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Employee Engagement through Power of Communities

There is a beautiful story narrated by Dr. Scott Peck (best known for his work “The Road Less Travelled”) in his book “The Different Drum”

By Rajesh Kamath*

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, lost all its branch houses and had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot (the head) and four others, all over seventy years in age. Clearly, it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation - the old monks had become a bit clairvoyant, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose of coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.” When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered over this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. ‘The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one?’

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

So what is the rabbi’s gift in the above story? Mutual feeling of respect? Reverence? Adoration and love maybe? Underlying all other feelings, it is the quality of trust…which connects people.

Another story, another time: As a consultant and coach, I have the opportunity to work with a variety of organizations in diverse industries. In one of my assignments, I was tasked with helping to create a set of new Leaders for a mid-sized organization in the ITES sector with USD 30 Million in revenues. The organization was growing at a fast clip and their ambitions were rising even faster – with the dream of being the most preferred provider of services in their chosen segment. A set of over 20 experienced executives were identified as talent through an internal process and were thus recognized as future Leaders. The challenge? These were all individuals who had the requisite skills as Managers – they managed their functions and processes efficiently, however they struggled to work ahead as leaders and work together as a team. The CEO, a man of great depth and width of experience, was spending considerable time in nurturing and sustaining client relationships, in India and Europe, besides that spent on visioning and strategizing. Thus, there was clearly a need for someone to partner with him in building a cohesive leadership unit – I was privileged to be the chosen one.

After charting the roadmap ahead, action commenced with an intensive residential Workshop based on an Indian model of leadership titled Swami, which brought together these managers to work with each other (and on each other). Several initiatives followed, the focus of which were dual:

1. Real or near-real experiences

2. Utilizing each other as group resources

Fast forward - Numerous interventions and fifteen months later, came another two day residential Workshop where things seemed to come to a head. The group members had become fully aware of not just their own strengths and limitations, but also about their fellow team members and about the group as a whole. There seemed to have been a natural process of cleansing and self discovery, where they realized that each one is as human as the other and that they no longer needed to survive alone, when they could thrive and grow as a team. What was the magic that worked in the interim?

South Africa, which is home to many tribes, has given the world the beautiful concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is part of a larger folk phrase “Ubuntu ngumuntu nagabuntu” meaning “I am, because we are” which is the basic philosophy of any community. The CEO of the ITES organization mentioned above, throughout the fifteen months, played a pivotal role in helping convert the individual performers to a group and from a group to a community. The interventions catalysed and supported this process. The root of the word “community” is the same as the root of the words “Communication” and “Communion’ – viz. to make common or to make shared. A Community is an inspired team that shares purpose, not just an objective; which shares meaning and not just targets. Perhaps this is what translated into inspired faster business growth (30% in a highly competitive segment) for the organization and emergence of numerous Leaders in the group.

South Africa is also home to one of the fastest growing HR bodies in the African continent. Africa itself is a promising hotspot of talent for the world. Named SABPP (South African Board for People Practices), they offer a whole host of services for the advancement of the HR Professional and community, right from the start as a student. The knowledge community I (co founded and) co facilitate, called MTHRG (More Than HR Global) is a partner of SABPP and as part of this understanding, I was addressing the Annual General Meeting of SABPP at Johannesburg in June 2017. To share what MTHRG does best, which contributes to making it such a vibrant and highly admired group, I shared the secret with the gathering, “We are not an HR Association, but a community – we communicate frequently, and commune daily through our many channels. Conventionally, the office bearers have to drive any Association’s activities and members but at MTHR, t

he community members drive us – we simply follow the community needs”. Peter Senge, in his “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” says communities “engage people’s hearts, minds, spirits and bodies”. MTHRG does just that. Amongst Buddhist monks, there is a well known prayer in Pali, “Buddham Sharanam Gacchami, Dhammam Sharanam Gacchami, Sangham Sharanam Gacchami” – literally meaning “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in Dharma (right path), I take refuge in the Sangha.” Sangha is a term without exact English translation, but from our context, let’s take the meaning to be “Community”. And each of the three parts makes a call to members, to surrender – to a higher force, a higher energy. The community is a far greater force and energy than the individual or even a group!

So it is no surprise that the great strategist of the early world, Chanakya declares “Mitrasangrahane Balam Sampadyate” – in assembling a community, he says, one strengthens self. Seth Godin, an extremely popular author, states the names of Wikipedia and Acumen Fund as examples of “tribes” of global impact, the term he uses for community. Consider the case of Grameen Bank, which began with the Nobel Laureate, Mohammed Yunus bringing together groups of five women each, where microcredit took root, grew to sizeable communities of women entrepreneurs in backward villages and these communities thrived and prospered to raise an entire country out of poverty!

So what is it about communities which gives them so much power? Seth Godin suggests that only two things are essential:

1. A shared interest (purpose)

2. A way to communicate

Given these, the communities drive powerful movements, he contends. Powerful movements change the world.

If organizations can recognize and utilize the power of communities rather than simply wishing that people work together as teams, engagement will not be an effort because the community galvanizes itself. Engagement activities simply do not sustain because they are extraneous measures. They can however, augment deeper processes of human connection. Another critical lesson I learnt from stories about the Zulu tribe is the importance they assign to “the whole person”. Employee engagement is pointless when it only engages the hands or even minds of people. Here is where art, drama, music and visuals become crucial – they are known to tap deeper sources of knowing and intuition.

Going back to the ITES company under discussion, when the last Workshop was facilitated, the team energy hit the highest peak when the medium of group communication shifted from spoken word to music. Musical instruments, especially of the percussion kind, were provided as a means of expression to the participants, first as individual performers and then as small groups. There were a series of exercises used to simulate the learning of the last year. In the final segment, when it was time to create a musical piece with all of them involved, the ensuing music reached a crescendo, the individual talents converged into a powerful single force, the minds and hearts united, and their transition to an inspired community seemed complete!

To Summarise, it’s time to bury conventional employee engagement practices and substitute them with the power of inspired communities where there is:

• A shared purpose, not just a common interest

• One or more ways to communicate deeply and frequently, not sometimes

• Conscious effort to bring in alternate ways of expression (music, art, etc)

• Facilitation of their transition from community to movements, which dovetail into the vision and mission of the organization

• Acknowledgement, appreciation and reinforcement of the communities to help them evangelize their purpose

Let's all take the Rabbi's gift to heart...


Rajesh Kamath
is Consulting Editor of People & Management, Founder – Chanakya Consulting Insights and Core Member – MTHR Global

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