Employee engagement: The French way

French Employee Empowerment

‘Employee engagement’ and ‘France’ go together about as well as a glass of 1986 Château Margaux and a KFC bargain bucket. This is the land of the 35-hour week and the out-of-hours email ban, of rampant strikes and kidnapped bosses. Of course the French don’t like work.

Indeed, in Gallup’s annual State of the Global Workplace report, typically only 9% of French employees are found to be engaged – that is, they actually look forward to coming into work every morning. That’s barely half the proportion found in the UK (17% – not that this is a figure for us to be especially proud of).

Across the channel, however, the whiff of revolution is in the air. Organizations as diverse as Michelin, Airbus, Decathlon and the Belgian Ministry of Social Security are rising up in a movement known as ‘corporate liberation’.

The gist is simple: take power away from micromanaging bosses, and give the workers freedom.

‘A company is liberated when the majority of employees have complete freedom and responsibility to take any action they themselves – not their boss – see as being best for the company’s vision and purpose,’ explains Isaac Getz, professor at ESCP Europe Business School in Paris.

Getz co-authored the foundational text of the corporate liberation movement, Freedom Inc, in 2009. When the French edition came out in 2012, it stormed to the top of Amazon for seven months and propelled Getz to national fame, with a French poll recently voting him the world’s fourth most influential management thinker. The corporate liberation movement, meanwhile, is going from strength to strength.

Its basics – flat structures and employee empowerment – are hardly new, and indeed were inspired by practices in American companies like W.L. Gore. Rarely, however, have they been taken quite so far. This is ‘look, no hands’ management, with decision-making almost entirely devolved to those closest to the action.

The idea is that giving employees control gives them meaning, makes them care about their work and allows the company to access their full arsenal of talents. As Getz puts it, ‘it’s better to have 300 brains than just having one.’

At the same time, partnering freedom with personal responsibility keeps the whole thing from falling apart.

It all sounds rather utopian, doesn’t it? You’d be forgiven for a having doubts about how it would actually work out in practice, so MT decided to put a few of them to Getz over a tisane or two while he was waiting for the Eurostar.

Workers in control… but you still need a strategy

Hundreds of employees making their own decisions about what’s best for the company doesn’t sound like a recipe for a coherent strategy, but it’s not as much of an issue as you might think, says Getz.

‘Strategy is an articulation of the vision of the company at a very high level for a period of time, one year, two years. Liberated companies are not particularly different in terms of strategy. But vision or purpose is extremely important. That answers the question why are we coming to work. It makes people dream. This is something that’s not valid just for this year.’

So while you do still have a strategy, as a way of achieving your corporate vision, it’s just not imposed by senior management, from the top down.

Clearly finding and articulating a clear vision that everyone understands is the essential first step for all this to work, so it’s worth doing it right.

‘Ask what are the values, behaviours and rules you want to see in your colleagues and company. This is a very important discussion. You want to move from the idea of being a group that happens to work in this place because they were hired, which is quite a random process, into a community of people who share the same values and rules,’ says Getz.

Leaders vs micromanagers

The key to liberating a company is the leader. ‘He or she must exhibit egoless behaviour, abandoning the need to control what’s going on or having the right answer all the time,’ says Getz. This includes avoiding the urge to validate employees’ decisions. ‘If an employee comes back to check your opinion, then the ultimate responsibility is still yours, you continue to infantilise them.’

Letting go is not easy, to say the least, but it is essential. ‘It’s enough that this shows up one time that people say this is just all talk. Look, the boss is still around. He lets us take small decisions, like kids playing in the sand box, but when it’s serious he’s still here.’

This is the leader as champion, coach and guardian then, rather than the micromanager. (The natural consequence of course is that there will be fewer leaders – the middle manager doesn’t come out of this all that well.)

Avoiding silos

OK, everyone in the firm knows and believes in its vision: making great widgets to make people’s lives easier. For someone in operations, this might mean making the perfect widget. For someone in sales, it might mean selling more widgets. For someone in finance, it might mean making the right number of widgets at the right price to save money for a new widget machine. Without the oversight of a leader, how do these problems get resolved?

‘Most organisations never solve this issue of silos. Because they’re organised into functions, they’re looking at their local optimum, not the optimum for the overall company, and you can’t resolve it because they’re all oriented to local KPIs,’ says Getz.

‘In a liberated company, you have a vision and this allows you to have a conversation. That’s why liberated companies try never to become bigger than 250 people in any one business unit. If there’s more demand for production, Gore will not increase the amount of equipment under one roof, it’ll grow and divide like an amoeba, with two plants, two accounting departments, two ordering departments etc. Everyone said they’re crazy, they’re exploding admin costs, but they want to keep communities. They can have these genuine authentic conversations about what’s best for the vision of the company because they know the first name of these people.’

The thorny issue of pay

Pay in liberated companies is about fairness rather than equality. The aim is generally to pay employees a salary in the third quartile for their job, experience and location. ‘You try not to pay top salaries because then people just come for the money, but you try not to pay below average because if I try to cheat you on what you can earn in the job market, I don’t live the values I profess. It’s about trust.’

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reward performance, but bonuses are out. ‘In the name of fairness and respect, you can’t have everyone receiving the same amount of compensation when some people took a lot of initiative and others cut corners… but not through bonuses. They are distrustful. If I give you a bonus I’m saying you were good this year, but I don’t know about next year, so you’ll have to prove yourself again,’ says Getz.

Rather than having pay assessed by The Man, liberated companies tend to co-opt a dozen or so employees per 1000 each year to go around and interview people, asking how their colleagues worked and how they helped them. Getz says this helps incentivise team rather than individual performance. ‘What’s important is how good your team is in realising the company’s vision, not everyone for themselves.’

Corporate liberation isn’t a quick process, Getz says. It can take two or three years in an SME, with careful recruitment, to create a self-directed, self-organized company. In a large firm, it can take a decade. Great patience is therefore required, especially when one controlling slip at the top can ruin it all. But if you bring the best ideas and execution out of most of your people, rather than just 9% of 17%, then perhaps it’s worth it. Vive la liberation.