Editor's Rating


By Gloria Lombardi

In ‘The Velvet Revolution at Work‘ author John Smithe emphasises the idea – already explored in his previous book The CEO: Chief Engagement Officer – that people engage themselves at work. This means that employee engagement cannot be done to people.

Smythe describes the ‘primary levers’ and ‘supporting levers’ of engagement. Both levers “enable people to feel invited, safe and keen to challenge and contribute where they work, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of their institution.” .

Primary Levers

These are:

  • Directional, operational and cultural leadership;
  • Delivering strategy and change through interventions that engage the right people;
  • Helping leaders at every level engage their people – capability.

The author writes that the prime role of top management is knowing when to sustain business as usual and when to disrupt it. Directional leadership means “responsibility for the purpose, direction and strategy of businesses and institutions.”

“It falls to the ‘C suite’ to initiate the process that keeps an eye on the future, whilst others are delegated with operational leadership. Directional and operational leadership are two sides of a coin; neither can operate effectively without the other for long.

“In practice, exercising directional leadership involves leaders making judgements about when to distract other levels (from getting on with operations), to step up to the balcony, not just to glimpse at new horizons but to contribute to the journey.

“To reap the rewards from engaging more widely requires leaders to design and govern participative strategy and change processes which reach down and across via well-designed interventions which engage people in challenging and contributing to strategy and change.

“The answer to the question: ‘what are the rewards or incentives for the C suite to switch from top-down, command and control (which is still seen as being quick and efficient by many brought up in its shadow), to broader inclusion in decision making?’, lies in the overwhelming evidence that broader inclusion delivers better commercial and cultural performance. And contrary to myth, broader inclusion does not require more time than top-down approaches.”

Secondary Levers

While the primary levers are prerequisite for creating the conditions that will encourage people to engage themselves, Smythe explores three more enablers, the secondary levers:


“Employees do as they are done to, not as the brand script dictates. The employee experience becomes the client/customer experience. It follows that if the reality of the workplace experience and culture is at odds with the brand promise made to customers and others, the brand promise cannot be delivered. The fit between the employee experience and the brand promise takes more than paid-for corporate rhetoric.”

Internal Communication

“Internal communication lies at a crossroads between being the radio station of the powerful and being a contributor to sustaining a healthy workplace where expression and constructive challenge by employees is encouraged and enabled.”

Digital technology

“There is absolutely no doubt that digital technology has revolutionized communication, collaboration and levels of transparency. It has and will increasingly be a key enabler of engagement. In some organisation it helps to suspend or reduce hierarchy in order to enable the challenges and contributions of the many to influence former elites.”

In the contect of digital technology Smythe points out that:

  • The social behaviours that we enjoy in the face-to-face world have found their way online;
  • Digital brings immediacy of connection;
  • There will be a shift towards negotiation ‘online’ from negotiation ‘over the table’;
  • The digital era heralds the onset of wider involvement in decision making, enabling broader groups to get involved where value will be added;
  • The goal in organisations is to achieve the same organic challenge and contribution in corporations and institutions that is achieved outside of work on social media in self-organising communities.

vPerhaps, this section of the book could have benefited from a deeper analysis of the advantages of using social tools inside the workplace.

After all, the world of social media inside the large enterprise evolves day after day, showing evidence of the benefits that both individuals and organisations are gaining from adopting new technologies.

Nonetheless, in The Velvet Revolution at Work John Smythe is capable of opening up an important discussion on the future of work and employee engagement.