peers only or may be attended by management.
  •  Self directed group:  this is a team which runs its own affairs, usually handling all that HR used to do, including hiring and firing, setting goals, internal people management issues, etc.
  •  Focus group:  a sample of people gathered for a task such as identifying issues for an opinion survey questionnaire.  May or may not be structured to statistically represent a larger whole, of which these people are part.
  •  Employee opinion survey:  called by many names including all those above (engagement, etc.).   Web-based and individually completed, paper and pencil and group-completed or combinations of these.

(Note: I left out social networking methods, partly because they are relatively new and we have no data on how they work and secondly because the issue of confidentiality looms so large for them I am not sure that until that is resolved, they will be so useful in gathering really solid data; they may also subject people to a feeling of being over surveyed, resulting in “survey fatigue” and the loss of good data; that remains to be seen).

Each method above has strengths and weaknesses in relation to the criteria above (full census, confidentiality and numerical data).  If you choose to run only focus groups, for example, you have several problems.  Often it is very hard to make them statistically representative of the whole.  Then you need a skilled facilitator running them so that the “talkers” do not dominate with their endless stories about…whatever.  Even then, those who are shy but may have extremely valuable information may not speak up.  Also, those who are not necessarily shy but fear their views will be “outed” if they complain about something, keep quiet.  Focus groups are very time consuming, yet even within an hour period it is impossible to cover more than a few topics in depth.  You can see, the list is long and the issues are big.  Yet people on the blogs insist they can “talk to people” to get the information they need about engagement, morale, etc.

The table below summarizes these issues for each possible method of information gathering:

Methods of Gathering Morale and Engagement Information **

Sample or 100% Census? General-izable to the Whole? Anecdotal Or Numeric? Structured or New Information Possible? Confi-dential? Allows for In-Depth Study of Issues?
“Ambush” Survey Sample (small) No Anecdotal New Information limited by “Fear Factor” No No
Casual Chat Sample (small) No Anecdotal New information, but limited No No
Group/Team Meeting Sample (very limited) No Anecdotal New information, but limited No Yes, can do over time
Self Directed Group Sample (very limited) No Anecdotal New information, but limited No Yes, can do over time
Focus Group Sample (usually limited) Limited Anecdotal New information, but limited No Yes, but limited by time
Employee Opinion Survey Typically 100% Census Yes Both Both Yes Yes

As you can see, surveys of your workforce win hands down.  They are the ONLY method of finding out “how our people are doing” which meets all the important criteria.  Anything else leaves you with less, sometimes far less.  The information you then have is second rate, even wholly misguided. Can you then base decisions on it?

The table is a summary, and does not even begin to cover the psychological factors which come into play when one human being talks to another: issues such as selective listening (filtering out what is uncomfortable to hear, or what does not fit into preconceived notions, for example).  Of course surveys can also be mis-interpreted, but professionals in this area know how to help internal or external clients face the data, and such data is much more difficult to fudge in most situations where it is openly published, as it was with all our clients as a condition of our working for them.  Try doing that with information which is collected in a quick chat between an employee and her boss’s boss in the elevator or on the telephone, which can be immediately forgotten, or turned into something quiet different, etc.  Alternatively it can be, and often is, incorrectly generalized to larger groups when in fact it represents just one person.

I challenge anyone: let’s take an organization of 5000 people scattered here and there and you go and talk to them and I will survey them.  I’ll make it so that you win if we both come up with the same information…how’s that for a deal?  But if my survey tells a different story in any area (geographic) or on any topic, we will have the issue of which is “correct”.  The tie breaker will be like cards: confidentiality is the Ace, and if you cannot provide that in the method you used to collect the data, you will be trumped.  Much research shows that confidentiality changes the data you receive, so try ensuring that with your “talks”.  I already know the winner here:  the survey.

No matter what the gurus on the blogosphere say, there is no substitute for surveying your people at work.  Far from being “unproven science”, good surveys are heavily researched and validated (see below);  they provide far better data than any other method in my Table, above.  Some bloggers make the amazing point that they conducted an engagement survey and found that the most engaged groups came out worst on the survey; this was then used to invalidate the whole process!  This is Organizational Psych 101.  Good surveys have to be carefully constructed:  they must pass tests of validity, for example, whereby they are shown to measure what they say they measure.  Using a bad survey which does not correctly identify highly engaged groups is a lack of methodological rigor for one instrument, not a failure of employee surveys as a whole, which provide extraordinary benefits to smart organizations worldwide.

When I was full time in the business of running such surveys, my clients wanted and received these benefits and took full advantage of them.  They had early warning of things in Tokyo or in their ER; they knew what was happening in the heart of their German operations or in the building next door; they knew which of their 100 hospitals was doing a great job and why (meaning they could use that to help other hospitals); they could compare and rank morale and engagement for each sales group across all operations, whether around the state, the country or around the world.  Surveys made all of this possible.

All surveys are not created equally, that is for sure.  To be any good, you need excellent, heavily tested and validated questions; you need to cover the crucial issues in that organization; you need a process which is quick and efficient; you need comprehensive and totally honest feedback; and you need the survey to be part of an overall effort which puts people first and wants to create absolute excellence in that relationship.  A survey should never be a stand-alone effort, an end in itself.   No serious practitioner would ever agree to that, and in fact if I felt a potential client was not going to follow-through, I refused the assignment since I did not want my firm associated with such a failure.  My best clients saw surveying as only a part of their goals of being world class in terms of a high morale culture, which was lived and breathed by everyone who worked there.

Managers running around chatting with individuals is a great thing and absolutely necessary on a day to day basis.  But to use it in place of a survey when you really need to know “how our people are doing” on a large scale (and who does not need that at least as much as they need to have a handle on their finances?) is like someone taking snapshots of people at their workplace. Well constructed and run surveys, like those of the really good practitioners in this field, are a whole-organization MRI or CT-scan which can be focused in vivid 3-D detail on any part of that organization.  That’s the difference.  And that difference is why Google surveys its people yearly and monthly, and every year wins the Best Places to Work For contest in the US and elsewhere.  Not a bad track record for the much maligned survey….

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**  Table above excerpted from Employee Morale: Driving Performance in Challenging Times by David Bowles and Cary Cooper. Copyright © 2009-14 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.

Picture of Google UK from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Posted in employee engagement, Employee Engagement Network, employee engagement surveys, employee morale, employee morale surveys, employee satisfaction surveys, employee survey myths, engagement and supervisor, engagement myths, focus groups, high morale supervisor, HR Capitalist, management and employee engagement, management and high employee morale, management and high morale, morale and supervisor, morale benchmark, morale myths, myths of morale, Trends in Employee Engagement, Trends in Employee Morale | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The High Engagement Manager: What She Does and How She Gets There.

High Engagement Management Pic 2

I was inspired today by a single question from someone on the Employee Engagement Network, a lively, friendly and well informed group of people brought together by Canadian David Zinger. The question was:

In today’s workplace, what are the main levers that Supervisors can use to improve morale and engagement?

Although my first book was not organized around “what to do to improve morale and engagement” (many books have done that) I did ask some questions about whether managers are born or made, and if one could make a perfect high engagement manager, what traits she (in this case) would have. As such this is not about “levers” (not sure I like that mechanistic view of things) as much as it is about how one can prepare oneself for the critical job of managing others. It is about values, beliefs and actions….which could lead a person to having high morale, engaged employees.

Here is what I said in the book:

“What if it is possible to hire a manager who leaves behind a trail of goodwill and enthusiastic employees, no matter where she goes? What traits would this person have?

  •  She would have left behind that part of her personal background and baggage which would have poisoned relationships with her team and her peers
  •  She would check her ego at the door and make sure it didn’t effect her management style:

-for example by not “stealing” credit for projects from others

-by knowing that when people in her team are successful she too is successful, not diminished

-by hiring or promoting people who might be smarter than her in the field and not being threatened by that

  • She would have a view of people as essentially motivated, intelligent and creative
  • She would believe that those qualities can be “invited” into the work environment with the right kind of management support and encouragement
  • She would see her job mainly as a coach, not a controller
  • She would have…oh please yes….a sense of humor!
  • She would have a profound respect for her people and treat them that way
  • She would treat people with equality and fairness, not favoring some at the expense of others based on personal relationships, or other factors not related to the job itself
  • She would base all evaluation of her employees on mutually-agreed-upon, clear goals
  • She would provide honest, supportive, regular and timely feedback to her people
  • She would be tough enough to make difficult personnel decisions, such as helping a low performing employee to face up to that fact
  • She would be a communicator of the stated values of the organization as well as living them via her own behavior
  • She would not tolerate violations of those values by anyone and would protect her team from those who would violate them

If this sounds like superwoman, it is not: great managers do a lot of these things by instinct (good genes help), but some of them can be learned.  Others (like the essential ability to identify and control one’s ego and other aspects of emotional intelligence) can be a long term personal growth project on which many do not wish to embark, and which is unlikely to change on a week long course in the country.”


Excerpted from Employee Morale: Driving Performance in Challenging Times by David Bowles and Cary Cooper. Copyright © 2009-14 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.

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Posted in boss from hell, David Bowles Ph.D., ego and employee engagement, ego and engagement, ego at work, ego based management, emotional intelligence, employee engagement, employee engagement as competitive edge, employee engagement as mission critical, Employee Engagement Network, employee morale, engagement and supervisor, EQ, ethics and employee engagement, ethics and employee morale, happiness at work, HR, human resources, ideal manager for high employee engagement, ideal manager for high employee morale, leadership, management and employee engagement, management and high employee morale, management and high morale, manager self-development for high employee engagement, manager self-development for high employee morale, morale, morale and employee health, morale and performance, morale and productivity, morale and supervisor, morale as "mission critical", sustainable management, sustainable management practices, women in management, women in management and organizational performance | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Emotional Intelligence: How Much, How Quickly, Can It Be Learned?


Emotional Intelligence is an increasingly important topic in the field of people management, and rightfully so. In a previous post I defined EQ at some length so wont repeat that here. In that post I argued that EQ is a golden link in the engagement chain at work: it is vital at every level from CEO to salesperson. It is basic to a great corporate culture.  So, given its importance, can it be learned?  How quickly, in a weekend? My first answer is yes, with some reservations.  I want to take a first shot at this, knowing it is not a simple subject and that I may need more than once post to cover it.

As a young psychologist working on my doctorate I studied groups which were intended to train managers in people skills, much of which we now call emotional intelligence.  A few of these people were failing as managers and were being given “one last chance” to come around.  This was offered to them typically in groups which lasted a few days, sometimes just a weekend, and which were often facilitated by people who (in my opinion) were barely one page ahead of their students when it came to many of these skills…..

As you can imagine this was not very successful, a conclusion I confirmed after a lot of work : I carried out a study of these people for three years, preceding the training with psychological testing, and following on with more testing and with family and work colleague questionnaires focused on the behavior of the participant for a long time after they had gone through the training. Had they changed, especially if they had had a very emotional training experience? Yes some of them had, but no more than those who had signed up for these trainings but who had not gone through with them for various reasons!  Life and the passage of time had “trained” the latter to learn things just as well as those in the groups.

Why had this happened? And what can this teach us about emotional intelligence at a time when many are offering training and coaching in this field?

–One of the main conclusions was that people who go through training in this type of material need to do so with those with whom they work. The people I studied were usually there without work colleagues. Had they had those present with them, I think they would have had someone else with whom to practice new behaviors when they returned to work; add to this the bonding which can take place in these situations, which can carry over into strong work friendships. Let’s remember that “having a good friend at work” is a sign of a more highly engaged individual. Quite a few of my participants had none of these advantages.

–Secondly there was a great deal of pressure for some of these people to “shape up”; can you imagine your career in an organization depending on your response to a 3-4 day training program? But doesn’t some pressure enhance performance? Yes, but much research shows that extreme pressure degrades it…and the way many of these trainings were run, the pressure was extreme.  Especially in this area, EQ is something which an individual must WANT to learn.

–That brings me to the third point, which is that outcomes depend on the skills of the facilitator(s).   Any of you who have been through therapy for even a short length of time might know that your therapist can only take you to a place where he/she has been themselves. This is a similar, but much shorter journey; but it has the same rules. EQ trainers are not going to be able to help you through emotion-loaded areas which they still have not worked out inside themselves.

EQ is a huge set of knowledge to have: far, far more than a simple “skill”.  It predicts performance on a job much more than the better-known general intelligence (IQ), which cannot predict it at all!  Developing more emotional intelligence will make you not only more skilled but also more happy at work and in life in general, on top of any improvements in your work performance. Any investment is valuable, but buyer beware! Look for the following:

–Programs which you can attend with others from your own organization, or if not that, with a group with whom you can have ongoing contact after the training

–Trainers who have an extensive background in this or related fields, including psychology. A few weeks training in this (absent any other previous related experience) does not qualify anyone, in my opinion, to facilitate in such a sensitive and powerful subject. You would never go to a psychotherapist who had almost no qualifications or experience, because in most countries that would be illegal. But EQ coaches, life coaches, work coaches….are growing like mushrooms and are not regulated in the US at least, and probably elsewhere.  Some, of course, are great;  others are inexperienced and shallow in their skills and knowledge.   You should not pay the price…financially or emotionally…for this.

– No one learns about EQ under pressure: if you have a boss who tells you to raise your EQ….or else….find another job!

Remember this is not about learning how to use the latest version of Excel or Word; it is learning about some of the deepest things inside …you. Its exciting, exhilarating, rewarding, but be careful how you tread on this path!

Next: What You Need to Learn to Boost your EQ

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Posted in @psych4biz, David Bowles Ph.D., ego and employee engagement, ego and engagement, ego at work, ego based management, emotional intelligence, employee engagement, employee engagement as competitive edge, EQ, EQ coach, EQ coaching, EQ training, happiness at work, happiness at work and worker engagement, happiness at work coach, HR, human resources, work engagement and performance, work performance and employee morale, worker engagement and performance | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Employee Engagement Myths and Pitfalls: Let’s Get Our Act Together Already!

SHRM Starbucks Baristas

World’s Best Staffed Starbucks: San Diego Convention Center, California. (note: two were hiding behind the others, there were 9 in all)

It seems that everywhere you turn these days in the organizational world people are talking about employee engagement. It has really become a phenomenon, and I have to say I am a little surprised at this, while at the same time respecting what part of the market wants.  Another part, and its a big one, just wants to know “how our people are doing” and doesn’t really care what consultants call it. Perhaps the reason for engagement’s rise is that the word is very graphic, it grabs people, and gets them excited about a subject which before was described with words like morale, satisfaction, empowerment, enthusiasm, etc. But what happens at this stage in such a phenomenon is that people come out of the woodwork as “engagement experts”.  Time was when only those with a background in organizational psychology would work in this area but now I see people with varied backgrounds in many other disciplines coming into the field. This is both good and bad: good in that we have a different perspective from such people; we need their creative ideas, and engagement surely does have a communications component, for example. Bad, because some of these people make the most wacky statements about engagement.  I think they do this because they have a limited background in some of the crucial areas which relate to the engagement field, especially measurement. Lets look at a few of the things which are being said:

–“Engagement is a feeling”: no its not.  Because it involves human beings it has a feeling component at first, but it doesn’t stop there.  Engagement is also a choice and a behavior.  We choose to engage with our job and our organization based on the conditions we experience there, and what kind of person we are.  This is exactly where engagement goes beyond morale as a concept:  it extends it with a word which emphasizes action.

–“Organizations can engage people”: no they can’t.  As a result of engagement being a choice, no organization can ever make that happen for anyone who works there.  All it can do is make the conditions so good that the probability that people engage goes up.  That probability will never be 100%, and assuming a great culture awaits them, will depend entirely on what kind of people we hire.  Recruiters and good managers are worth their weight in gold.

–“Engagement cannot be measured”: not true. People who say that engagement is only a feeling also seem to say this. First of all feelings can be measured, otherwise we would not know which is the happiest country on the planet (it varies, usually the Dutch or the Danes); or your doctor would never be able to ask “on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being awful, how bad is the pain?” In any case we do not need to measure feelings to know about engagement. We can look at the behavioral by-products exhibited by engaged people such as advocacy, with a question like “Would you recommend (company name) as a place to work to friends and others in the community?”

–“Engagement shouldn’t be measured”: yes it should. Kris Dunn, who writes very good blogs such as HR Capitalist and Fistful of Talent, had a piece slamming the need for “stinking ” surveys to measure engagement. There is only one problem, or actually two: Dunn also works in HR (VP of People is his title) at a company which has…ready for this…77 people. Well thats easy to say, when all your people can fit into the CEO’s back yard for pizza every week, if he wanted that. Talk to me when you have 770 or 7700, Kris, and lets see if you still feel the same. The second point demonstrates a little double talk on his part: his company is rightly proud of its high position as one of the top Best Places to Work For (R), among US small companies. This is a huge achievement and is trumpeted on the company’s website and very likely used widely in recruitment. But wait a second: the only way they know this and can be ranked on this list is, you guessed it: a survey.

–“Engagement is not proven to drive performance”  Excuse me?  Have you been living in a cave the last 5 years?  Engagement and its cousin, morale, have a huge effect on performance.  And the people who say that are not confused about “correlation not being causation”.  I am one of those people, having written a whole book in 2009 on this subject and brought together the best research in the world.  But don’t just take my word for it, listen to Gallup or the UK group Engage for Success, who did a big study and found the same thing:  morale and engagement drive performance.  If you have engaged people you will have happier customers, healthier workers, make more money and generally achieve your mission better (whether it involves making money or not).  This train has left the station, so please don’t sow doubt as if this is “still undecided”.  Its not.

–“A pig never got fat by being weighed” (translation: we don’t create engagement by measuring it). Believe it or not this was in the McLeod UK government report on engagement released in 2009. Its funny all right, but so totally detached from the real need to measure engagement. OF COURSE the measurement doesn’t create the “thing” itself. I have never heard anyone who said it did. But since the writer of this little ditty likes pigs, lets humor him by giving the following example:

Imagine this: you have 20,000 pigs, in 100 countries; you don’t know how fat each one is but your job is to feed them. Do you: 1) send out the same amount of food to each country, in which case the fat ones get even fatter and the starving ones barely recover? 2) Do some kind of measurement in each country, so that you know how fat or skinny each pig (or small group of pigs) is? Then you adjust the food accordingly. Of course the measurement you do is important. Pigs, like people, lie about their weight. Don’t just ask the pigs in front of their peers….you need a confidential process to make sure you are getting accurate results. I think, I hope…..I made a case for employee surveys. No they don’t create “engagement” but when done well they at least tell you where you are starting from and how far you have come. Then you can target what you do and adjust it accordingly.

Show me a way…..please…. you can do this on almost any scale beyond the tiniest organization, confidentially, generating quantitative data which can be compared to last year and internally between units, without surveys? If you have never measured morale or engagement and discovered centers of management excellence previously hidden in your organization which can become role models for others, you have missed out. Once I carried out a survey for a hospital system and the ER in one hospital scored the worst of any department in that hospital. The manager blamed the local, admittedly difficult social environment with its history of violence, high volume of injuries, etc., but he didn’t get far with that: I was armed with the data from a sister hospital where the environment was equally awful and that ER had the highest morale in its hospital. I suggested the first manager visit the second to find out what works; this would all have been impossible without measurement and internal benchmarking.

Final myth: “peoples’ morale and engagement goes down when they have to work too hard”. This myth is a favorite in places like France.  OK take a look at the Starbucks workers above and ask yourself if they look happy…can we agree they do? Then watch this video of the line which was waiting for them…do I need to say more?

In a new field like this there is a lot of “settling down” which happens as definitions are ironed out between practitioners, in which methodologies are discussed for doing various things. We are at that phase in employee engagement and I expect it to go on for some time.  But let’s not wait too long: our clients (internal and external) such as CEOs and other leaders are pawing the ground expecting us to deliver something well defined, solid and proven to be a performance driverotherwise what is the point? It must improve on what came before. If we cannot do this, engagement will go the route of other management “fads” with no staying power.  I’m an engagement “fan”, I like the power of the idea and its focus on people making powerful choices which benefit themselves and their organization.  I want it to work, but for that to happen, we practitioners have to get our act together….

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Posted in employee engagement, employee morale, engagement myths, management and employee engagement, management and high employee morale, management and high morale, morale and performance, morale and productivity, morale and profitability, morale and workforce performance, morale myths, myths of morale, Starbucks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Warning: Ego at Work! Do You Have People Like This Where You Work?


My recent blog post on ego and morale/engagement in the workplace generated a lot of e-mails to me from people who identified with the situations I described. One reader wrote and told me that she found it quite stressful just reading about the stereotypical ego-driven manager and how (s)he operates, having had exactly such a person as boss in a previous job.  My argument in the previous blog was that ego is the biggest destroyer of morale and engagement at work, because in so many organizations, there are ego-driven managers.  But there are also, of course, ego driven employees, who may not have much power over others but are a pain to work with, and manage.  They drain the energy of the group and occupy too much time of the manager.  As host of an occupying force, their energy is not going to be focused on your organization and its goals, nearly as much as someone who does not have this trait.  Instead the ego-driven employee will spend inordinate amounts of time on other things, to satisfy the insatiable needs of this force which has them in its grip.

As we saw last time the ego is a false self, built up over time, and usually in childhood, to replace the “real” you, which you decided…unconsciously of course…was not “enough”.  Its like an inner conversation in which you said to yourself, “well I’m not making it with who I am now, so I am going to build a new “me” which will have the characteristics or exhibit the behaviors that I am sure will work with <fill in the blank>”.  At an early age, this blank is often filled with one or both parents.  At a later age, that role is often played by, guess who?  People at work.

This is a normal condition, only the famed spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle claims to have no ego, but the rest of us are stuck with one, to a greater or lesser extent.  The key is how much this false self stays unconscious and drives behavior; in some cases it will remain totally unknown to its host (the ego loves that, it is a stealthy creature) and even completely control its host.  If that is you, you simply have no idea what drives your life and would be amazed to find out.  The ego won’t easily let you, though, and will make you fight like crazy before any light is shone on itself.

We humans think we know ourselves as we get older, but often we do not; instead, we continue to do things which the ego demands in order for it to continue to exist.  Let’s look at some of these behaviors which might show up in your current or prospective employees or yes even….you:

–Sheila has a compulsive drive to up her personal Twitter and Facebook connections, even asking people she knows almost nothing about to become “friends” and competing with others who seem to have “made it” on these platforms.  As a result social networking takes up a significant part of her work day, even though much of it may not be business related.  (How’s that for a productive day?  You added 20 “friends” but got nothing done at work!)  Like many good activities and things in life, Facebook or Twitter can also become an addiction, and although Sheila does not think she is addicted to anything, she nonetheless feels a compulsion to act out this behavior. Unconsciously, Sheila has a deep belief that if she has 5000 Facebook friends she will have certain worth or value which was lacking when the count was 5.  When she reaches that number however, after a painfully short celebration, she finds that it does not “work” and she is no happier; unfortunately she is not allowed more than 5000 friends by Facebook, so is “stuck” there.  Sheila will look for another temporary and fragile solution, or if she is lucky and finds herself pushed by an inner drive or a good friend, be forced inwards for the journey which will lead her to a real and solid sense of self-esteem not based on external events, “friend” counts or material goods.

–Fred treats his bosses like parents, even gravitating to a boss whose style most (unconsciously) reminds him of a parent with whom he had problems.  This same mechanism is at work with the woman who marries a man who treats her like her father did, of course.  Its familiar, its what she is used to, what she thinks she deserves (good or bad, I am not saying this is always a bad thing, its just a common thing).  In the organization, we see this all the time.  We also see a more extreme version, where a mild mannered boss can be seen as a tyrant by an ego-possessed worker, whose bad childhood experience of “authority” makes anyone in an authority position ”bad” like the parent. This is of course a failure of perception, a projection of the parent onto someone who may not deserve it at all.  Of course, in Fred’s case, since Fred always seems to gravitate to people who are actually like his Dad, the perception could be close to reality!  Fred sees himself as a victim of these types of people, but of course he is not: he continually chooses them.  Until he understands his choices and why he makes them, he will continue to do this, and his organization will get less of his talent and energy and more of his childhood struggles.

–Mike expects to be rewarded for just showing up.  His ego has given him its inflated sense of “worth” which it transfers to its host. This is not to be confused with self-confidence or real self-esteem. The ego version is unrealistic and unearned; but if this is pointed out the ego will react harshly, to say the least!  Unfortunately Mike does not have a solid sense of himself as a good or capable person, so external signs are constantly solicited and he pressures his manager in ways that she finds very irritating.  In Mike’s case his problem was exacerbated by growing up at a time when his peer group of “Trophy Kids” was given awards for placing 4th in a race, for example. Constant positive feedback, which his ego demanded, was actually provided by a (temporary) cultural phenomenon, the expectations of which organizations still struggle with today.

–Johnny makes a confrontation of everything and plays to win at all times, even when this is not at all appropriate.  This drives other team members crazy; why can’t he relax and have fun sometimes, or let someone else shine?  Because his ego will not allow it, it requires constant proof that he, Johnny, is the best! Johnny’s ego scoffs at the idea of making room for, or celebrating the success of others, seeing such apparent generosity as “weakness”.

–Christine cannot receive anything but an “exceeds expectations” rating on the dreaded annual performance review.  Unlike the normal disappointment which might come to those who are rated “average” (although never using that word, always euphemistically called “meets expectations”), Christine goes into a major funk each time and gets into a verbal fight with her manager.  She also gets seriously discouraged, instead of being able to bounce back and excel based on what she has learned. This in turn reduces her chances of genuinely deserving a hike in the rating next time.

In each and every case here, the ego has taken over an individual.  In one way or another, and there are several ways in which this happens, a false and very fragile self has been created and maintained, sometimes for decades, and ends up causing havoc everywhere this person lives….including at work.  The amount of time and energy which goes into managing the hosts and the egos themselves is uncountable, because it is so widespread.  The customer satisfaction consequences of such ego-driven (and often disgruntled) employees are off the charts.  But there is hope, if we can identify early some of these cases and avoid them.  If not, then we have to look at ways to manage people we have hired (and did not know what was in store for us).  We will look at some of these strategies next time, as well as talk about what to do if these cases remind you of…YOU!

Photo:  http://www.highintelligenceoffice.com.

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Posted in Eckhart Tolle, ego and employee engagement, ego and engagement, employee engagement, employee morale, engagement and supervisor, engagement myths, ethics and employee engagement, happiness at work, high morale supervisor, leadership, management and employee engagement, management and high employee morale, management and high morale, morale, morale and customer satisfaction, morale and performance, morale and productivity, morale and supervisor, morale and workforce performance, morale and workplace performance, work performance and employee morale, worker engagement and performance | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why is European Customer Service So Bad? The Amazing Tale of Two Food Stores

Note: First published in 2010 and slightly updated…I see only slight changes since this was first covered, basically it is all the same as it was. Trader Joe’s website does not even mention the Aldi connection, and anyone asking at a Trader’s store about it is met with whispers and “we don’t talk about that here!”


I just got back from a long stay in Europe, where I live part time (in Germany). I am always surprised when I am there as to how bad customer service can be. I’m not talking about business to business service, I am talking about service in retail establishments like supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. We all know that Paris has a bad reputation for surly service, although I must say it is not worse there than in many other central European countries, and to a lesser extent in my native Great Britain.

Why am I so surprised? Because the Europeans often spend so much time training people in jobs like waiter, yet the results leave so much to be desired. A Swiss waiter or waitress will go through all the training about wines, types of and placement of cutlery, on and on, but when they deliver the food, except in the highest-end establishments, they throw it on the table with little or no eye contact or words exchanged. Language is not the issue, I speak their language(s). When I point this out to my Swiss or German friends, they agree, telling me that they are amazed in the other direction when they come to the states, how friendly and good the service is here, and how they are just “used to it” in their own countries and can do nothing to change what they see as a cultural phenomenon.

Let’s do an interesting comparison between two arms of the same company, the famous Aldi food store chain from Germany. Aldi (the word Aldi means “Albrecht Discount” because it was created by the Albrecht brothers, who became billionaires as a result of their creation), is a wildly successful concept for the German food market, selling a limited selection of inexpensive and good quality items in a fast paced environment, which flushes customers one-way through the aisles rather like IKEA. When one reaches checkout, the real fun begins, not only when a lane opens, which creates a stampede, but also when one reaches the clerk doing the scanning. Let me just say, you had better be prepared! Get your bag(s) ready, and fill them as soon as you can. You will receive no help from anyone to load your shopping, and heaven help you if you load slowly and drag out the waiting time for the line….the withering looks you get will drive you to a higher-end store like Tengelmann next time, if you are thin skinned.

Now let’s cross the Atlantic to the US, where Aldi owns a food store chain with a remarkably different culture, Trader Joe’s. TJ’s, as it is called by its many fans, was bought by Aldi around 1979, but few if any Americans know that. TJ’s and Aldi’s German stores could not be more different, not so much in the way they look or the quality of food they sell, although that is a bit different, but in the way things work. At TJ’s a line which opens does not result in a stampede, instead the person first in a longer line will be invited to be first in the new one. On arriving at the checkout, clerks will, in a remarkably relaxed and friendly way, check your stuff then load it expertly into the bag(s). No rush, no frenetic feeling, yet it all happens fast. TJ’s does not necessarily have more customers in the store at one time than Aldi, and yet it will always have six or so checkout lines going. Aldi tops out at three and often has only one, with the line snaking back into the store. That changes when enough people call out “neue Kasse”, or as the military would say, “call for backup!”

How is this possible? Clearly TJ’s is a profitable enterprise even given the apparent inefficiencies built into the system vis-à-vis its parent’s German stores, such as more checkout clerks and loading of customers’ bags by them. I bet Aldi has studied the numbers and would introduce the German system if they could….but of course they can’t! This is because the US has a shopping and general service culture which demands that customers be treated in a certain way. Having to stuff your own bags would be seen as a major insult; having the clerks do that is a minimum expectation. Having long checkout lines, the same. Germans are of course rather oriented to rules and perhaps they see the Aldi system as “those are the rules and I abide by them”. Faced with this situation, Americans would say, “those are the rules and unless they change I am voting with my feet and going elsewhere”.

This is a blog about morale and here is where I am leading to: I have shopped Aldi in Germany many times and when I look at the workers there they look somewhat burned out and certainly harried, tired, stressed. They rush from one task to another as if their life depended on it, and that includes when they have check-out duty. On a recent visit to a German Aldi, a friend of mine was looking for an item which she could not find and a clerk who was stocking shelves was working in the area; instead of stopping to help my friend, the clerk berated her for being in the way! The pressure on the clerks seems to be so intense that stopping for a customer, also in my experience, is almost the last thing they want to do.

Trader Joe’s people on the other hand, no matter if they are in California where I live or any other state, seem to have that “laid back” relaxed style even though they work fast and efficiently. They are friendly. I’m willing to bet their morale and engagement is head and shoulders above that of their German colleagues, which has many significant long-term implications for their business, their longevity on the job, and yes, on their individual health. This is a shame, Aldi has proved that they can master a system in the US that makes both workers and customers happy. For me as an Aldi customer in Germany, I only tolerate it to get the cheap coffee, cheese and wine which they have.

As for the heavily trained waiters in Switzerland and their non-existent people skills, give me an untrained US worker any time, who smiles at me and says the classic “have a nice day” when I leave. Better a fake smile than a real scowl.

Have a Nice Day!

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Ego: The Biggest Threat to Engagement at Work


But enough about me, let’s talk about you… what do YOU think of me?

Bette Midler as CC Bloom in “Beaches” (1988)

I often get asked this question: what is the one thing which is most likely to prevent an organization from having an engaged workforce? I believe it is something which lurks deep in the hearts and minds of individuals: the ego. What is the ego?

We all start out in a pretty non-egoic state, but quite soon find out that “I” am apparently separate from the world; this passage of childhood  is something which everyone passes through, but where some linger.  Those who linger stay in an egoic state rather than reconciling with the broader world, in the give and take (part “me” and a bigger part “we”) which most of us experience as everday life.  The egoic personality usually comes about as a result of childhood trauma of some kind, where the child learns to dislike itself, and to push aside unliked and unwanted parts of itself into a hidden area, while building a false “ego” like a shell around the original, real person.  The ego-shell hides the unwanted self (what Debbie Ford in her excellent book”** calls the “shadow”) from the world and the person functions only from this false, egoic front.  Since the original trauma involved learning to intensely dislike parts of oneself, the ego-shell must be constructed of new objects which will project what its owner hopes will be a socially acceptable version of self, capable of being liked, admired, respected, even…loved.

In more extreme cases of ego-possession, the sense of simply (human) “being” almost disappears and is replaced by an egoic identity which focuses instead entirely on these objects (or what Eckhart Tolle*** calls “form”). In other words, we “identify” with things outside of ourselves, in the hope that this identification will improve our social standing in some way.  These things can include one’s house, the type of job or position one occupies, wealth, educational background and achievement, other status symbols such as cars and countless other “things” such as sports teams which enable the ego to pretend that it’s owner is “better” than others.  Of course, the deep down (and usually unconscious) fear inside this person is that they are far, far worse than others….but this is not what the world sees or what the ego’s host ever wants it to see. Know anyone who is not just disappointed but crushed when his or her football team loses?  They are under the grip of the ego, and when their team loses, its like a personal failure.

 The Princeton dictionary brings this into focus with a concise definition which is very aligned with how most people see and use the word “ego”:

An inflated feeling of pride in your superiority to others

So what does this have to do with engagement at work?  Plenty if you think about it.  Imagine the worst boss you ever had, was she/he loaded down with ego?  Here are some of the symptoms:

  • she takes credit for projects which you started and carried out
  • he never hires people smarter than himself
  • he “licks up” and “kicks down” in the organization structure
  • she cannot take criticism
  • he is a perfectionist and one can never “do it well enough” for him
  • she never allows anyone else to make any significant decision in her area

This is not a happy person.  The ego possession makes him/her feel extremely vulnerable because identification with all the “things” in life is like building a house on sand.  Those things have ways of going away, as all eventually do.  Money can disappear,  as can jobs, “trophy” spouses, and other status symbols.  Living on the knife edge means always having to make sure than nothing, nothing at all, upsets this fragile status-quo, which at work means always having to check up on you to make sure you will not show this person (often a boss) up in a bad light.

You can hopefully see the short step to engagement:   you are there at work to share your talents and skills and help the organization succeed.  You love your job, but your boss….oh dear, your boss is an ego-maniac!  You didn’t know that at first, your radar didn’t send out a code red alert when you had the interview, but you found out later that something was very very wrong.  All the things which I described above, started to happen.  You arrived at the job ready, willing and able to engage but now…now the thing you most want to engage in is finding a new boss there or perhaps leaving the organization for a new job.

One of the problems in the world of work is that ego-driven top management often picks those like themselves;  they call it a “nice fit”.  I call it, “extending the ego-model out into the whole organization“.  This means you are unlikely to get far by complaining about such a person, even if you describe what they do:  top management will laugh and say that that’s quite normal, healthy behavior.  From where they stand it is.

Speaking of top management, one of the most out of control aspects of CEO behavior is the arms race to get more and more compensation.  I have written at length about this because  I believe it erodes morale and engagement.  The ego loves the idea that “I” can make more than the next guy (or gal), and is horrified at the idea that I would ever make less!  The amount of ego-driven greed at the top of our organizations is staggering, with ratios of CEO pay to that of the average worker above 400:1 here in the US.  Of course the ego is canny, and needs to make sure that such excesses are guaranteed.  Heaven forbid that the ego would not receive what it is worth!  This means setting up their compensation in such a way that they are never affected by something as mundane as…performance.  Where do you think the “golden parachute” came from?   In these cases,  the ego’s ability to create real “separateness” makes it very able to totally justify this behavior and not allow its “host” to have a sense that others are affected in any way.  Only in some cases, like John Mackey of Whole Foods, or top management at BMW, have senior people transcended their egos and looked to the greater good in setting their own pay.   I love this quote from BMW’s press office, talking about how the company restrains top management bonuses in relation to what average workers receive :

“We don’t just want to build sustainable cars. We also want to have sustainable personnel politics. We think this is good for the company culture”.

As we saw with the list of management traits above, control is another sign that the ego is lurking.  Ask an ego-driven manager to give up some control, to delegate, to flatten the structure and let some teams manage themselves, for example,  and you will be met with a show of horror…..and logical justification as to why that should never happen.  But these aren’t the real reasons:  under the surface, the ego abhors loss of control because of its fragile nature and high levels of fear, and the sense that such delegation might lead to loss of status in some way.

So what can be done about this?  Certainly try and be a bit more like BMW and introduce a sense of fairness into the “personnel politics”, as they call it.  Fairness (which does not mean equality of outcome!) is a key to high morale and engagement at work.  Try to hire those with talent but less ego….interview for this trait, become acquainted with the signs, avoid it at all cost!  There is nothing wrong with self confidence and an assured manner, but that is not what I am talking about here.  As an excellent blogger Gwyn Teatro recently said, we need more humility in the workplace,  to which I say, amen, Gwyn.   Self confidence, yes by all means, but a basis of humility.  Then we can create the conditions under which our workers feel that they are part of something, that they are respected, that they are there to perform their best in the highest interest of the organization, not to feed someone’s ego!  Feeling and knowing that, they will gladly engage.


** Debbie Ford: “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers”

***  Eckhart Tolle:  “A New Earth”

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Posted in BMW, Debbie Ford, Eckhart Tolle, ego and employee engagement, ego and engagement, employee engagement, employee morale, engagement and supervisor, engagement myths, ethics and employee engagement, ethics and employee morale, executive compensation, executive compensation and morale, executive compensation and worker morale, fairness of executive compensation, Gwen Teatro, happiness at work, ideal manager for high employee engagement, ideal manager for high employee morale, John Mackey, management and employee engagement, management and high employee morale, management and high morale, morale, morale and employee health, morale and external competitiveness of pay, morale and pay, morale and pay for performance, morale and performance, morale and supervisor, morale and workforce performance, morale and workplace performance, morale as competitive edge, morale myths, Trends in Employee Engagement, Trends in Employee Morale, Whole Foods Market, work performance and employee morale, worker engagement and performance | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments