Author: Armin Trost

BLOG Psychological Safety

Psychological safety. An early stage concept?

Some time ago I read the book “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” by Amy Edmondson (1). The book is absolutely recommendable. In it, Edmondson describes how, especially in knowledge-intensive work environments where teams are faced with uncertain, complex tasks, work can only be done in a productive manner if the members of the team experience what she calls psychological safety. She sees psychological safety as a prerequisite or even as a driver for learning, innovation and long-term development of teams and their members. In this context, she focuses in particular on the leaders. It is primarily their task to create a climate in which team members dare to ask questions, find it not difficult to ask for help, may contribute ideas or point out problems or even grievances. Since then, many have been talking about the concept of psychological safety as a miracle recipe for innovation, learning and development.

In a first response, I was very taken with these clear and descriptive explanations and yet a lukewarm feeling crept over me. Somehow the idea of psychological safety reminded me of what the great developmental psychologists Mary Ainsworth (2) and John Bowlby (3) already called a “safe base” in the middle of the last century. They make clear that children at an early stage of development need a safe base within which they can explore. And they reasonably describe exploration as an essential basis for experience, learning and development. In the early childhood phase, it is primarily the parents who provide the child with this safe base. Adolescents, on the other hand, have the task of breaking free from this safe base at some point in their lives. They have to learn to assert themselves in an environment characterised by insecurity and to gain security from their own social context, beyond the parental home.

Doesn’t psychological safety describe exactly what Ainsworth and Bowlby described as a safe base? It is possible that psychological safety is a claim that is at best on a rather early or even infantile level? It would fit into a world where caring and coddling are gaining space in the context of what I call “maternalistic leadership”. Don’t we talk more and more about compassionate leadership? And, referring to the much-quoted Abraham Maslow once again: isn’t the need for security the level which also tends to be at the beginning in the ontogenetic development, but the adult human being strives for the higher level of self-actualization?

The reality in the workplace is often different. There, reaching a level of psychological safety would certainly be recognized as progress in many areas. Therefore, it is not surprising that especially in these, sometimes creepy, work realities, the desire for less social threat and mutual acceptance is widespread. In my practical work, I am often enough faced with such working environments. Do we have to assume that these spooky work realities represent a normality? I would disagree. Admittedly, it is not uncommon to point to the frightening results of the Gallup polling institute, which supposedly finds with steady regularity that four out of five employees are not engaged or actively disengaged. However, I have already described elsewhere what to make of this study.

At the same time, it is already more than 60 years since the great Douglas McGregor (4) coined his Theory Y and the idea of a self-determined, creative human beings and employees, seeking for meaning and purpose. Since digitization at the latest, we not only talk about agility, but also find it more and more frequently in knowledge-intensive working environments in particular. Then in 2014 we celebrated the great book by Frederic Laloux (5), who described the realignment of organizations like hardly anyone else. He too focused on the self-determination of intrinsically motivated people as well as the structures that are needed for this. In Germany, “New Work” is on everyone’s lips. No one knows exactly what this really is, but the idea of meaningful, self-efficacy and self-direction is certainly at the heart of this daring idea. And now we are articulating the claim that employees should fear less in their immediate work environment, in their teams? That honestly seems like a step backwards to me.

But fortunately, there are also other working worlds in which psychological safety seems not to be required, simply because people are already much further ahead. We are observing a generational change in the management levels that promotes other values and ideas than oppression and servitude. In a figurative sense, one could think that these working worlds and their leaders have grown out of the infantile phase of needed safety. Especially in knowledge-intensive working worlds, these working worlds should serve as a model for us. Psychological safety can be a way there, a kind of infantile early stage. But as the ultimate goal, it should never be enough to be truly innovative and competitive.

When operationalizing a concept, it is a good idea to put it into statements. These statements then reflect the respective claim. To give an absurd, extreme example, imagine that the claim to “good leadership” is represented by the following statement: “My direct supervisor only hits me when it is really justified”. In this case, of course, one would have to counter this claim by saying that a manager should not only not hit, but should also treat his or her employee with respect and appreciation – at least from today’s perspective.

Amy Edmondson has operationalized psychological safety using seven questions (1). They reflect the claim she postulates in knowledge-intensive domains. Now I dared to develop a counter-proposal (in italics) that I assume should reflect the entitlement in adult, knowledge-intensive work environments. Three of Edmondson’s questions are worded negatively (marked with an asterisk), so a rejection would argue for psychological safety. I have formulated my counter-proposals in positive terms throughout, i.e. reversed the meaning.

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.*
    In this team, errors are regularly discussed, and improvements are derived from them.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
    The members of this team actively take up problems or difficult issues and try to solve them.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.*
    People in this team value the individuality and individual characteristics of others.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
    In this team, risks are discussed, weighed up and one has the courage to take them if necessary.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.*
    The members in this team consider it their natural duty to support each other.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
    In this team, one actively, controversially and respectfully engages with the ideas and perspectives of others.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
    In this team, I fulfil my responsibility to actively contribute my unique skills and talents.

As you can see, I have been guided by three thoughts in my counter-proposal. First, creativity, innovation, learning and development on the part of employees require a high degree of personal responsibility and courage. Secondly, it is about more than just avoiding social threat and mutual acceptance. Thirdly, the performance of a team is not only a question of leadership, but the result of the interaction of all team members. The latter aspect is not explicitly clear from Edmondson’s questions. In her book, however, she primarily addresses the role of leaders and provides illustrative examples of this.

If I were CEO, I would not accept Edmondson’s original questions in an employee survey and as a leader I actually don’t. They would simply be too weak in their claim for me.

(1) Edmondson, A.C. (2019). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

(2) Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1979). Infant-mother-attachment. American Psychologist, 34, 932-937.

(3) Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss. New York: Basic Books.

(4) McGregor, D. (1960). The human Side of Enterprise. New York NY: McGraw-Hill Pro-fessional.

(5) Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage in human consciousness. Brussels, Belgium: Nelson Parker.

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BLOG Active sourcing

Active sourcing is super intense

It is now common knowledge that there are three types of people in the labour market, namely the non-seekers, the active seekers and the passive seekers. Non-seekers are not interested in any change in their career. The active seekers are the exact opposite. They are under pressure and desperately want a new job sooner rather than later, or a job at all. Passive seekers usually have a job but are open to new opportunities.

As a logical consequence the non-seekers are not available and often there are hardly any active seekers due to the growing talent shortage in the labour markets. That leaves the passive open-minded. As an employer, you have to actively find and address them in close collaboration with people in your business lines. This is the basic idea of active sourcing.

Now you might think that active sourcing is basically simple. You look for suitable people on LinkedIn, talk to them and everything will just work out by itself. Maybe you could also automate active sourcing by using artificial intelligence. I think that’s wrong.

Where does active sourcing and approaching potential candidates make any sense at all? First and foremost, active sourcing makes sense when it comes to filling singular, hard-to-fill positions. These are positions where many companies tend to call for services of an executive search consultancy. You may search for an expert in international tax law or a company physician, to name just two typical examples. Here, neither an employer branding campaign nor the development of a talent community would pay off.

Active sourcing is super intense and time-consuming. This becomes clear once you realise which basic premises should ideally be followed:

  • You need a job-specific employee value proposition that can only be developed with people who really know the job. The same applies to relevant search criteria.
  • You really have to deal with the candidates personally. Anything else is annoying and hardly appreciative, especially for the candidates.
  • You actively engage relevant networks of current and selected colleagues. You not wait for referrals but request them.
  • The personal approach to candidates should be made by a representative from the department who is as senior as possible, i.e. it is better not to have a recruiter or an executive search consultant and certainly not a machine.
  • You only approach candidates who could be seriously considered. Anything else would be annoying.
  • Representatives of the business line and especially the hiring manager need a lot of time to be available for personal, sometimes long conversations.
  • The entire selection process in the event of interest or application must also be fast, appreciative and transparent in order to shape the best possible candidate experience.

Yes, large companies in particular have a natural desire to make activities and processes as scalable and efficient as possible. After all, it’s usually about volume. Accordingly, we are currently experiencing an increasing debate about the industrialisation of candidate search and approach. The fundamental question, however, is whether to focus on efficiency or effectiveness. Efficiency may be easy with the necessary technical means. But when it comes to recruiting, success can primarily mean being effective. Whether we like it or not, effectiveness has a high price.

BLOG Rewarding individual Performance

Rewarding individual performance might be a mistake. Not doing so might be a mistake either

At least since Dan Pink’s legendary TED Talk on the Puzzle of Motivation, word has spread that performance-based incentives in creative tasks shift intrinsic motivation in favour of extrinsic motivation, which ultimately leads to low performance. The empirical evidence behind this is extraordinarily robust. Not only that. Subjectively, these results are also well understood. As soon as someone learns to do something only for the sake of the reward, that person will show less eagerness than someone who tackles a task out of inner drive.

Underlying these findings is a recurring experimental paradigm in which two groups independently solve a task or engage in creative activity (e.g. painting pictures). One group is offered a reward, the other is not. In the end, it becomes apparent that in creative tasks, the group without a reward performs better than the group with a reward. If you take away the reward from the group with the reward, their performance goes down completely. Much of what we know about the motivational effects of incentives is based on this simple paradigm.

In many companies, the resulting findings have underpinned the consideration to refrain from variable incentives, especially in creative areas – a trend that is downright cheered by numerous academics and thought leaders.

The abolition of individual bonuses gained further momentum for another, perhaps even more important reason. We now know that individual goals coupled with individual incentives not only threaten intrinsic motivation, but also reduce the willingness to put team goals above individual goals. Individual bonuses mutate colleagues into competitors. And that is what you don’t want.

These two findings, coupled with the insight that creativity and teamwork are crucial in a modern working world, suggested the practical conclusion to consistently refrain from individual bonuses. Individual incentives seem suitable at best when (boring) tasks are performed repetitively within divided labour.

So far there is agreement. The scientific basis and its practical implications are clear and I go along one hundred percent. But unfortunately, things are still not that simple. In fact, we are dealing with a fundamental dilemma for which, as far as I know, there is no solution.

Yes, rewarding employees individually and performance-related can weaken their intrinsic motivation and team orientation. However, if high-performing employees in particular are not rewarded on the basis of performance, not only their motivation but also their loyalty to the company is jeopardized. Bonuses at team level alone demotivate particularly high-performing team members.

At this point, the objection usually follows that there is no individual performance in teams. Teamwork is a system of interdependent tasks and actors and it is the team’s performance that counts. It is about the joint interaction and not about the actions of individual stars. Either the team as a whole is successful or no one is. Individual success is not intended in teams. Those who do so nevertheless have not understood what teamwork is.

Of course, what is relevant above all is what a team achieves as a whole. Nevertheless, I only partly follow this line of argument. Of course, there are differences in performance even in teams that work interdependently. Even if Price’s Law, according to which half of a group’s output is achieved by a square root of the group members, or the well-known Pareto Principle are only applicable to a limited extent, we must nevertheless assume that team success is naturally and frequently dependent on the performance of a few. To put it more simply and vividly: every team has its Messi. Perhaps every successful team needs its Messi.

This is less about the question of how to measure performance operationally, but more about the subjective experience of the players. People are extraordinarily sensitive in this regard, not because they have learned this through socialization, but because mental, unconscious structures dominate here that are already many millions of years old. Treatment that is perceived as unfair sometimes leads to extreme, emotional defensive reactions. This can be demonstrated in animals, as for example Frans de Waal has impressively demonstrated.

Let us recall the experimental paradigm explained at the beginning: Two groups perform a task, one is rewarded, the other is not. What would happen to the non-rewarded (in most experiments better performing) group if it knew that the other group was receiving a reward for the same activity? Not only would their intrinsic motivation collapse, but also their willingness to continue participating in the experiment at all. The classical, experimental paradigm, in whose findings so many companies increasingly rely, ignores processes of social comparison, which does not change the fact that it is precisely these that have a massive impact on the experience and behaviour of employees in the real working world.

In consequence, this means that you either demotivate your Messi or lose him in the long run if he or she is not remunerated better than his or her colleagues. Those who reward performance individually are making a mistake. Those who do not are also making a mistake. Which mistake is greater? I don’t know. What should a company do now? I am not in a position to make a general assessment of that either.

Of course, we see attempts at solutions in practice. But to what extent these really save us from the dilemma is difficult for us to judge, as far as I know. One could let the employees themselves decide how to divide the cake, coupled with lateral assessment procedures. The social dynamics that would be triggered by this are highly complex and can hardly be assessed. One could refrain from monetary incentives and grant other incentives. One thinks here of privileges, of rewarding responsibility through even more responsibility, etc. Does that really make a difference? An objectified, transparent or even democratically conducted assessment of performance criteria (including individual and demonstrated team skills) would be technically obvious, but seems to me hardly feasible in practice due to the complexity of the construct to be assessed in its entirety. Existing approaches in this direction (e.g. in connection with certain collective agreements) already clearly point to the limits and dysfunctionality of this idea. Neither employees nor managers are able to assess relevant criteria in a valid way. If they judge anyway, they feel more than they judge rationally. Tactical action is the result. Not even scientifically trained experts are able to assess constructs such as creativity. Basically, when rewarding high-performing colleagues in a special way, it is important to be sure that others recognize this individual superiority and consider a higher reward to be justified.

Beyond these considerations, there remains the option of doing without both individual and team bonuses. One should not forget that bonuses only ever serve the purpose of motivating people. It is about wanting, not about being able. Money does not make people more effective. Behind bonuses is always the assumption that without the prospect of variable rewards, employees and teams will be less willing to do good work. This assumption is questionable. More decisive could be the question of what a company has to pay in order to attract and retain capable and motivated employees in the first place. We are talking here about the acquisitive function of money. This idea leads to the simple strategy of paying employees only a competitive basic salary. No more and no less.

What remains in the end is the need to make a strategic decision. Strategic decisions are strategic, among other things, because they are difficult to make. The opposite of the preferred option should also make sense. Otherwise, the decision would not be strategic, but at best obvious.

BLOG Preface HRS

First you start writing a book. But then the book writes you

When I started studying psychology about 30 years ago, my goal was to become a family therapist. At that time I had already two years behind me in which I had learned to work intensively with people in a small psychiatric clinic. That was a wonderful, instructive time. At some point during my studies, I turned to industrial and organizational psychology and ended up where many of my fellow students ended up: in the training and development department of a large corporation. My career as a HR professional took its course. I implemented performance appraisal systems without ever having to ask myself what performance, on the part of the people concerned, actually means in concrete terms. I conducted employee surveys without having to take a personal interest in an employee’s experience. I introduced applicant tracking systems without meeting an applicant personally. In contrast to my work in a psychiatric environment, it became clear to me at some point that HR in large corporations means above all setting up processes, instruments, systems and programs and keeping them running. All this has very little to do with working with people.

It became clear to me at some point that HR in large corporations means above all setting up processes, instruments, systems and programs and keeping them running. All this has very little to do with working with people.

Basically, that is fine. One quickly learns and accepts that one should not be an HR professional or HR manager if one likes working with people. However, over the years my inner dislike, which somehow became silently apparent from the beginning, became ever clearer. It is not the systems themselves that turned out to be more and more unbearable for me, but the attitude with which these systems were developed and kept alive. You will find descriptions of these systems in most common textbooks about Human Resources Management – the annual performance appraisal, change management, competence management, talent management, etc. And I have to admit that during my studies I hated books on personnel management. There is nothing creepier than a classic textbook on human resources management. To this day, hardly anything has changed, neither in my reaction, nor in the books themselves. What is described in all these books, and mostly lived in practice, has something patronizing, not infrequently even something contemptuous of people. The employee, the human resource is not treated as a subject here but as an object. It is measured, judged, developed (“upskilled”), promoted, transferred, terminated, rewarded, retained, etc. You do something with the human resource. “You” is the superordinate, corporate system, represented by the human resources department as the executive body. All this is done under the premise of putting the employee at the center. What an illusion. The operator of a laying battery also puts his 10,000 chickens at the centre.

Then I, of all people, became a professor of human resource management. Looking back, this was the ideal time. Companies slowly woke up and began to rethink. In the beginning, there was a shortage of skilled workers, and suddenly we had to learn to value applicants and candidates, to be interested in their preferences, to apply to them and not vice versa. My first book appeared: “Employer Branding”. How can we convince as an employer? Then followed the book “Talent Relationship Management”. After writing other books, I started to work on a particularly incapacitating HR instrument, namely the annual performance appraisal. The book “The End of Performance Appraisal” appeared and nothing pleased me more than the great irritation, coupled with broad, positive resonance, that it brought. I’ve been really lucky over the past few years because a gradual awakening in the HR community has become more and more visible. New generations of HR people took the helm, supported by new generations of executives. Throughout the years I found it a wonderful task to throw coals into the blazing fire again and again, critically, provocatively but always constructively, and close to practice. It seemed as if my attitude and the zeitgeist had met, and I was allowed to play an active role in this development.

What does HR look like in a traditional, hierarchical and stable enterprise, and how are things presented in a more agile context? What an exciting question!

How very much I now welcome the growing debate on the subject of agility. For me, agility is much more than just a buzzword. It symbolizes a long overdue development towards a changing attitude. The employee as a mature human being. My great role model, Douglas McGregor, is being turned to again, and rarely was his juxtaposition of the Theory X – humans are lazy by nature and have to be kept on a short leash – and the humanistic opposite, of Theory Y, more important and alive than now. In the course of this development, it was my great dream to finally write a comprehensive book that would deal with HR from the point of view of Theory X versus Theory Y. What does HR look like in a traditional, hierarchical and stable enterprise, and how are things presented in a more agile context? What an exciting question! Writing this book was a matter of real concern to me. Here we are talking about much more than just the image of a mature human being. It is ultimately a question of the competitiveness of many proud companies. I share the view that agility is a prerequisite for the majority of companies to survive in current and future markets. And human resources management plays a key role in this.

When I started this book in 2017, I had great respect for this task. I was filled with ideas, an attitude, a blurry picture of what I would write. In the end, writing this book was a long journey into something uncertain. First you start writing a book. But then the book writes you. The fact that such a book has a static character, that one is forced to fix thoughts in black and white and with finality is difficult for me to bear. Because the journey continues, and everything I write in this book is just a snapshot. Agility also means never really arriving at a final destination.

This journey did not take place in a quiet room, but in a constant exchange with numerous forward-thinking, open-minded people and companies who were willing to contribute constructively to the uncertainty. At this point we usually thank all those who contributed to the success of this book. I can not even name them all. They are the many HR managers, HR professionals, executives and also students with whom I have spent hours, even days, discussing and struggling for solutions. They are the many impulses in the infinite number of books, articles, blogs, TED-talks that have continuously irritated me. But it is also my family who had to endure a father and husband for one year, who was mentally absent at times. In particular I’d like to thank Iliana Haro, who supported me so wonderfully with this English version of this book. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I look forward to the long journey that lies ahead of us.


Armin Trost

Tübingen/Germany, July 31, 2019


This is the preface of my book Human Resources Strategies. Balancing Stability and Agility in Times of Digitization. Published 2019 at Springer, Heidelberg.


BLOG Surveys are not appreciative

You may run a Survey

However, it it is not appreciative

Bernd is 32 years old. He is starting to think about getting married, but unfortunately he doesn’t have the right woman. This is tragic because he has had relationships with at least 10 women in the past 15 years. Sometimes they lasted longer, sometimes a little shorter. For his last girlfriend, he had thought of something special. When she abruptly broke up with him, he handed her a questionnaire. “Janine, of course it’s a pity that you want to leave me. Unfortunately, you are not the first one to break up with me. Therefore, I would like to ask you to fill out this questionnaire carefully so that I can systematically learn what I have to do differently in the future”. The questionnaire was professionally presented. It included questions like: What are the three most important reasons why you are leaving me? Do you have a new boyfriend? If so, what does he have that I don’t (please tick the three most important categories)? Would you still recommend a girlfriend to get into a relationship with me?

That was the end of the matter. Janine’s reaction followed directly: “This shitty questionnaire is another reason why I’m leaving you. You are simply not interested in me”.

Companies that hand out a written exit questionnaire to their voluntarily departing employees have probably never been interested in their employees. Companies that only conduct written employee surveys to understand employees‘ experience are not really interested in their employees. Companies that only ask customers for feedback with questionnaires are not interested in their customers (even if a hotline employee reads out the questionnaire in person).

If you are really interested in people’s opinions and perspectives, you talk to them. It’s as simple as that and most readers of this post knew that before reading it. So why do so many companies rely on these widely used, long-handled tools? That’s something we should seriously think about.

BLOG Right people time place

Why “right people, right place, right time” is a dangerous approach

There is a specific definition for the term, “human resources management,” which is not only found in almost all textbooks but also in the human resources strategies of many companies. Millions of students have learned this definition by heart. Today it is the core understanding of the majority of staff working in HR departments. “The purpose of human resources management is to ensure the right people are in the right place at the right time in the organization.”

That is why the right people are approached, selected, and hired. They are placed, transferred, and promoted within the company. Employees get developed as needed, which is one reason why employees are being regularly evaluated. We do all this with the staff, so that the organization which was designed by a brilliant creator is perfectly organized and runs like clockwork.

This understanding must be quite disturbing to any employee who does not work in the HR Department. From a strategic perspective, I find this viewpoint to be extremely dangerous. This approach is totally wrong for an increasing number of companies. The reason is simple. Employees who do not work in HR do not raise questions about the right people in the right place at the right time. They have completely different questions.

Here is a small selection: What is my next challenge, my next project? How can I reconcile professional and private life? How can I give and receive feedback? How can I contribute to the success of the company? What do others expect of me? What is my talent and how can I develop it? What alternate tasks could suit me?

Even such simple things as: Who can take over my shift? How do I find and book training? Who has the knowledge that I need now? How do I recommend a friend to work here? How can I share my knowledge?

Applicants also have questions: Why should I work in this particular business? How can I apply? What is the status of my application? Is this company suitable for me?

A focus on “the right people in the right place at the right time ” inevitably results in more attention being given to the company’s requirements rather than the employees. This is a strategy that can be dangerous in times of digitalization, demographic and social change. If your HR approach is based on the needs of the staff rather than corporate requirements, your human resources management will be quite different. Only then will your staff be at the center of attention and treated as “your most important asset.” Orienting around your business requirements is basically fine. But you have to be able to afford it. How many companies have thought about?

BLOG Gallup Engagement Index fake

Are Gallup’s Engagement Numbers fake?

At least they are heavily cited

According to Gallup’s recent worldwide study in 2017 only 15% of all employees in the world are engaged. Since years Gallup shares the dramatic news, around 8 out of 10 employees are either not engaged or (even worse) actively disengaged. Taken this seriously, you are probably not engaged. Most of your colleagues, friends, and relatives are not engaged. Most employees you meet at stores, airports, hospitals, and universities are not engaged. Even the majority of Gallup’s workforce might not be engaged, maybe.

Disengagement sells. Gallup did a great job over the last few years to gain executives’ attention built on news, which probably are misleading, dare I say it, fake. This seems to be another version of the here-is-the-problem-but-luckily-we-have-the-solution-business-model.

I have spent hours reading reports, news and even articles published in scientific (peer-reviewed) journals written by Gallup fellows and have not yet found any definition of what “engagement” or “active disengagement” means in statistical terms. The statistical or scientific basis of what have become one of the most cited studies in management has never been disclosed. It has been kept as a secret. Why is that? Obviously 100s or 1,000s of keynote-speakers, consultants, executives, and bloggers sharing the dramatic output delivered by Gallup do not exactly know what they are talking about.

What we do know is the following: Since years Gallup is using its Q12-Questionnaire, which consists of 12 questions. Those 12 items did never change substantially, for reasons of comparability of course. Speaking of these questions, they reflect a kind of outdated and hierarchical view on leadership, anyway. For instance, one question goes like this: “I know what is expected of me at work”. Respondents then have the choice to select one option out of five ranking from 5 (strongly agree) to 1 (strongly disagree). The same applies for the remaining 11 items such as “I have a best friend at work” or “This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow”. What initially had started as a tool for workplace auditing (Gallup Workplace Audit) miraculously transformed into a tool supposed to measure employee engagement without having substantially changed its content. But, working conditions – as measured by the Q12 – and employee engagement are two different concepts even though there might be a connection between the two. Even Gallup reports a correlation of limited magnitude only between what the Q12 measures and business outcomes on business unit level. I guess employee engagement sells better than workplace conditions.

I have spent years in the employee survey business and have been involved in dozens of global surveys using similar items like Gallup does, which by the way, I would never do so again for multiple reasons even though I have published two books on that particular practice of satisfaction and engagement surveys (but this is a different story). Once you ask employees to evaluate their working conditions or estimate their satisfaction with whatever it is at work, you more or less receive a bell curve with a slight tendency towards the positive end.

It is quite astonishing how constant and stable these results turn out when asking a big enough sample. One might separate different responses as shown in the following picture:

There is always a minority of employees considering themselves as being totally satisfied. Working conditions are seen as perfect. There is a majority in the middle with a slight tendency towards the positive end of the continuum. To those people working conditions are fine but could be improved. And, of course, there is always a minority of employees, which is kind of pissed-off. They evaluate their working conditions as bad and expect significant changes.

While the Q12 measures employees’ view on their working conditions Gallup strangely translates results into what they name employee engagement.

Now it comes the critical question: Where does Gallup make the cut between the so called engaged, the not engaged and the actively disengaged ones? What is Gallup’s definition? We simply do not know. Wherever Gallup is doing the cut, probability is high that a picture is drawn, which is more dramatic than reality actually is. Even though Gallup has never been clear about the cut, they offer a definition of how employees in the different groups behave. Gallup describes “not engaged” employees (the middle segment) as follows: “Employees are essentially ‘checked out’. They’re sleep-walking through their workday, putting time – but not energy – or passion into their work”.

This is even more confusing, since there is literally no reason to draw such extreme conclusions or characterizations based on the content of the Q12-questions (working conditions). And again, Gallup refuses to explain, where this typology actually comes from. It definitely sounds more like arbitrary horoscope than as insights based on serious social science.

Gallup is an institute of top reputation. Its founder, George Gallup, has been a leading pioneer in its field, really a great man and a role model for generations of social scientists to come. What surprises me though is the fact that, Gallup is keeping a secret around its most cited outcomes. What is going on here?

So, why is this bothering me? I am a social scientist and expect clarity as all good social scientist do. Published scientific results must be replicable so that others could repeat studies in the same manner. Empirical methods and outcomes not being communicated in a clear way are useless in the eyes of the scientific community.

In times of fake news we have to be careful, as we all have learned in the last few months and years. Whenever I find myself listening to a keynote even of reputable speakers, chances are high to again hear about Gallup’s disengagement drama. Then, my first thoughts are always: Fake, fake, fake. I cannot hear it anymore. Should I stand up and ask the speaker: “Hey, have you read the report? Could you tell, how these numbers you’ve just presented have been calculated?”. I better don’t, but silently I continue questioning myself whether or not I should seriously take home the remaining parts of the keynote.

Above all this, what bothers me most is the way Gallup dares to slap billions of employees all around the globe. Gallup draws a picture of the global workforce, which probably is worse than it actually is. By doing so, Gallup consciously hurts global economy, while filling its own pockets. Executives who believe in the Gallup drama treat their people accordingly. Considering employees as being lazy, dumb “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” (as Gallup puts it) might lead to management practices that will not move companies forward.

In certain ways, Gallup actively prepares the ground for mistrust and control, which is the opposite of what many companies and employees desperately need. We all could imagine what results delivered by Gallup do to a regular executive. He/she might think: “I never thought how dramatic things are”. According to the hindsight bias he/she might add: “But somehow I felt it in advance”. What might be the consequences? More trust? More autonomy and self-determination? Probably not.

BLOG Diversity misunderstood

Diversity – the misunderstood concept

A farmer grows potatoes. At harvest, he selects his potatoes based on certain criteria. They have to be round and of medium size. This is what his buyer requires. But recently his buyer prefers a greater degree of variety. He also calls it “diversity.” The old criteria remain in place, but 20% of the potatoes can now also be small, but not too small. The farmer abides by it. The desired diversity is achieved. All is well.

In another village, there is another farmer who also grows potatoes. His premise at harvest is that each potato is all right as it is.

The first farmer apparently is pursuing something that can be described as diversity management – clear goals, goal-oriented actions, key indicators, etc. The second farmer may not even know the word. He doesn’t have to not know it. In a diversity audit against quality management principles he would probably flunk. So here is the real question: Which of the two farmers achieved a higher level of diversity?

This simple analogy makes clear what is involved in diversity and how diversity is often misunderstood. Diversity is not a matter of statistics. It cannot really be expressed in terms of numbers, as many companies are trying to do. When it comes to diversity, these companies refer to bar graphs, pie charts, percentages, etc. They confuse diversity with statistical difference and distribution of various features (variety). Diversity, however, is primarily a question of attitude, which leads to differences. The result is neither the cause nor any real significance. The real meaning of diversity lies in the appreciation of individuality.

In some of my keynotes I show the image above and ask, “would you hire this lady as the head of your accounting department?” If you think “not in a million years,” then diversity management would be of no assistance either. But if you say, “not sure, I cannot judge that based on this image alone. If she is qualified, sure, why not?” then you have fully assimilated the concept of diversity.

BLOG The Story of Thomas

The story of engineer Thomas

Thomas is 31 years old. He studied electrical engineering at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and obtained his degree with distinction. During his studies, he was able to gain international experience as part of a 6-month internship in Shanghai. After graduating, Thomas joined an automotive supplier as a trainee, soon becoming a sought-after expert, particularly in the field of electronic control systems. He quickly learned how to work closely with customers on international projects, and spent a lot of time in the USA. After three years, at the age of 28, he moved to Detroit, USA to work as a project manager in the research and development department of an American car manufacturer. Thomas’ career was going very well, and it was clear he had a bright future. Three years later, he returned to Germany with his two children and his American wife.

Apart from his outstanding references, and extensive experience and knowledge, Thomas is the sort of person others love to work with. Collaborating with him is always constructive, demanding, but also humorous. Over his young career, Thomas has been able to build a very strong international network. Outside of work, he is a passionate rock climber, and plays saxophone in his recently founded band, “Soulengine”.

Thomas has his own website, where he engages with colleagues and friends, runs his own blog, and promotes his band, among other things. It also contains his CV, with the annotation “I’m looking for a new challenge in Germany”, and “Companies apply here”. Clicking “here” takes you to an application form for employers. Thomas doesn’t want applications by email; he responds to these by asking people to instead make things easier by applying online.

Having set up this form, together with the application request, Thomas went on holiday for two weeks. It was important for him to launch this application procedure before going away, since he would be out of reach during his break.

The application form itself is very extensive. And that’s how it should be, to ensure Thomas gets a good idea of an employer. It contains questions about the company and its business success. There is also the option of uploading management reports from the last five years. Mandatory fields ask employers to name company contacts whom Thomas can get in touch with to obtain references. Other essential elements include fields explicitly asking about the company’s particular strengths and weaknesses as an employer. The interested employers can of course submit information on job offers, and insert relevant job descriptions in designated text boxes, together with detailed salary information, contact names etc. If a company applies to Thomas, this process will take around two or three hours. While this may seem very time-consuming at first glance, this is how Thomas wants it, because it acts as the first step towards assessing whether or not a company is serious about its application.

After two weeks’ holiday, Thomas comes back and checks how many applications have come in. It looks good; 52 companies have applied. An automatic confirmation of receipt has already been sent to these companies. It is now time to examine their attractiveness as employers. In doing so, he quickly notices that he doesn’t actually need most of the information, and that he usually ends up deciding relatively spontaneously as to whether they are suitable or not. It takes many weeks to send a letter of refusal to each rejected company. So as not to be left vulnerable, he doesn’t provide reasons. He doesn’t have time to go into the details of each application. He endeavours to be friendly, while maintaining a distance. And that’s the right thing to do, because he doesn’t want to burn any bridges for the future. For the sake of simplicity, he eventually decides to use a standard letter.

He wants to find out more about three companies, and composes a personalised letter for each of these: Daimler, Porsche and BMW. He sets aside two days which fit into his schedule: the 23rd and 24th of March. To BMW, for example, he would write: “Dear Sir/Madam, I am pleased to advise that you have made it to the shortlist. We will meet at Albert-Einstein-Straße 17 in Stuttgart at 9am on 23 March for a personal interview” etc. He encloses a map with directions.

Mr Kanter from BMW accepts the appointment and arrives at Albert-Einstein-Straße 17 (Thomas’ house) on the dot of 9am on the 23rd of March. Thomas is not alone. His wife is there, as is a good friend and his mother. And that makes sense, because, ultimately, Thomas doesn’t want to make the decision on his own; he also values the opinions of those closest to him.  His mother, in particular, had always provided him with good advice on important life matters. Thomas has made several copies of BMW’s application documents, and each of the participants has a complete set on the table in front of them.

“Did you find your way here ok?”. As he shakes hands, Mr Kanter tries to memorise the names of those present. He learned this from a book he had read by the authors Schröder and Hase, who wrote that this is an advantage. But he still finds it hard.

They get straight to the point, and Mr Kanter is given a grilling. “Tell me a bit about BMW and what it’s like to work there”; “Why is BMW convinced it would be a good employer for me (Thomas)?”; “What are BMW’s greatest weaknesses as an employer?”. Mr Kanter has come well prepared, and knows he must not give honest answers to any questions about BMW’s preference for Catholic employees. But the test he is being put through is unsettling him somewhat. For example, he is asked: “Which colour best reflects your company’s management culture? Yellow, blue, green or purple?”. But Mr Kanter does his best. He chooses blue – it fits the best with Bavaria.

After two hours, the interview is over, and Thomas bids a friendly goodbye to Mr Kanter, who still has a niggling feeling of uncertainty. At no point did Thomas indicate whether the interview was going well or badly. The only thing Mr Kanter did notice was that Thomas’ wife would occasionally place her pencil diagonally on the table, while the others would suddenly appear less interested. But everyone was very friendly the whole way through. Thomas tells Mr Kanter he will get in touch soon. Mr Kanter knows Thomas can’t give an exact date; he has to assume that other companies have also applied. And that all takes time. Mr Kanter doesn’t dare ask about the reimbursement of travel expenses, but that’s not a problem – it can be discussed later on.

Three weeks later, he still hasn’t heard back. This doesn’t initially appear to be a problem. But after six weeks, the long awaited email arrives.

In the end, Thomas chooses Porsche. Mr Kanter from BMW and the friendly lady from Daimler  receive a letter of refusal. In many ways, Thomas also feels bad about the rejections, and writes in his email that he found BMW and Daimler to be highly attractive, but that he had to make a decision. He offers to keep in contact, and shows he is serious by sending a contact requests on LinkedIn to Mr Kanter and the Daimler lady. After all, both companies visibly fought hard for him.

On the 30th of April, Thomas sends Porsche a friendly email as follows: “I am pleased to advise that we will be working together. Please find attached a draft working contract, which I would ask you to sign by the 14th of May”.