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July 2011

Why Employee Engagement is a Problem

Bored_at_work Do you still find it?

I do, and it doesn't cease to amaze me!

Actually, I find it quite distressing - and not just because it makes explaining my business more difficult. You would think, wouldn't you, that in these tough economic times it would be right up there as a major concern for any half-decent, self-respecting business leader?

I am talking here about people who do not understand Employee Engagement or why it is an issue. I cannot tell you the number of business people I have spoken to who think of it as an abstract concept that maybe applies to public sector organisations but not to theirs. They think they have far more important concerns.

Well, whether you are one of the minority who does understand  but need help to persuade others or whether you are someone who still needs convincing, the Accenture report "What Executives Really Need to Know about Employee Engagement" provides some useful research findings that will help to convince. Let's see how.

The first table gives us a succinct summary of the survey and its findings, and so provides a good launching pad for our purposes. It identifies 9 survey items with the percentage responding "always, every day" for each of the 9, as follows:-
• 47% - I am enthusiastic about providing a high-quality product or service
• 46% - I am determined to be complete and thorough in all my job duties
• 39% - I am always willing to "go the extra-mile" in order to do my job well
• 32% - I am prepared to fully devote myself to performing my job duties
• 30% - I am willing to really push myself to reach challenging work goals
• 29% - My job is a source of personal pride
• 26% - Trying to constantly improve my job performance is very important to me
• 26% - I am ready to put my heart and soul into my work
• 17% - I get excited about new ways to do my job more effectively  

You may possibly want to make allowances for the "touchy-feely" nature of the questions and the subjectivity for a respondent trying to gauge their attitude. On top of that the numbers could also be understated by virtue of the fact that no-one will feel like this EVERY day and thus some respondents may have actually been more honest in not giving this answer. Even so they are hardly encouraging results, are they?

Of course it is by inverting these results that you can really get some feeling for their implications. For example, just think what the implications are for your business if nearly 70% of your people come to work each day and are NOT prepared to fully devote themselves to performing their duties. How then can you provide superior customer service? How can you be more responsive as an organisation if 70% of you people do not take personal pride in their work? 

Those are the questions that I would be asking myself if I were in your shoes. But, even more importantly I would be asking myself, "What can I do about it?"  That is why you should be looking at employee engagement as a greater priority. 

(One place to start might be to figure out a way to stop people thinking about what they do as a "job." That is such a horrible word - made worse by the English use of "do a job" as meaning to have a crap! Seriously, how can you instil any sense of pride in people in what they do, if you use terminology that - albeit unconsciously - has such connotations?)

But forget the semantics. As the Accenture report shows, employee engagement is a serious issue and you need to recognise and address it. However, you do have solutions available; many of which, such as employee ownership, I have described elsewhere and in previous blogs. These can help you to meet the challenge and transform performance - individually and organisationally. What are you waiting for?


Prevention is better than cure. How to avoid a crisis!

 Who would have thought it?

What a difference a week makes!

Last week I decried the lack of consequences for the top people involved the News of the World scandal. This week the world righted itself and the Chief Executive resigned. But that was simply the lid coming off the pot. We also saw the resignation of the two top policemen at the Metropolitan Police. And who knows what else is to come!

Atomic cloud It's like an atomic bomb. You get the initial spectacular blast but the after-effects continue to wreak even more havoc long afterwards.

So what lessons are there here for your business? Certainly there are some pretty big ones. And while I am sure there will be more as events unfold there are obvious ones you would do well to heed immediately. 

Firstly, you should always have a disaster recovery plan. Of course, in developing that you need to plan for the worst. That is the only way to ensure that you have everything you need when disaster strikes. That way when faced with a crisis you start by preparing for the worst and acting as though it is what is happening. It is always easier to slow down and scale back than it is to accelerate and ramp up. In this case failure to recognise that has made the response more inappropriate, inadequate and embarrassing.

Secondly, you cannot contain pressure. No matter what you do, at some stage it will find a way out. It has to, because a wrong premise will always lead to an incorrect conclusion. Thus the more you try to contain it, the bigger the ultimate blast will be! In that regard this situation is not unlike the recent banking crisis. Things that were not right inevitably had to surface. Earlier efforts to conceal them simply resulted in an embarrassing situation turning into an unmitigated disaster. Are you sure that there is nothing similar bubbling in your organisation?

Of course the best form of disaster planning is to ensure that you don't have a disaster in the first place. That is why we have the old adage that "prevention is better cure." So the key question is, "How do you do that?" It is particularly difficult in a large organisation with hundreds or thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people. Of course you cannot monitor everyone's actions. So how do you mitigate against inappropriate behaviour? 

Ultimately, there is only one way you can do this. It is to build an organisation around shared principles and values where you quickly identify and root out non-aligned behaviour. And that has to happen at any and every level of the organisation.

That is also not easy in the modern organisation, with all the internal conflict, petty rivalries and silo thinking. Even if the ultimate goal is the same and the cause is worthwhile, a couple of bad apples can contaminate the whole.

I don't know what you think, but the only solution I can see is employee ownership: to make everyone in the organisation an owner. That way they have a vested interest in how the business performs, and see any activity that works against the business' best interests as a personal affront. It is a perfect solution? Possibly not, but can you think of a better one? It will ensure employee engagement and avert the crisis of ownership I described last week.

A Crisis of Leadership - and Ownership

Rotting fish "A fish rots from the head."

That's the thought that has dominated my thinking for the past week or so as the great phone hacking scandal rocks Britain.

Daily there are new revelations of how reporters from the News of the World hacked into people's mobile phones or paid private detectives to do it for them or the police for stories. The whole country is angry. Yet the people at the top claim that they were completely unaware of these practices, express their own outrage, and promise to get to the bottom of it.

Maybe so. But even if that is true, surely they are the ones who created the culture where the boundaries of morals, common decency and adherence to the law were flouted to such an extent. What do you think?

If you agree you will also think that makes them bad leaders. And even if you don't, the fact that this was going on at all on "their watch" makes them bad managers. Perhaps they are both. Either way, you have to question whether they deserve to keep their jobs.

Pending the results of police investigations and judicial inquiries, that appears to be what is happening. The owners' response to the crisis was to close the paper down and lay off the 200+ staff. However, they did not fire the people at the top. Even worse they initially asked the person in charge at the time of the offences to lead the internal investigation! It makes you think, doesn't it?

Double standards certainly seem to be rampant - and on two counts.

Firstly executives generally justify their huge earnings on the contribution they make to the company. They argue that they set the direction, formulate the strategies and create the culture that leads to success. Fair enough. But then, surely they have to be culpable when things go pear-shaped. In this case, things have gone more than pear shaped: the biggest circulation newspaper in Britain has been closed in a week after 168 years. That has to be a massive failure in anyone's books, doesn't it? Yet there are no immediate consequences for these executives.

Then there is the question of attitudes to employees. Could the newspaper have been as successful and as incredibly profitable as it was without its people? Yet they have lost their livelihoods. One investment analyst even described this as "The Slaughter of Innocents." So what message does that send out, not just within the organisation, but to the world at large? How can you expect to get buy-in to your employee engagement efforts when such behaviour spells out very clearly that employees are second class citizens? As long as there are different rules for managers and employees, you will never create employee engagement.

Yet there is more here than a crisis of leadership - specific or generic. There is also a crisis of ownership.  

Does the fact that he is the principle shareholder entitle Rupert Murdoch to make a unilateral decision to close down the paper? Perhaps legally, yes. But morally? This is an important issue.

Shares in large companies can become a market commodity rather than a commitment to the business. When this happens shareholders can make more money by trading shares and maximising the share value becomes a key issue.  When this happens it is all too easy to forget the core business: why it exists in the first place and who else depends on it.  Investment, not ownership, becomes the focus. Profits rather than value become paramount.  And thus there is not the same long-term focus that you normally attribute to ownership.

On the other hand, in the Knowledge Age, the greatest proportion of business value is in the people. So, because of their mutual dependency, you can argue that employees have more of a vested interest in the long-term than the shareholders (or the executives who are rewarded in shares.) Thus they are now more capable of playing the role of owner than the shareholders. You would do well to recognise and address this. 

Unfortunately, as events here so clearly show, no-one seems to. No-one recognises or accounts for the value of their people. Thus their value is totally ignored and their fate is at the mercy of people who have none. This can lead to the unthinking destruction of value and leave the wider community to deal with the fallout. This cannot continue. There is a crisis of ownership and you can only address it by ensuring a system of employee ownership which balances investor needs with the wider need. At the same time it might also reduce the likelihood of widespread News of The World type unethical practices in the first place.

How to Build Sustainable Success

Sustainability. That's a word that you hear a lot these days. On most occasions it is used in an environmental context.  As in "sustainable = green." But it is so much more.

Do you ever think about it from an organisational perspective?

As a business leader sustainability should pervade everything you do. After all you are not immortal, but your organisation could be. And you are responsible for enabling that. 

Of course that is the big difference between corporations and individuals. Companies have a distinct and separate legal persona that enables them to continue your work long after you have clocked off for the last time. Which means that it is one of your key responsibilities to ensure that you don't jeopardise that and instead leave a lasting legacy that builds sustainable success. And - paradoxically - the key way to do that is through your people.

That is one reason why talent management is an increasingly important subject. The "war for talent" has resurfaced as one of the biggest challenges you face and thus the biggest threat to your efforts to be more sustainable.  You need to be very, very careful, however, that you don't side-tracked into thinking of talent management as something distinct from the people who possess the talent. Hopefully, this diagram from my book "Lean Organisations Need FAT People" will help you avoid making such a fundamental error. Let me explain how.

Stairway to Sustainable Success 
Talent has to be identified. When it is some training is required to turn it into ability. Exercise ability and you build experience whereupon it becomes a skill. Skill on its own is great, but it still requires more. You need to create opportunities to put that skill to use and - equally important but too often overlooked - you need to remove the barriers that prevent it being used. When you do that the person takes full responsibility for what they are doing; they become independent and take ownership for what they deliver. This in turns brings greater enjoyment and enables the person to start fulfilling their potential. And isn't that what you want from your people?

After all, an organisation with people who are fulfilling their potential is much more likely to fulfil its own. It certainly will be more successful and that success will be more sustainable.

You could say this gives you a simple recipe for creating employee engagement. However, this is where you need to come back to the total person. It may sound like the oldest cliché in the book, but you need to remember that:

  1. Every person has some talent;
  2. Their talent is required for them to do their job, and the more you develop that talent the better they will do their job;
  3. An organisation requires the seamless linking of all those talents to operate effectively.

Thus no organisation can operate at anything like its full potential unless each and every individual is using their talents properly. And unless they do, its sustainability will always be at risk.

So, if you want to build a lasting legacy and ensure the sustainability of your organisation, you have to recognise and foster the partnership between the individual and the organisation. 

The great thing is that if you do, you will create a shared purpose that embeds sustainability into the organisation and thus - since, to be viable, the business must have a useful purpose in the first place - you will be helping the greater cause of sustainability as well!