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How to Spot (and Utilise) the Critically Engaged Employee

How to Spot (and Utilise) the Critically Engaged Employee

Research into change in ambiguous and fluid organisational environments tends to categorise employees' reactions in three-fold tables. To borrow a nicely alliterative framework, they are Bewitched, Bothered or Bewildered. The bewitched are engrossed with the change, throwing themselves into new practice and processes with zeal. The bothered resist the change, cynically disrupting the new in an often forlorn attempt to cling onto the old. The bewildered are portrayed as not really understanding the change, lost in a confusing mist between two worlds and needing a guiding hand to help them step blinking into the shining light of the new way. The response of the average change manager? Embrace the first, lose the second, train the third. Hence, the enduring relationship between change programs and professional development. 

Whilst it is a truism that some people experiencing change are struggling and confused, it is far too simplistic to perceive all of them this way. Many can see that the gap between the newly imposed processes and the practical necessities of their role is insurmountable. They understand the importance of business imperatives and why the changes have been implemented, but they feel the MBA-tooled consultants launching the change are missing vital practitioner knowledge that adds value to, or is even vital for, the program. If they are bewildered, it is only because they can't understand why their practical experience is being sidelined or ignored. Consequently, it is perhaps better to think of them as being critically engaged. 

So, how to recognise a critically engaged employee? To borrow from the alliterative framework of the first paragraph, there are three clues; their perspective, their performance, and their personality. 

Perspective: They have always been capable of perceiving the link between their specialised role and organisational imperatives and have consistently demonstrated their value in adapting their role to changing market conditions without overt direction from management. 

Performance: Aware of the problems of speaking truth to power directly, they couch their critical observations on the change through jokes, witticisms, sarcastic remarks, ironic statements, stickied cartoons on their work space wall, and other seemingly lighthearted commentary.

Personality: They never seem to get unduly stressed, treading lightly on the tightrope between over-committed burn out and under-committed incompetence or laziness and agilely adapting to different personalities, demands and expectations. 

Most of us will know, or be, somebody like that. They are common to most organisations. However, they are not often, if ever, properly appreciated. During critical change, this can be problematic. By failing to identify  critically engaged employees, organisations risk re-training them to death, creating a fully disengaged employee who feels management does not appreciate their skill-set, contributions, experience and qualifications. It also risks changes undermining the very thing they were supposed to promote, the increasing effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation, as vital skills and knowledge gets missed or ignored. By identifying them and realising that their practical experience, knowledge of their role and adaptive agility can add massive value to the change, organisations can develop double-loop learning between critically engaged employees and change managers, avoiding a cookie-cutter approach and producing innovative and unexpected solutions tailored to the organisation's unique demands.

Irony | Douglas Coupland
Irony | Ed Bryne

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Saturday, 17 August 2019

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


Research recognised as exceptional by world-leaders in the fields of power, leadership and organisational change, receiving considerable praise for its originality, depth and rigour.


Extensive training, coaching and mentoring experience in professional development in well-known organisations, governments and business schools across the world.


Consulting on change, transformation, culture, organisational narrative, innovation and creativity, and communications to private and public sector organizations and entities.

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