By Sarah Elsing, researcher, Hot Spots Movement
Employee Voice is often linked to employee engagement. While employee surveys are used to assess employees’ levels of engagement, Employee Voice can be understood not only as a way of assessing people’s engagement levels but also as one way of enabling this engagement. It also reaches far beyond the realm of employee engagement. A two-way conversation with employees can help boost staff morale and productivity but it can also be useful in the problem-solving process, create innovation, and help an organisation’s leadership renegotiate the deal with its changing workforce.
Despite these wide-ranging uses and benefits, Employee Voice mechanisms are still most often applied in a reactive manner. Only when staff morale or productivity are already low do organisations start engaging their employees in a conversation. When this is the case, they often focus on understanding what is causing the problem rather than allowing employees to voice their ideas on how to improve the situation. As a large, diverse group of problem-solvers and innovators, employees remain largely untapped. At Hot Spots Movement, we therefore find that the best Employee Voice tools allow their participants to move from a reactive, negative and reflective state of mind to a more proactive, constructive and future-oriented conversation.
If you would like to find out more about Employee Voice and how it can work for you, simply leave your details on our contact form using the keyword ‘Employee Voice’. Our white paper on Employee Voice draws on the latest insights from our client-based research and provides best practice tips on how to make it work particularly in an era of digitalisation.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been learning the art of Improv. For those of you who have never experienced such joy, Improv is a form of completely unscripted theatre or comedy, where a group of fully-grown adults create a story, characters and some kind of plot completely in the moment. As we walk onto the stage we have no idea who our character will be, where the scene is, or what the relationship is that we have with each other And yet, somehow it works. Somehow, we create something that is coherent, makes sense and sometimes – just sometimes – is hilariously funny.
Now, if this were a team in an organisation, we would consider it doomed to fail: No goals, no clarity on team roles, no accountability – no chance. But in this domain it succeeds. It got me thinking about what it is that makes it possible for Improv to… well, just work really, and what that could then teach us about creating successful teams in organisations. It all starts with three simple rules that allow everything else to follow freely:
#1 Listen to offers
The first time I got on stage to do an Improv scene my mind was screaming to me: “Say something. Anything. For the love of God fill the silence!” The result: disaster and a very public way to learn the hidden beauty of staying quiet and listening. And so comes the first rule: listen to what others are offering. The only way that something unscripted can work is if you are truly listening to all the cues your team are sending you about where you are in the scene, who your character is to them, and what the hell’s going on. Likewise, they need to be listening out for every possible piece of information from you so that you can all create something together.
There are many parallels here to what we see happening in teams. I can recall so many meetings in which it’s seemed like we’re all working off a different script. And why? Because that’s exactly what we were doing. We were armed with our own individual scripts about what we wanted to achieve, our foregone conclusions about the matter, ready to force that on others whether consciously or without even realizing that’s what we were doing. Next time you’re in a meeting with your team, try leaving the script behind. Make a conscious effort to focus and hear every ‘offer’ made by the other person. Every sentence, every word.
#2 Accept offers
The most awkward moments in Improv are when one actor makes an ‘offer’ in terms of what’s going on in the scene, for example: “Hey, great to bump into you. We always seem to see each other at this same park” only for their fellow actor to reject that offer and instead pursue their own agenda: “This isn’t a park it’s a school classroom, what were you thinking?” There’s really nowhere good to go from that point. It’s a clear rejection and now you are both completely lost somewhere in a… school parkroom? Or a park school class? Huh? When this happens in Improv it’s painfully visible and the chaos that ensues is immediate.
Once again, having learned this the hard way in performances, I’ve become particularly aware of it in other realms of life and work. How often do we listen to someone’s idea (offer) only to reject it, either subtly by moving the conversation back to our own brilliant idea, or by outright declaring it impossible due to a set of constraints reeled out too quickly to be a true response to what we’ve just heard?
I think the reason we find this so hard is because it requires us to be vulnerable. In a scene, if I accept someone else’s offer in terms of where we are or what our relationship is, then I have to put more thought and energy into responding than if I were to simply shut it down and force my own idea – inevitably one I’m more comfortable with. It’s unknown territory and I can’t guarantee I’ll sail through it. Likewise, exploring someone else’s way of thinking at work means letting go of our reassuringly familiar reality to step into theirs. It’s uncomfortable. As a leader, you may feel you need to add value by having the vision and providing clarity of output. You may feel that if you’re not driving the meeting or the project, then you’re not doing you role as a leader. However, the two are of not mutually exclusive at all.
Next time you feel yourself inclined to say no to an idea – to reject someone’s offer – perhaps take a moment. Acknowledge that it feels a bit uncomfortable and then stick with it. It may be that the discomfort lasts only a few moments and is the path to something you never thought possible.
#3 Make other people look good
Every so often, I’ll be in a scene and see an opportunity to throw in a line so witty it’s sure to have the crowd thinking, ‘God she’s hilarious’. And every time I’ve given into the temptation it’s resulted in a soul-destroying awkward pause. Now, while this is no doubt useful feedback about the quality of my jokes, it’s also a fairly unanimous experience in Improv. Why? Because Improv is about teams, not stand up comics, and any attempt to elevate yourself over and above your fellow Improvisers just destroys whatever it is you were creating together.
And so comes the third rule: make others look good. The logic is pretty simple when you think about it: if everyone does it, then everyone ends up looking good. Lovely. So what happens if we take this approach in our teams? If we all go in agreeing that our role is to make our team members look good rather than being our individual best?
This doesn’t mean that individual performance is completely negated, but that in an environment in which no one superstar (or stand up comic genius) is sufficient to succeed, we all embrace working together. We all help amplify the performance of others and bask in the great feeling that comes with knowing that they will do the same for us. This is how we can unleash additional value, enabling others else to shine and then building on that ‘greatness’.
These rules are pretty simple. But what resonated with me was how incredibly important they are in any successful collaboration – whether it be a friendship, a relationship, a project team or maybe even an Improv group. And that they are mutually reinforcing. Follow one of the rules avidly and you’re sure to find yourself deploying the other two: really listen to the other person in your team and you will find yourself immediately more likely to accept their offer and help them look good.
In increasingly unpredictable and unscripted worlds, perhaps now is the time to truly embrace improvisation.
Despite all the talk about the strength of peer networks and the new technological utopia in which increased connectivity yields instant equality, power is still often a zero-sum game. In fact, getting organisations to do away with hierarchies is proving to be next to impossible. Notwithstanding the rich example provided by Morning Star and millions of books that call for employee empowerment, shared power arrangements remain extremely rare. On the other hand, for all its enemies, hierarchy is amazingly resilient.
Why do hierarchies persist? In 1832, as Charles Darwin travelled through Tierra del Fuego on the southernmost tip of South America, he came across a series of native tribes whose living conditions he described as ‘‘wretched.’’ He blamed their conditions directly on lack of power structures: ‘‘The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved.”[i] Since he made that assertion over 180 years ago, numerous social scientists have similarly argued that hierarchies are necessary. In fact, many theorists have even argued that hierarchies are inevitable as they stem from our evolutionary roots. In other words, if different forms of organisation were more beneficial, groups would have successfully adopted them long ago.[ii]
Hierarchy has evolved to be the most dominant form of social organisation because it works. All those structures and roles serve a purpose. At its most basic level, the invisible hand of hierarchy helps people know who does what, when and how, and promotes efficient interactions by setting clear expectations and role clarity. Hierarchy also offers purely psychological benefits. Research indicates that perceptions of our rank and status in hierarchies are extremely important to us. In his book The Status Syndrome, Michael Marmot details how closely status is aligned with longevity and good health. Status even surpasses education and income, two factors that usually determine how healthy an individual can be throughout their life. An indicator of this is when Zappos gave the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout, almost 210 of its 1,500 employees took redundancy rather than relinquish their hard-won management rank and the status that accompanies it.[iii]
Whilst it seems hierarchies are inevitable and here to stay, there is no doubt that they can sometimes be dysfunctional. The way forward therefore, is to reap the benefits of hierarchy while at the same time mitigating its negatives. At our recent Future of Work (FoW) Masterclass on Power and Leadership, we asked our participants the following four key questions in order to help them assess and future-proof their organisations’ power structures:
Does power inhibit voice? The vast literature on voice has underscored the reluctance of employees lower in hierarchy to communicate with their bosses. Laboratory research on groups also illustrates a similar pattern; participants temporarily assigned a low-power position tend to voice their opinions less, even though the hierarchy was just constructed moments before. How does your organisation create a psychologically safe environment for all employees to voice their opinions and ideas?
Does power have legitimacy? To ensure legitimacy of power, formal rank and competency must always align. However, people have been shown to rise to power for reasons other than competence. For example, research indicates that we are more likely to select leaders according to their sex, age and physical attractiveness than competence. In this context, it is interesting to note that there are fewer S&P 1500 companies led by women than S&P 1500 companies led by men named John. And John is more successful if he has a deep voice, a large signature and superior golf game.[iv] How does your organisation ensure that power has legitimacy?
How do leaders cope with power? Hierarchies will harm collective success when the possession of power induces leaders to be disinhibited and less sensitive to others’ needs. A significant body of empirical research demonstrates that there is a little bit of ‘Trump’ in all powerful people. In other words, powerful people are more inclined to be rude, to lie and cheat.[v] How does your organisation help leaders to cope with this dark side of power?
What is the effect on the powerless? Profound insights from neuroscience have brought to attention the multi-dimensional effect of powerlessness on employees. For example, lack of power has been shown to have negative consequences on employee well-being, motivation and even cognition. These findings should not really surprise you. Not being able to control your environment produces feelings of helplessness and stress, and study after study has documented that stress can harm your health and well-being. How does your organisation give employees opportunities to feel powerful, so that they do not suffer the consequences associated with powerlessness?
By understanding and answering these questions, organisations can create hierarchies that lead to victory with the fewest causalities along the way. The key lesson is that the future of power lies in making peace with hierarchies and learning how to empower employees without dismantling power structures.
[i] Darwin, C. (1906). The voyage of the Beagle (No. 104). JM Dent & sons.
[ii] Anderson, C., & Brown, C. E. (2010). The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organisational behavior, 30, 55-89.
[iii] Monarth, H. (2014). A company without job titles will still have hierarchies. Harvard Business Review.
[iv] Sebenius, A. (2016). CEOs Behaving Badly. The Atlantic
Henrik Ibsen’s play, Master Builder, tells the story of a self-made architect, Halvard Solness, who is increasingly afraid of the young displacing him. As I was watching the piece in the Old Vic Theatre a few weeks ago, one of Halvard’s lines caught my attention: “The young are waiting. In all their power. Knocking on the door.” This made me wonder whether Halvard’s fear is actually real. Will older workers be made redundant by young upstarts? Does the mature workforce need to step out of the young’s way and give them space? And what are the implications – positive and negative – for organisations?
It turned out Halvard was worried about a myth. The reality is that your organisation will see teams in which employees like Halvard and the young will work together. The young were not knocking on Halvard’s door to take his job. Quite the contrary, the young showed up to take jobs his activity created. So how exactly can employing older workers help your organisation grow and create more jobs in the process?
Age diversity provides you with the opportunity to combine skills and characteristics unique to different groups and thus create an effective and efficient organisation:
- The equivalent to Halvard in your organisation has been building their network for more than 40 years. The young know well that they cannot compete with that. Instead, on one hand, their ambition and determination can keep Halvard motivated. On the other hand, Halvard can transfer his network to the young, so your organisation has access to it when he retires.
- Younger workers are often still trying to define their mission and passion, which can translate into higher turnover. Indeed, according to one recent study, Millennials expect to change jobs every three years. Chances are Halvard has worked for you for a while and he has stayed with the organisation through thick and thin. This means he has a deep understanding of the history and culture of your company that cannot be easily emulated by new entrants.
- In the past decades, work became part of Halvard’s daily routine, and all of a sudden he has 8 hours on his hands to kill. Flexible working is a good way of helping people like Halvard transition to retirement. In fact, there has been a 140% increase in over-65s running their own business in the last decade, revealing the many new ways in which organisations can engage with more mature workers. It’s a win-win as the organisation retains Halvard’s critical skills at a reduced cost, and he gets some help with his pension too.
So what can you and your organisation do to avoid a Master Builder-like frustration?
- Help the Halvards in your organisations continually update their skills to stay relevant in a new day and age. Organisations such as GE and HP use reverse mentoring to help different generations learn from one another and to enhance generational cohesion.
- Sense check the signals you are sending to older workers. Do your people processes and practices signal that mature workers are valued? Or do pension arrangements, performance processes and training budgets signal that careers have a hard stop at 65 in your company?
- Break the perceived link between age and stage in your organisation. Retaining older workers will mean people may be managed by someone younger than them. This can create conflict in organisations in which progression and seniority are strongly linked to age and tenure. Creating more flexibility in career ladders is one way to ensure that age and seniority are no longer considered one and the same.
So, what’s the conclusion? Yes, the young are coming and knocking on the door in all their power. Halvard however still has a great deal to offer. As his good friend and counsel, Dr. Herdal, tells him, “You are not laid on the shelf yet, I should hope. Oh no—your position here is probably firmer now than it has ever been.”
Find out more about the challenges and opportunities of longevity by pre-ordering your copy of Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s upcoming book, The Hundred-Year Life at www.100yearlife.com or contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org
 As written on the Old Vic Theatre’s website.
 Milligan, B. Older workers create extra jobs for young people – report, BBC – British Broadcasting Corporation 2015
 Meister, J. Job Hopping is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials, Forbes, 2012
 Trends and Drivers of Workforce Turnover. Mercer Workforce Metrics Survey, 2014
 Altman, Dr. R. A New Vision for Older Workers: Retain, Retrain, Recruit, A Report to Government 2015
 Steimle, J. Reverse Mentoring – Investing in Tomorrow’s Business Strategy, Forbes, 2015
Big data is no longer a novelty for corporate organisations, nor is it the territory of those companies that are particularly pioneering. It frequently makes its way into board meetings and the C-Suite see the value of their organisation using the vast data points that technology now makes available to them. Then why is it only customers, and not employees, feeling the benefit of these advances?
Let’s take a look at how much big data has revolutionised the way that companies market their products and tailor experiences to the individual customer. Amazon has even introduced anticipatory shipping in order to ensure that one of the key differentiators of their service, speed of delivery, remains ahead of their competitors. The company collects a huge volume of data on buyers’ previous purchases, where they hover their mouse and their demography. Complex algorithms allow Amazon to predict what the customer will buy next and they then ship this product to a warehouse or transit van near the customer, ready for their click and buy. The item is subsequently delivered in a matter of minutes or hours rather than the conventional days or weeks, and Amazon maintains its competitive edge.
If organisations have this level of big data on their customers to ensure the company can consistently deliver on their USP, why are they not doing the same for their people? We know that employees are increasingly mobile and retention of the best talent is a huge focus for many organisations. By using big data about their people, organisations can contribute to the employee experience that people want.
At the Hot Spots Movement we have been struck by the benefits of using big data within organisations. When our clients look to bring about a major organisational change, they come to us to run a Jam – a global conversation lasting up to 72-hours. The Jam enables our clients to get the input they need drawing on expertise, experience and creativity from different functions and geographies from across their company. Analysing this thoughtful, extended conversation in the platform allows our clients to have access to the kind of qualitative big data they require. Challenges that have been tackled through this qualitative big data have included work/life balance, brand values and unleashing talent potential.
Our plea to the C-Suite of big corporate organisations? Use the data they have available to them within their companies to help tailor the employee experience and provide an environment they want to stay in.
Imagine you were looking forward to working into your 80s. What sort of working life would you want?
My guess is few of us would want a life of relentless 9 to 5 or more likely 8 to 6 with a couple of weeks off for holidays. We know implicitly that this is a regime that would see our intangible assets denuded. How would we keep abreast of rapidly changing skills with such little time to step out and learn? How could we keep our health and vitality at its peak with such little time for rejuvenation? Indeed, how could we find enough time with friends and family?
Perhaps that’s why the gig economy is seen as such a promising development. Imagine selling your resources – house, car, skills, or time in a seamless easy way. Imaging having the ability to step off the corporate ladder and change the way you work at anytime, providing a window of different and more flexible work. The benefits certainly look appealing. But of course, the gig economy also comes with its challenges. Our society is still not quite set up to support people who do not have a steady income stream and permanent contract. Try, for example, applying for a mortgage without proof of future income. Or saving for a pension with an irregular cash flow and no employer contribution. These drawbacks mean that few people see the gig economy as their main work activity or as a long term choice – but view it instead as part of a wider portfolio.
For those who plan to build this kind of portfolio in future, and benefit from the real value of the gig economy, they will need to take four important actions:
– work on transitional competencies. Moving from one type of work to another is not straightforward as it often means redesigning broader lifestyle choices and habits. These transitional competencies are developed through building a broad and diverse network – somewhere within that network will be people who have made the transition. Being surrounded by people who are similar to you will simply hold you back from changing. If you want to be part of the gig economy find others who are already there.
– build synergies between types of work. One of the joys of a portfolio life is variety – but this variety can come at a cost. When work activities are very different from each other then there is a ‘switching cost’ and cognitive abilities and working style have to switch between tasks. The more similar the task the less the switching cost. So try to build different job tasks from a platform of similar skills and competencies
– don’t build up tangible asset dependency. Working in the gig economy can bring variety, space and autonomy – but oftentimes people shy away from doing this type of work because they and their family have become addicted to a certain flow of money – holidays, cars, and general consumption. If you want to bring flexibility into your working life you have to ensure that you don’t develop spending habits at the top of your earning cycle. You must also be clear about what is essential for maintaining the standard of living you and your family need, and ensure that you are developing skills in lucrative fields that will deliver the commensurate income.
– realise you can’t have it all. There is much talk today that people (specifically mothers) can’t have it all – a family, big job, happy partner. Perhaps the same is true for putting together a portfolio of work. Most highly paid jobs come with 24/7 availability and pressured work. Gig economy jobs tend to have more autonomy and freedom. That’s why they tend not to be paid so well.
The gig economy has real promise to bring options to a working life. The question now is, are you ready?