Why We Need A Movement To Make Work More Fun
Last month, I revisited 'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind' by Yuval Noah Harari, and ´Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think' by the late Hans Rosling. They reminded me why we need to make work more fun—via a movement built to fight for that. Let me explain.
Take Sapiens first. Although I liked the entire book, one part stood out for me. It was where he claims (after introducing the concepts of game theory, postmodernism and memetics) that "The dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being."
Harari writes, "There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for homo sapiens. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. And individual humans...are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage."
We could argue the same holds for the cultures of modern day workplaces. There is no basis at all for concluding that contemporary organizational cultures are the best ones for homo sapiens. There seems to be no basis, nor data, to conclude that organizations support growth in the happiness of human beings.
Constructive and useful organizational view
But before we conclude such things, we first need to look at data to back up our claims. That is where Factfulness comes in. Rosling describes well that most people lack a good understanding of the world. He writes, "It is a story of massive ignorance by which I do not mean stupidity, or anything intentional, but simply the lack of correct knowledge."
We could argue that the same holds for our basic understanding of, and knowledge about, the well-being of employees within organizations. That is a shame. Rosling points out we should have a clear and reasonable idea about how things are so we can have a worldview that is constructive and useful.
The same idea counts for organizations. We should have a clear and reasonable idea about how things are in organizations so we can have a view that is constructive and useful. We need organizational cultures that are based on a shared and fact-based understanding of the organization. However, this is missing in most companies.
Annual global employee engagement data
So, what does data tell us about how things are in organizations? I unearthed two large data sets on employee engagement that offer a fact-based understanding of the state of employees in organizations.
Gallup's data set
The first data set is obvious, and one we use regularly, Gallup’s global employee engagement data set. This includes surveys from 2010 till 2017 (with results published ~every 3 years).
Gallup defines employee engagement as "those who are involved, enthusiastic about and commited to their work and workplace", and categorizes employees in one of three distinct groups;
* Highly disengaged.
Gallup conducts national surveys annually in more than 150 countries to categorize employees in one of the three groups. Typically, they survey 1,000 individuals in each country, and include data from both small and large organizations in many industries.
The diagram shows the evolution of the two most extreme groups in Gallup's data set, the 'activly disengaged' and 'highly engaged' employees. From this we see that, from 2010 to 2017, less than 2 out of 10 employees were engaged at work. And although the % of engaged employees is rising slightly, there are still ~6 out of 10 employees being categorized as 'disengaged' (this group is not represented in the graph).
We can also observe that circa 2 out of 10 employees were actively disengaged at work. Gallup defines 'actively disengaged' as those that "are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace and jeopardize their teams' performance." On a more positive note, we can also observe that the data shows us that the amount of actively disengaged employees was getting slightly lower over the measured years.
Aon Hewitt's data set
Gallup numbers are pretty clear. Now, let's move on to the second data set. This data set was new to me. This is the global employee engagement data set of Aon Hewitt. The data set comprised an annual measurement of global employee engagement from 2012 till 2017.
Aon Hewitt defines employee engagement as "the level of an employee's psychological investment in their organization", and categorizes employees in one of these four distinct groups;
- Highly engaged,
- Moderately engaged,
- Actively disengaged.
To be able to categorize employees in one of the four groups Aon Hewitt asked the respondents questions related to if they say positive things about their organization, if they intend to stay at their organization for a long time, and if they are motivated to strive to give their best effort to help the organization succeed.
The responses from this data set comes from more than 1,000 companies around the globe with data from more than 8 million employees. Just like the data set of Gallup, Aon Hewitt's data set includes data from both small and large organizations and many different industries.
In the graph above I once again drew the evolution of the two most extreme groups. This time the 'highly engaged' and 'actively disengaged' employees of Aon Hewitt's data set. Although the numbers here are a bit more positive they still show similar engagement levels and growth patterns as Gallup's numbers.
For example, we see that, from 2012 till 2017, less than 3 out of 10 employees were highly engaged. Plus, 6 out of 10 employees are either in the moderately engaged or passive groups (these are not shown on the graph). We also see from this data that at least 1 out of 10 employees is actively disengaged.
Before jumping direct to the overall findings, I would like to point out a severe limitation of both data sets. Both are derived from commercial sources. And yes, both Gallup and Aon Hewitt supply consulting services on this topic around the globe which potentially blurs their objectivity. This is obviously not ideal.
I could not, however, find any large data set on global employee engagement (or employee satisfaction) from more independent sources. (If you know any, please name them in the comments.) Even so, it is worth considering their findings.
If we look at both graphs we can easily see the global state of employee engagement leaves much to be desired. From both data sets we can construct a fact-based organizational view of employee engagement.
The most positive stance we can take says that from 2012 to 2017 a maximum of 3 out of 10 employees were truly engaged at work. About 6 out of 10 were either moderately engaged, passive or disengaged. And at least 1 in 10 were actively disengaged.
With 3 out of 10 people truly engaged, I argue that organizations did not evolve for the well-being of employees.
Organizational culture as a mental parasite
Now we have a fact-based view on employee engagement, let’s try to understand why organizational cultures, don't necessarily evolve for the well-being of members.
According to Harari this can be party explained when the concept of 'culture' is seen as a mental parasite. Harari writes, "Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host. Organic parasites, such as viruses, live inside the body and their hosts. They multiply and spread from one host to another, feeding off their hosts, weakening them, and sometimes even killing them. As long as the host lives long enough to pass along the parasite, it cares little about the condition of its hosts."
Harari then extends this view towards cultural ideas of which organizational culture is an obvious one. "In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them."
He then explains why cultural ideas can be so persistent. “A culture idea - such as a belief in a Christian heaven above the clouds or a Communist paradise here on earth - can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death. The human dies, but the idea spreads."
Following this approach Harari claims "Cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and...take advantage of all people infected by them."
We can extend this view to organizational culture. In this view, it is not owners and leaders that intentionally create cultures that disengage employees. It is that, over time, a disengaging organization culture emerges accidentally all by itself and takes advantage of all employees infected by it.
Organizational myths & the destiny instinct
In turn, according to Harari, these can partly be explained because just like other kind of cultures, an organization culture has its typical beliefs, norms, values, and myths. Harari suggests these myths are stronger than people imagine.
Harari writes, "Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules." It then also no surprise that contemporary organizations are filled with organizational myths. But those myths do not necessarily stand for the truth, nor do they necessarily advocate for employee well-being.
Organizational myths as described by Harari do, however, fuel the 'destiny instinct' described by Rosling. He writes, "The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It's the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change. This instinct means that our false generalizations are not only true, but fated: unchanging and unchangable."
Rosling argues that this instinct served an evolutionary purpose. He writes, "Historically, humans lived in surroundings that didn't change much. Learning how things worked and then assuming they would continue to work that way rather, than by constantly re-evaluation, was probably an excellent survival strategy."
But this instinct to see cultures are unchangeable is false. Cultures—like organizational cultures—can move and transform. The common idea that culture will, or must, never change because of its values and myths is misleading. Rosling writes that these kind of sentiments are "often, simply feelings disguised as facts."
This destiny instinct makes it difficult for us to imagine and accept that traditional workplaces can be progressive: especially in traditionally-minded industries like manufacturing and government, or in cultures with large power distances. The same destiny instinct also leads us to believe that progressive workplaces are only found in the West, and in the more progressive-minded industries like IT.
Rosling writes: "To control the destiny instinct, stay open to new data and be prepared to keep freshening up your knowledge. Because some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing."
The fact is that companies on our Bucket List prove it is possible to change organization cultures, and make work more fun. We should take their lessons and introduce them into more traditional organizations. And this will not happen all by itself.
Over the years we have collected many examples of positive organization change. By telling and sharing those fact-based stories we can challenge the idea that today's disengaging organizational culture must also have been yesterday’s, and will be tomorrow’s.
In fact, if we lose hope because of stupid misconceptions about how to run successful businesses, it might not happen at all. That's why we should ask ourselves what evidence could ever change the minds of traditional leaders about the way they organize their companies. We should be able to convince them not to put themselves outside evidence and fact-based rationality. We should engage them in critical thinking.
Movement to make work more fun
That is why we should not only individually, but collectively, build and fight for a global movement to make work more fun. That should include aiming to cure organizations of the mental parasite that leads to disengaging workplaces.
Collectively we must convince most organizations to change their culture towards what is best for homo sapiens. We must push engagement to more acceptable levels by forcing organizations to make fact-based decisions, driven by numbers, not myths nor outdated ideologies.
Why? Simply because we should not longer disregard the happiness of employees. And simply because we believe that, collectively, we can change the course of history to our advantage.