From factory floor to local authority to Northern Line, social change is like cooking - it's all in the mix - RSA

From factory floor to local authority to Northern Line, social change is like cooking - it's all in the mix


Last night I gave my RSA Annual Lecture. The focus was improving work and particularly employee engagement.  Given the widespread support for such engagement and the benefits it could have, not just for companies and workers but for wider society, ‘the conundrum’ I suggested ‘is this: why have our aspirations for work not turned into social norms and expectations?’

As is my wont, I argued for an approach which combined hierarchical, solidaristic and individualistic power.  Managers need to accept that genuine employee engagement is about representation and voice not just individual employee satisfaction. Champions of workers should accept that most workers see no inherent conflict of interest between managers and employees. And we as individuals must become more ambitious and less instrumental about the meaning of work in our lives.

In case this all sounds like empty exhortation, the speech also contained several practical proposals, some of which the RSA itself is taking forward.

In questions, David MacLeod from Engage for Success , which part sponsored the event, asked where the responsibility for starting to close the gap between the rhetoric and reality around employee engagement should be placed – on managers, trade unions or individual workers? In reply I said change needs to pursued in each area broadly together. Any process led simply by managers will become too focussed on the interests of organisations; if workers’ representatives calls the shots what emerges would be radical but possibly also unworkable; and, while we all need to take some responsibility for making our jobs meaningful, it is too much to expect any of us to do this alone.

I gave a similar answer last week to a group of local government officers who labour under the daunting title of 'Head of Transformation'. One asked; ‘if we are weak on solidaristic commitment and individual initiative in relation to change, but are strong on leadership, shouldn’t it be the last of these that drives change?’.

The answer is ‘only up to an early point in the process. ’ Solidaristic and individualist perspectives and aspirations are inherent to us as human being and thus they lie somewhere in the organisation even if tacit or supressed. Hierarchical overreach (leaders relying on top down tools)  – even if motivated by the very best reasons – will tend to turn these forces oppositional. So, even if your leaders are brilliant they need patiently to seek to summon up (and engage with) solidaristic and individualistic energy if they are to maximise the chances of transformational change.

A classic example of getting this wrong occurred yesterday.

As someone who has regularly stood on a claustrophobic, overcrowded Clapham South station failing to get on to train after packed train, I can entirely see the sense of encouraging commuters to walk or cycle to stations further up the line in order to avoid the stations which daily become totally overcrowded. But to offer this advice on its own without giving any ground to self-interest or a sense of fairness is predictably counter–productive.

Much more likely to succeed would have been a campaign which called on all those who can influence travel patterns to help solve the problem of overcrowding, which will persist until a signalling upgrade next year. A solidaristic message would, for example, have appealed to employers (and customers, who include tube users) to offer staff greater flexibility to work earlier or later hours. The campaign would also have provided simple incentives – such as new early bird tariff – to commuters who chose to get trains before the rush hour.

As it is, an appeal which is perfectly sensible in its own terms (and which could benefit individuals and the wider commuter group) comes across as an unfair and unreasonable demand from an unloved hierarchy (TfL); one which, as the quotes from Londoners in the article shows, manages to stir up both solidaristic ('it’s not fair to us') and individualist ('it’s doesn’t work for me') indignation.

The point is this: the ingredients of social change like the ingredients of a recipe need to be appropriately mixed. If they are not a flavour which could be an integral part of a delicious dish can instead destroy it. This is one reason why patience is an important managerial virtue.  It is also why behaviour change works better when it is designed and delivered closer to people and can be more incremental, adaptive and nuanced.


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