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How The People Paradox Negates Employee Engagement Efforts

How The People Paradox Negates Employee Engagement Efforts

Have you ever heard of The People Paradox? I hadn’t either, although I was well aware of Lord Acton’s famous quote that, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Well, apparently that’s not just a bon mot: power does corrupt. Certainly according to research cited in the HBR.

In an October 2016 HBR article entitled Don’t Let Power Corrupt You Dacher Kilter describes how twenty years of research has shown him how, in all types of work environments, “people rise on the basis of their good qualities, but their behaviour grows increasingly worse as they move up the ladder.” That's 'The People Paradox.' I am sure you can think of instances in your own experience that support this. I still haven’t forgotten the CEO who completely ignored me when I was introduced to him by my Vice-President manager and added insult to injury by proceeding to question him about me as if I wasn’t there!

The fact that such behaviour seems objectionable makes the paradox credible. And, arguably, underpins the thinking behind employee engagement efforts. Yet, objectionable though it seems, one has to question why such “bad” behaviour is so pervasive and widespread.  Is it possible that this behaviour is “built-into” our DNA as social animals? After all, it is not unique to humans: the consequences for any creature that strays from the clear pecking order of its group can be swift and severe. The fact is, any sort of community almost invariably necessitates some kind of hierarchy. And the hierarchy needs to be sustained.

The consequences of this are profound, because it would mean that the “paradox” is not in fact a paradox. Rather it is an entirely natural phenomenon, which means that this “corruption” is in fact anything but. This, in turn, makes it a lot harder to eliminate than one might envisage, and may well explain why, despite all the efforts to improve employee engagement, the results seem to be negligible.

Good as the remedies identified in the article may seem, because they appear to be looking at the problem the wrong way, they are highly unlikely to provide any meaningful, lasting solution. Finding this necessitates:

  1. Establishing whether this “corruption” is really a problem; and – if it is:
  2. Finding a way to rewire our thinking to change our patterns of behaviour.

On the face of it, the idea that power has a corrupting effect, suggests there is a problem. This is endorsed by the article’s remedies, which indicate that more considerate behaviour elicits improved performance and more positive results.  And, if that is not enough, the prevalence of efforts to build employee engagement point to a widespread acknowledgement that all is not well.

If, however, the behaviour is innate, the remedy becomes more of a challenge, as the general failure of efforts to increase employee engagement substantiates. You need to ask yourself. “How do I address this and avoid the prevailing mistakes? Will the benefits justify the effort?” It’s your decision but one thing is for sure: if this behaviour is replicated at every level in your organisation, the potential benefits will be enormous, making the effort highly desirable.  

The good news is that achieving those benefits does not have to be proportionally enormous. If the “corrupted” behaviour is hard-wired due to the need to survive in hierarchies, the best way to re-programme our thinking has to be to eliminate hierarchy in our organisations. Effectively this means shifting from an organisational structure to an organic structure.  This makes the organisation more responsive, more adaptable and more change efficient. There are organisations that have done this and achieved – and sustained – significant success as a result. What's stopping you becoming one?  

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