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The Holy Grail

Talent engagement is the holy grail in leadership and HR. Whatever leaders do, they are depending on the willingness and ability of people to perform. Working with someone who is engaged, is totally different from working with someone who is not. But the question is how we can get someone to the level of engagement we’d like.
There is a simple answer: by going beyond the normal stuff.

The Normal Stuff and the Beyond

Let’s divide the things you can do as a leader in two categories: the normal stuff and the “beyond” stuff. Normal stuff is a general name for those items, practices, habits that anyone working in an organisation can expect. The beyond stuff is what is extra, the unexpected, … I know this is a simplification of reality, but stay with me for a minute.
Examples of normal stuff are things like decent work, decent pay, a healthy environment, respect, trust, … The normal stuff is both about both the physical and the psychological aspects of work. A lot of it is embedded in cultural or legislative frameworks. You can expect to find them in every workplace.
The beyond stuff is that what exceeds these common practices and habits. It’s what surprises you when you are working somewhere. There is no law that says any leader or company should offer the beyond stuff.

So what are the effects of the normal and beyond stuff? Again I’ll work with a dichotomy: either it’s there or it isn’t. That’s simple enough even though we know there are levels in between. The question I have is on how the presence of either qualities of the work environment will influence talent engagement or its outcomes. If there’s one impact of engagement, it’s retention. My hypothesis is that the beyond stuff will make people stay because they want to. The normal stuff will just make sure people leave because of it. There is a vast difference between deciding to stay, and deciding not to leave.

Entitlement versus Identity

The normal and beyond stuff appeal to different psychological processes. I’d say the normal stuff is about entitlement. Nobody will deny someone’s right to have access to decent work and respect. But the normal stuff is not differentiating. It’s something that is shared. It’s something people feel entitled to. In terms of justice, this is about procedural and distributive justice.
And people get used to it. Once people have acquired something, they want to keep it and they stop noticing it. Only when it’s not there, people will notice it’s gone. Therefore, the normal stuff tends to grow in size. An example: 30 years ago telework was unthinkable and exceptional. Today it’s part of the normal stuff in many companies. If the normal stuff is not present, people will consider to leave. If it’s there they will not. At least, they will not leave because of the normal stuff lacking.
The beyond stuff is about identity, dignity, meaning. Even if everybody else would get the beyond stuff, you’d still feel special. This is about recognition. It’s also about interpersonal justice. Without the beyond stuff, organisations are emotional deserts. If there is no beyond stuff, people will consider not to stay. That does not mean they will leave.
If they do stay, they might stay because the normal stuff has put them to sleep. They stay for convenience. That has nothing to do with talent engagement. Convenience is no fertile soil for talent engagement. It may even kill it. Staying for convenience is lethal for personal initiative and intrinsic motivation. People will find themselves in a golden cage, well fed and cared for, but will be hungry for attention and recognition.
But if the beyond stuff is there, people might not care too much about the normal stuff. They are willing to accept that not everything is OK now. They will go beyond expectations because there is beyond stuff. As long as the beyond stuff emotionally compensates for the lack of normal stuff, they will continue.

Beyond and Normal versus Talent Engagement

In the four cases the approach will differ. When there is no beyond, but just normality, the focus will be on exchange. This is the typical tit-for-tat culture. People will ask for extra normal stuff in exchange of their continued engagement. The normal stuff that is already present will lose its value. Talent engagement is bought. This is not very sustainable.
If there is not enough normal stuff, but there is beyond, you will focus on meaningfulness. People must be willing to make sacrifices and the only reason they’d like to do that is because there is meaning. The engagement factor comes from the fact that people see there is value in what they are doing.
And if there is no beyond and no normal stuff, you will work on dependency. It means you will hire people who cannot leave. Or you will make sure people will not leave for whatever reason. I guess this will involve some sort of violence and use of power.
Talent Engagement
Only when both the normal and the beyond stuff are present in the right doses and combination, we can speak of symbiosis. There is mutual interest, but there is also meaning. People feel recognized and cared for and know that what they are doing contributes to something bigger than themselves. But at the same time they receive what they need to live and thrive: decent and meaningful work.

Small Things

The thing is that the beyond stuff is not very spectacular. A leader has a lot of things to offer in the beyond part of the relationship between the employer and the employee. It’s about giving attention, being trustworthy, loyal and integer. It’s about simple things, which we should never take for granted. But because people feel appreciated by the attention and the trust they are given, they have a beyond-feeling. But this only works when people feel that the beyond stuff is genuine. And here’s the thing: it’s difficult to organise authenticity. It’s not a decision. The key to talent engagement is sustainable leadership.
Never take anything for granted. Preserve the normal stuff, and invest in the beyond stuff.
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David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

One Comment

  • tshamani says:

    Interesting article. It made me think about transactional and transformational leadership. I believe that for leaders to offer the beyond normal, they must also be beyond normal – meaning they must be transformed themselves.

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