Light Bulb Moment – Adam Smith and Employee Engagement


bulbBy, Cari Desiderio

I am a student of human beings. It is definitely why I love the field of human resources. I love to figure out why people behave as they do. Translated to the workplace, I enjoy figuring out the puzzle of employee performance — both the failure to perform and the light bulb break through achievements. Call me old fashioned, but despite all of the books and theories I still think the key to unlocking the vault of employee engagement and break through ideas lies in the dusty philosophy books of our founding fathers. I’m thinking about this because it is Fourth of July weekend after all. The birth of a nation.

In 1776 Adam Smith predicted the poverty that would befall certain nations that clung to economic principles that neglected to empower the human creativity that capitalism evokes in people. Nations that imposed systems that stiffle human creativity by imposing poverty and class structures that never allowed people to achieve something for themselves. Adam Smith was somewhat accurate in many of his predictions. His theory was not complex. As he said,”The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations.” Here he referred to systems that restrain people from using the hands and minds they were given to create with. His theory was as I said really simple. Hard wired in our human DNA is a desire to create. It is a devastating thing to suppress this that is built in us. I think this was the early version of employee engagement that our 18th century sage was talking about!  After all, nations are made of people.  Companies are made of people.  Engagement is not unique to any setting.  It is a human thing. If I engage my child I get him to achieve in school and have vested hopes and dreams in his future.  If I engage my citizens of my country I get them to band together around causes and support national pride.  If I engage my employees I get them to be all in and to perform and band together to make the company great.  Engagement is human and it is not complex.  It simply requires that I set back from “me” and let others shine and have an equal chance at earning a slice of the pie.

Our country grew in prosperity for a variety of reasons. Many I do believe are grounded in ethical cause and spiritual practices that uphold human dignity and do not trample it. However there was a unique break through that this theory of enabling people to create a destiny evoked, and that is what Adam Smith was talking about. When a person has the ability to earn a fair living, own property, innovate, create and become something without any connection to class restrictions or impediments imposed based on one’s gender/birth circumstance/impediment of class structure, one can tap the human engagement at full speed. This is how this country went from very little to very much. People were empowered to create. Manufacturing was born on the backs of determined and creative and hard working Americans. Heck my town of Chicago used to be swamp land but some determined men and women wanted to make it great and so they filled that land in and built it up ( ).  That I think took a little sweat and determination!  It is not complicated this principle of empowering people to strive and innovate. It is simple. If you perform and are permitted to reap the benefits of your own performance, you can earn a reward and place in society. I guess this is the birth place of pay for performance philosophy.

Translating this over to the workplace I am a believer that we don’t need to make this too much more complicated. I believe that people need a strong pay for performance culture in order for a company to see the highest peak of performance. In tandem with this, this also means that rules and bureaucracy should be minimized. There is no louder innovation crusher than micro management and hovering layers that block the break through ideas. I have worked in environments where brilliant ideas were rewarded with significant awards and announced on town hall calls and the like. Great plan. The company I learned from who did this best went from almost failing to global Fortune 500 in under ten years. I have conversely been part of management teams that implemented tight controls and restrictive policies and curtailed brilliance by limiting power and decisions to a limited few. In these environments attrition went up (the bad kind – meaning the good people left), resentments simmered and performance meaning the bottom line profit declined.

So on this Fourth of July Weekend I think the message is simple. Return to the basics. Give your teams freedom to innovate. Get out of the way. A wise leader recently told me that micromanagement is a leader’s message to an employee that they are not needed or wanted. So please don’t be that kind of leader.  Respect people enough to step away and let them shine.  Skinny down the bureaucracy and rules. Respect, reward and reap the benefit of tapping into human innovation.