Organizational breakthroughs can come from where you least expect it

I just read this article on Fast Company about employee engagement — it’s co-written by the CEO of Waggl and the co-CEO of Affero Lab — which makes some really good points. If you’ve read this blog even once, you probably know I’m pretty fascinated by the employee engagement space; I write about it a couple of times a week, including here, here and here

The Fast Company article, as I just noted, makes a lot of good points. The overall idea is that organizations tend to think at a big level about employee engagement, and talk about concepts like “data and analytics” — partially because they’re current buzzwords of the business world — rather than focusing on authentic, real-time, organic (another buzzword, admittedly) feedback.

Let me stop and present a quick story here. In the summer of 2013, I worked for the U.S. Oncology Network, which is a part of McKesson. McKesson is a Fortune 15 health care company. I was working predominantly within HR, although the job I had was more content-focused (kind of like HR Communications would be the best way to explain it).  That summer, they were working on an employee engagement study. The thing was out-sourced and had about 100 or so questions. After I left my summer gig, they got the results back — I offered to help analyze the data, and was taken up on it initially, then it fell through the cracks — and while the results were interesting, it was still results based on people clicking through 100 questions. That’s not really organic. The summer I worked there, I had sat in tons of 1-on-1 BS’ing sessions with employees where they had great ideas about a process, a re-organization of a small division, things to do with staff, how to bring people into the organization better, and a whole host of other things.

I often feel like organizations don’t pursue this kind of organic outreach because it’s not formalized enough — since it’s not formalized, there’s a legal fear that “Oh, if we got information this way, maybe someone will be able to call us on this.” A lot of structure within organizations does feel like it comes from a fear of getting in trouble, and that’s where the idea of “organic” communication and feedback can sometimes suffer.

The other area it can suffer is pretty simple: employee ideas and employee engagement are not, per se, revenue-facing things. They could be — Google makes a ton of money because of ideas like AdWords, which employees created and brought up the ladder — but that’s not the conventional way of thinking about it.

Most organizations preach organizational health and full-on engagement, but the only people with access to information and resources tend to be the senior-level people. That’s all well and good and it makes sense — you work hard, you become senior, you get more access, THAT’S THE AMERICAN WAY, RIGHT? — but it limits the potential of the org.

Consider these two simple sentences from the Fast Company article:

From intern to senior executive, you’ll be amazed by the insight that exists inside your organization. The next breakthrough may come from where you least expect it.

Think about that sentence: “the next breakthrough may come from where you least expect it.”

Now think about this: in your org, how many senior leaders do you think actually believe that?

If you think they do, awesome. If you think they say they do and instead assume all the good ideas and knowledge needs to be clustered near their level, that’s a gigantic fool’s errand.

Look, hierarchy exists for a reason, and it’s a good one in general — people need to understand who they report to, who they need to impress, and who’s ass is on the line in different contextual situations — but people often extend hierarchy too far. It’s not likely to change even with the advent of the millennial workforce generation, although in reality, it should change.

I look it at this way: hierarchy as a basis for structure is fine. Hierarchy as a way to dead-end ideas is awful.

Authority and merit aren’t the same thing — and people way smarter and more financially successful than me have said that, too. 

So while you may be scared about not having a formalized process in place, go and talk to different employees. Learn what bothers them, what they like, what ideas they have to improve the organization and what it affects. Phrased another way in this Fast Company article:

Employees want to do a good job. We want to help and feel valued. Harness this energy and you’ve got our engagement.

In sum, employee engagement does matter — but it doesn’t matter in the way we often think, which is “something to be tracked and coordinated and reported back on.”


It matters in terms of building actual relationships with the people that spend half their waking day supporting your organization, and learning from them.

It requires a bit of humility, yes, and perhaps a re-focus on what leadership actually means, but you can do it — and it can lead to bottom-line success.


Ted Bauer