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Browsing Blog Henrik Bechmann's Blog (currently on 15-Sep-1212)
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A simple framework for understanding worker engagement (wonkish)

15-Sep-2012 [6745]

Meaning in psychology seems to be derived from being socially connected to cohesive activities, implemented in some clear context. The reverse of this - meaninglessness - comes from being disconnected, in a fragmented, de-contextualized setting.

If Iain McGilchrist is to be believed, these contrasts can be seen as short-form descriptions of the two basic sides of the brain (right and left), and indeed that both are required for effective functioning in the world. The latter, disconnected side, is helpful in abstracting and analyzing puzzles, but only if the results are handed back to the more connected half for integration. In other words there is an optimum balance, tilted toward the real world.

It seems to me that these ideas further map directly to productivity in a work setting, and indeed can be applied to recent experience in the systematic dismantling by Parks, Forestry & Recreation (PFR) of the semi-autonomous worker collective that has been running Dufferin park so well over the past decade or so.

These workers were connected through close collaboration with each other and many community members, and applied themselves in a closely coordinated fashion to obtain coherent results, in the context of supporting development of community networks. The work was consistently supported by background meetings and study (partly supported by CELOS). The results were iconic.

Conversely (and somewhat perversely), each of these properties of the collective was systematically dismantled by PFR in its pursuit of re-establishing "compliance" and "control" over park activities. Collaboration was suppressed, the collective was weakened through a policy of attrition, and interference with local staff replacement was put in place (alienation). Procedures were imposed individually by narrow specialty (such as pool attendant), not coordinated with other park activities (fragmentation). And the context was self-referential, namely for the main purpose of adhering to direction, removing the focus from the community context (de-contextualization).

The result was demoralization and loss of personnel, a dramatic decline in productivity, reduction of service and community support activity, and withdrawal of staff from the close context of the community.

Yet all PFR had to do to bring this group into the fold was to promote one or some of them, even to CRP (Community Recreational Programmer), and carry on.

In any case, the lesson is clear: productivity is enhanced with meaningful engagement in the work by the above descriptors, and damaged to the extent the the three main dimensions of meaning (connected, coherent, contextual) are confounded. This is consistent with lots of literature I've seen on modern employee engagement, such as Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose (AMP) and Engage, Enable, Energize (E+E+E).

Bureaucracy is historically based on universal (read centralized) and impersonal application of rules to provide fairness and equity to citizens. PFR has taken this principle to such an extreme with its technocratic approach as to undermine outcomes. The history of Dufferin Park and Ward 18 by contrast has provided a lesson in productivity: put the humanity back into bureaucracy. Specifically, decentralize, and provide support for workers to discharge their responsibilities in a meaningful way.