Paradoxes of Engagement: Workers are not Assets

They are investors.

Stowe Boyd
Mar 31, 2020 · 5 min read
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The conventional story about internal communications runs something like this:

  • The company would like employees to be more engaged because this leads to a series of positive effects, including higher productivity, greater innovation, and the willingness to speak well of the company, which leads to attracting more and better candidates to consider joining the firm.
  • Effective internal communication has been shown to be one of the most critical factors influencing employee engagement along with belief in leadership, alignment with company vision, and a sense of belonging. Note that these latter factors have to be communicated, so internal communications are the medium through which employees can gain and retain those beliefs, that alignment, and that sense of belonging.
  • Therefore, the company has a strong motivation to develop and maintain an effective internal communications program.
  • QED.

But, if we take a step back, and think about this more broadly, it could be we are missing the larger picture. Let’s think about the employee, especially in the case where the magic in the story above isn’t working. Perhaps it’s more practical to consider that the disengaged employee would like to see changes in the organization that would increase their engagement, and perhaps that of others.

So, a less-than-totally engaged worker, Betty, has three options, according to the sociologist Albert Hirshman (as described by James O’Toole and Warren Bennis in A Culture of Candor):

In the early 1970s, Albert O. Hirschman posited that employees who disagree with company policy have only three options: exit, voice, or loyalty. That is, they can offer a principled resignation (exit), try to change the policy (voice truth to power), or remain team players despite their opposition (loyalty). Most people choose option three, the path of least resistance. They swallow whatever objections they may have to questionable dictates from above, concluding that they lack the power to change things or, worse, will be punished if they try.

In a very competitive marketplace with many companies clamoring for talent, Betty may opt to exit the company and go elsewhere. Think of this as an economic response to disengagement. This is also what disaffected customers do when they decide to buy a different brand of toothpaste or a different make of car when the product falls short of expectations. Note also, this is how investors operate as well: they will sell the stock of companies that are underperforming in some way or another.

The second way to affect change? Daniel Akst draws on Hirshman, again, to dig into ‘speaking up’, which generally called ‘voice’:

There’s also a somewhat less appreciated way of effecting change: by speaking up for it. Hirschman characterizes this method as political. The use of voice in this way is probably most salient in the case of people within an enterprise who are unhappy with its conduct. Although customers in a competitive marketplace can easily move on, departure is more difficult for insiders. Agitating for change from within isn’t easy. But the attempt, at least, can forestall the need to find another job — or keep the venture from failing and taking your job with it.

Let’s imagine that Betty wants to make some recommendations to the company, perhaps about changes that might be made in diversity and inclusion. She has to first trust that there won’t be recriminations for speaking up, and she also has to have some belief that she will be listened to, perhaps leading to the change she would like to experience.

Note that the societal adoption of social media has allowed consumers a means to use their voice with companies whose products and services they use. Investors have similar means at their disposal, as well.

What is increasingly clear is that the third option — blind loyalty — is less of an option in all three situations: employees, customers, and investors. Betty is just not the sort of person to avoid the political or economic means of engaging with the company. Note the turnabout: instead of the company seeking to keep Betty engaged, she is seeking to engage the company in a discussion about change on a policy level.

It is that shift — where Betty and other employees — seek policy change that brings me to the theme in this article’s subtitle. Rather than considering Betty as an employee — a relationship that has traditionally been based on a power imbalance between the employee and the company — the company and its employees might benefit in considering Betty as an investor. She is investing time and energy every day she comes to work. She is investing her perspective on policy by speaking up for organizational changes, in the interest of all. And by rejecting passive, blind loyalty she is embracing Foerster’s Empirical Imperative:

Act always to increase the number of choices.

And most importantly, by not quitting, she is choosing to help the company improve, which leaving does not. Consider this, again from Albert Hirschman:

When the management of a corporation deteriorates, the first reaction of the best-informed stockholders is to look around for the stock of better-managed companies. In thus orienting themselves toward exit, rather than toward voice, investors are said to follow the Wall Street rule that “if you do not like the management you should sell your stock.” According to a well-known manual this rule “results in perpetuating bad management and bad policies.”

In the final analysis, then, companies might be well-served to base their internal communications around the model of investor relations, a subset of public relations. Companies would be better off if they consider their employees as investors who think in economic terms and where there is little or no power imbalance between them.

The point of internal communications in this approach is to convince employees to continue to invest in the firm, to listen to what the internal ‘stock market’ is saying about the organization, and hear — and act on — what has been voiced.

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Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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