Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Secret Relationship Between Corporations and Brains

Brady G. Wilson, Beyond Engagement: A Brain-Based Approach That Blends the Engagement Managers Want with the Energy Employees Need

One buzzword has appeared frequently in business guidebooks I’ve received for review: engagement. Because authors mostly haven’t defined that word, I’ve assumed that derives from topics taught in MBA classrooms. It’s definitely something quantifiable, as it entails “engagement scores.” Mostly I’ve shined the topic off as just another opaque metric which management consultants cite to remind us they’re more educated than us peons.

Canadian consultant Brady G. Wilson believes engagement, while important, is half the continuum. Early in this book, he describes what he calls The Engagement Paradox: “the more companies focus on engagement, the more disengagement they produce.” Having read something similar recently in research psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I’ll buy that. For Wilson, engagement means nothing for workplace teams lacking energy.

And whoopsie, Wilson immediately repeats that frustrating mistake from other business writers: he never defines “energy.” Does he intend that workers remain frenetic, bouncy, and gregarious constantly? One recalls Susan Cain’s discussion of how MBA programs prefer extroverted applicants, even when they observably don’t listen or communicate reciprocally. The term “energy” is broad enough to render conflicting, even contradictory, meanings if left undefined.

Let’s postpone that debate, though. Because Wilson otherwise uses sound evidence to make sound, thorough claims about ways leaders can make measurable differences in employee outcomes. He breaks his process down into ten chapters, each summarized by simple, easily memorable bromides: “Manage Energy, Not Engagement.” “Trust Conversations, Not Surveys.” “Meet Needs, Not Scores.” It’s hard to dispute Wilson’s arguments.

Wilson relies heavily on up-to-date science and field research to describe how stats-driven management styles consistently disappoint, because they don’t reach workers where their hearts live. In my favorite chapter, for instance, Wilson explains how too many managers rely upon in-house metrical evaluations to gauge employee engagement, when they should have conversations with their workers. I've said something similar myself previously.

Brady G. Wilson
Thus, Wilson crafts something seemingly paradoxical: a data-driven explanation of why smart managers shouldn’t over-rely upon data. Instead, wise managers find ways, through face-to-face conversation, managed tension, and shared vision, to encourage employees’ energetic investment in corporate outcomes. As Wilson observes, many workers would surprisingly rather have autonomy, flexibility, and strength left for their families, than more pay.

I’ll buy all that. Even without any meaningful definition of “energy,” Wilson pitches a smart case for how existing management techniques discourage committed workers and reward people who only do the minimum. He also crafts an engaging counter-proposal, a vision of corporate management focused on keeping workers energized, customers happy, and numbers high. He pitches an engaging alternative to today’s tightly controlled, essentially meaningless corporatocracy.


I’ve worked both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. Too often, traditional laborers find their labors criticized and micromanaged by time-and-motion “experts” who treat employees like machines. Executives and supposed skilled workers get shunted into “cube farms,” immune to personality and visually similar to cattle pens. Both environments convey to workers the same unspoken message: you’re just tools for our use.

Wilson pitches an intriguing alternative course for managing corporate workplaces. However, he tacitly accepts the inevitability of corporate governance. He fails to question how the modern workplace itself, where employees don’t own the products of their efforts and frequently cannot see the value-added aspects of their jobs, innately creates the energy-sapping conditions against which he otherwise eloquently rails.

Wendell Berry notes that most Americans don’t work where they live, giving them no motivation to take longer views. Matthew B. Crawford describes how corporatocracy relentlessly reduces all jobs to their component parts, making “skilled” jobs as meaningless today as they made manual labor during the Gilded Age. And Dr. Stephen Ilardi notes that mental illnesses flourish because humans aren’t designed for seated, indoor, repetitive tedium.

I could continue. The same science Wilson musters to underscore his alternative management techniques also demonstrates that human brains aren’t interchangeable with machines. Corporate culture, which inevitably slots individuals into jobs that perhaps start challenging, becomes tedious as workers realize how circumscribed their horizons really are. Worker energy dwindles because corporations intrinsically turn employees into cogs.

If energy is the solution, perhaps it’s time for managers to re-evaluate the source of the problem.

I like Wilson’s vision, within its parameters. His reliance on actual science, rather than abstract algorithms, makes a refreshing change from other consultancy handbooks. His use of relevant examples from his own portfolio gives his prose an active, personal edge. If you share Wilson’s starting premises, many of which remain unvoiced, you’ll find plenty to like. Just realize, not every topic he broaches gets explained.

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