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Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE
50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Manchester Business School
Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE

High engagement work cultures

Authors: Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE Cary L. Cooper

16 October 2012

A few months ago, a colleague of mine in the US, Dr David Bowles (who happened to be my first PhD student when I began lecturing at UMIST) and I published The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing Me and We. In the book we argue that the crash in 2008 was not entirely to do with Wall Street greed but also due to ‘toxic corporate cultures’ which over-emphasised the ‘me’ to the detriment of the ‘we’. The bonus culture and the encouragement to compete with colleagues rather than collaborate certainly drove this dysfunctional culture.  And much of this was happening during the ‘engagement era’, where employers and business leaders were eschewing the importance of creating an engagement culture in their workplaces. Indeed, there seems to be a disconnect between what board level executives think about engagement and senior executives. A survey of 331 executives in Europe and the Middle East by the Hay Group and the Economist Intelligence Unit found that although over half of the C-Suite executives felt that they themselves had been the biggest determinant (driver) of levels of high-engagement in the organisation, only one in six director level executives agreed with that; with well over half of these directors disagreeing with their senior executives that their engagement levels are higher than their competitors. To put it in context, the same survey also found 82% of its C-Suite executives (both senior executives and directors) regarded disengaged employees as one of the three greatest threats facing their business.

We were trying in this book to build a picture of the foundation stones of the 2008 crash and how moving from a ‘me’ to a more ‘we’ culture might make a difference in the future, and indeed prevent another Great Crash. Or as Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve said in 2011, “As a scholar of the Great Depression, I honestly believe that September and October of 2008 was the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.”

In the book we show what needs to happen next by setting out a strategic roadmap of where we need to go, illustrated by positive case studies of what ‘good practice’ looks like through examples from BMW in Germany and Whole Foods Markets in the US.

The book was published first in the UK and then the US. Once it hit the US, a senior journalist at the Huffington Post, Peter Smirniotopoulos, wrote an extensive piece about the book entitled The High Engagement Work Culture: A New Perspective for Framing the Debate About Capitalism, which highlighted our historical arguments and what needs to be done in the future. The journalist concluded about the book “…offering a fascinating and important perspective into how organizational and industry cultures can benefit greatly - or, in the case of the Great Recession, bring to its knees - an economic super-power such as the United States. The authors have done an excellent job of laying the foundation for their thesis.” After this article was posted, the book received enormous attention in the US, probably because of the last part of the review which zooms in on ‘what kind of Capitalism the US should practice in the future’ where the author states, “There’s much here that can and should be applied to the larger debate” around this. Perhaps another reason behind the book going viral is because the ‘engagement movement’ has not delivered as much as it should in changing corporate and societal cultures. What we need to remember is what Bobby Kennedy said in 1968 when referring to the fact that Gross National Product does not measure what is really important to a business or to society:

“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things....Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our national wonder in the chaotic sprawl.....Yet GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short except that which makes life worthwhile.”

In addition to Kennedy’s question, we must also ask ourselves, what makes life worthwhile in our businesses?

Cary L. Cooper, CBE, is Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School, and co author of The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing Me and We, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.


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