Restoring a taste for team spirit, the key to lasting engagement at work? An interview with Bernard Coulaty



Temps de lecture

5 min


A recent survey* of over 1,000 French working people shows that, even if individualism has become more widespread since the health crisis, employees still feel very committed to their own team. For 8 out of 10 working people, this ‘small collective’ is useful, enabling them to coordinate, collaborate and perform better, learn and develop…As part of our Corporate Summer Day, Bernard Coulaty (former HR Director and now an Academic Director at IESEG) will lead a round-table discussion on the role of teams in creating lasting engagement for companies. Ahead of the round table, he shares his thoughts on this key theme.

Can you explain how employee engagement has evolved since the outbreak of the health crisis?

It’s true that the health crisis dates back a while now. During this global crisis we could see a splintering between different populations in society: those who were on the front line (of the pandemic), those in confinement or isolation. That’s the negative side.

On the positive side, because there is always a positive side to any crisis, we have seen the development of remote working, and the role of the manager as a “creator of engagement” in this new “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, complex) context. The current situation feeds on these developments that emerged during the health crisis, but we also recognize that there are (certain) managerial practices today that no longer work. We can no longer ‘micro-manage’, controlling without trust. It’s important to learn to motivate and engage your teams differently. And that’s a real challenge for managers.

The drivers of engagement have evolved. We can no longer ask employees to blindly agree with everything the company does. Companies have to be able to convince them that there’s something in it for them, and it’s worth noting that the job market has totally changed too. The balance of power between job candidates and companies has shifted. This clearly changes the game in terms of people’s relationship to work. The important thing now is to build a collective backbone to avoid further fragmentation.

Can you explain why collective engagement is once again becoming a key factor for companies?

There are two main reasons. One is positive, and the other is more negative. The “negative” reason is the development of individualism. We’ve seen this not only during the COVID crisis, but also in recent years. And it’s going to accelerate with the dynamics of the job market (mentioned above), where candidates are tempted to become even more self-focused in terms of their expectations. So that’s the first risk.

The second risk is linked to the fact that a certain number of studies – such as the one by OpinionWay, but I also see it in my observations in the field and at IÉSEG – show that we’ve made a bit of a collective mistake. In other words, we thought we could rebuild the collective (engagement) at company level through happiness-at-work or “happycracy”-type approaches.

We’re now moving away from these reductive and infantilizing approaches, which didn’t see the employee as a protagonist but rather as a consumer of a “nice experience”. And we’re finally realizing that the real collective dynamic, the one that works, is the one that’s at the level of the manager in close contact with his team. In other words, and this can be seen in the surveys, people have more confidence in their work colleagues, or in their line manager, than in the company as a whole, or even in society as a whole, since we’re also going through a democratic crisis.

So, it’s a question of rebuilding the overall collective spirit out of this “small collective”, whether in terms of performance management or talent development. It can also be through the link between different generations within the company. We need to implement actions that can respond to this at the level of the unit comprised of a manager and his/her team. This seems to be an interesting starting point, rather than making new plans at company level where we can see that we don’t always succeed, or at any rate that certain recipes or actions no longer work.

With the different pillars you’ve just mentioned, how can we stimulate this collective engagement?

First of all, it’s a question of stakeholders or protagonists: who is responsible for commitment? The important thing is that, in my opinion, engagement involves 4 key stakeholders. First, there’s the company, which has to foster engagement in terms of its culture, values and organizational system. But it also needs to have less complex processes and organization, without too much unnecessary reporting or levels. This enables people to make decisions without being too constrained by the system. This is a real challenge for many companies that have introduced unnecessary complexity into their decision-making processes.

The second key stakeholder is, of course, the manager. He/she must create the conditions for engagement by being both benevolent with his/her teams and demanding: commitment is not just about satisfaction, it’s also about being challenged to ‘grow’. Navigating between the two (benevolence and being demanding) is a key skill for managers today.

The other two stakeholders are, of course, the individual employee and the team. For individuals, we need to try and educate employees so that they can become self-committed, I’d say, by taking ownership of their work environment. Then there’s the team, because that’s where the collective dynamic ultimately comes into its own. What will happen in the team when the manager isn’t present? Will it continue to act together, to show solidarity?  Will it move towards a (true) collective spirit or not? It’s also a question of diversity and inclusion.

In concrete terms, when it comes to performance management, we may need to reinvent collective bonuses or variable collective remuneration systems, which are interesting levers. In Asia, for example, they do this very well because it’s a more collective culture, but in our European and Western countries it’s more complicated. When it comes to talent management, we need to promote the soft skills that create a collective dynamic. For example, agility, the ability to communicate transversally, or collaborate with different levels of the company. These are skills that need to be highlighted and valued in terms of career management and promotion.

I’d like to end with a key point: the different generations in companies. Today, there are three or even four generations present in organizations.  There’s the problem of seniors and retirement, which we often talk about, particularly in France. Then there are the young people: how do they fit into the company? How do they relate to work? But there’s also a lot to be said for getting these generations to work together through reverse mentoring approaches, where we try to get people to work together, passing on know-how or exchanging best practices in both directions. With artificial intelligence, new technologies and CSR, for example, the younger generations have a lot to contribute to their elders. So it’s a mutual exchange, and that’s what we do in our highly intergenerational programs at IÉSEG.

Find out more about Bernard Coulaty’s round table at the Université d’Eté on June 16: “Redonner le goût du collectif, clé d’un engagement durable au travail?” Please note the event is held in French.

*More information (in French) on the survey conducted by OpinionWay for the Observatoire de l’engagement.

Category (ies)

Management & Society


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IÉSEG Insights


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