Q: I want to be a great leader. What’s this thing called “employee engagement” I’ve been hearing about? Is it just consultants coming up with some new term to sell me their services, or what? I’m hoping it’s real. Economic times are tough. I need something to get more out of the team I lead. – Bewildered of Birkenhead
A: Dear Bewildered of Birkenhead,
The phrase “employee engagement” might be new and it certainly is flavour of the month in leadership literature, but the underlying concept is true and timeless human nature.
Employee engagement is not “morale” or “satisfaction” or “happiness”. Plenty of unhappy people are highly productive and plenty of deliriously happy folk are fine with showing up, punching a clock, getting paid and going home regardless of whether anything productive happens. Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee chooses to apply discretionary effort. It’s doing more than you have to because you choose to.
So, there are engaged employees doing more than they have to, present employees who do only what they have to, and disengaged employees who are reading this careers section at work to find a new job with anyone who isn’t you.
The numbers vary a little across time, industry and geography, but they’re remarkably consistent: 26 per cent are engaged, 28 per cent are disengaged and 46 per cent are present.
These are averages. What are the proportions in your workplace?
UnderArmour’s founder Kevin Plank’s got some views on what motivates employees. Here’s an article about them. I don’t agree with everything in it, especially the bit about “happiness,” but otherwise, with emphasis on autonomy and connecting business success to employee success, it’s very sound.
The articles key points are:
- Set a good example
- Focus on employee happiness* rather than employee motivation
- Make sure employees share in the company’s success
- Create a culture of autonomy and agency
- Encourage workers to voice complaints
- Take on fun volunteer assignments
- Get in touch with your inner start-up
* (I think they mean culture rather than happiness really. There’s no evidence linking happiness in its literal sense to productivity one way or the other. That said, I like happiness personally.)
There’s some ‘meat n potatoes’ engagement stuff in there but there’s some clever and original thinking too. I love the ‘anti-fan club’ concept to proactively create a medium in which beefs can be aired and sorted early. This links nicely with my ‘Go ugly early’ philosophy in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ .
The ‘controlled chaos’ referred to in the article is engagement in action. Scary to conservative managers, it’s accepted and sought after by genuine leaders. And it’s coming up to Christmas where controlled chaos is, apparently, what we all want on the roads the shops and our homes.
Recruiting and retaining the best employees shouldn’t be a matter of luck
This recent article in the business section of the New Zealand Herald cites research conducted by a firm of recruitment consultants. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they have a vested interest in interpreting the results in any particular way, but they interpret the results in a particular way… that says employers aren’t recruiting effectively. (If only there was someone around who could help them?)
Sarcastic and cynical as I am, I’m not disputing the results of the survey – just their narrow interpretation of the cause. There’s never ONE cause. Maybe poor recruitment contributes. I bet it does.
The Hudson survey “paints a bleak picture for employers”, saying: “Of every 10 employees: four are not good hires, eight aren’t engaged in their work and six are actively seeking other employment.” Ouch! This is born out by other research I’ve been reading over years and around the world. There’s a bit of variation, mostly by industry, but this survey isn’t that surprising and New Zealand isn’t that bad. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of scope for improvement.
Apart from the recruitment tools being used which the recruitment company focuses on, the primary cause of the problem implied is that employers are recruiting almost entirely for skills – technical skills. It’s that old mindset of, “I’ve got a vacancy, I’d better fill it because it’s costing me money” without doing the correlating maths on how much it costs to fill that vacancy and get it wrong – to fill it with someone technically competent (and that’s even assuming they get that bit right) but quickly disengaged or a misfit in several other ways.
Bad luck? Like most games, you make your own luck in the recruiting game. I was meeting recently with a manager who hadn’t had a single instance of negative turnover for nine years. Yes, people had moved on but for the right reasons such as internal promotion. He used the usual suite of tools to find a pool of potential applicants, whittled them down through CV checking, interviews, reference checks and even the occasional behaviourial profile. But he added another step. Shortlisted applicants all got to sit in on some actual work with some people who, if their application was successful, would be their co-workers. Those co-workers got a right of veto. I used this myself in the past with some success in a call centre that wasn’t a typical call centre. It gave applicants a dose of what their potential working reality could be. Sometimes they got put off by us and our work; sometimes we got put off by them. Either way, it’s better for both parties that be known early and up front so neither employer or employee have to suffer the consequences of misfitting. And those are greater than the costs of vacancies.
Another means of increasing your odds is to encourage referral of potential applicants from existing employees. Some firms even offer a commission for this. BUT if you do that, ponder how this might affect behaviour and what exactly it is you’re wanting to incentify and provide commission on. Any commission should be for a successful applicant who is still there after a predetermined period and performing well. Not just for putting someone with a pulse into a vacancy. Rather than just advertising to the great untargetted masses for your specific vacancy, wouldn’t it increase the chances of success if you sought via an informed gene pool – the people who are already aware of what it takes to do the job and who is likely to prosper there?
Wringing the final life out of my luck metaphor, when it comes to those few shortlisted candidates who are demonstrably technically competent but you’re not absolutely certain that they’ll fit and be engaged, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Often it’s better to walk away and play another day. Cheaper in the long run even if baby needs a new pair of shoes.
Dov Seidman’s recent post says that most management efforts at employee engagement have been ‘out to lunch.’ As in, taking employees out to lunch, as if that kind of reward or team-bonding activity had some effective influence on the engagement behaviours of employees. Lunching isn’t inherently a bad thing (depending on how healthy you’re eating I suppose, or if you let anyone drink alcohol) but there’s no proven cause-and-effect relationship with employee engagement. I like this one of Dov’s key points:
“The frequency of lunches, performance reviews, volunteer program outings and team-building exercises does not produce higher levels of employee engagement. Employee engagement is determined by the quality and meaningfulness of these interactions, and the journey managers are enlisting their employees to engage in.”
He makes an excellent point about engaged employees – that “…they exhibit many more specific “engagement traits” – including a willingness to put in a great deal of extra effort, increased loyalty, a greater willingness to recommend their company as an employer of choice, efforts to inspire others in the company through concrete comments and actions, and similar outcomes – compared to other employees.” It doesn’t matter if they think they’re engaged or not, or if they tick a box on a survey saying they’re a 4 or a 7 on an engagement scale of 1-10 as those abstract measurements are devoid of applicable usefulness. Engagement is observable behaviour.
And please do tip your waiting staff. I’m pretty sure an engaged server wouldn’t spit in your soup.
I was recently contacted by someone from marketing at a company called Kudos – a polite and literate human, not a bot. They asked if I’d blog about their product. This was new to me. There’s no commission nor would I seek one. I don’t use their product – I’m a self-employed sole-charge contractor. I give myself recognition all the time which probably could be a bit more positive than it is, although some days I think I’m way too fabulous.
I knew (and know) not very much about the specifics of Kudos beyond their website and what other bloggers reveal. So, don’t think for a moment I’m formally recommending them at all, or commenting on the reliability or functionality of their offering one way or the other. I’m not because I can’t and I shouldn’t. Plus, as I said, not only am I a a self-employed sole-charge contractor, I also have a history of being flippant with a sideline as a professional stand-up comedian making serious business points using humour as a lever.
So, after that long introductory proviso, I like the idea of Kudos. That’s all I’m even remotely qualified to comment upon.
I like that here is a possible solution to the problem I’ve personally encountered with managing operations that are 24/7 and / or geographically distributed. As I said, I sometimes think I’m pretty fabulous but no amount of fabulousness makes you omniscient or ominprescent. You cannot be everywhere at all times. Tons of things are happening in the workplaces you’re supposed to be leading when you’re, quite simply, not there. You can’t be. And no matter how charged up you are about “catching people doing things right” and how committed you are to ensuring your people get all the positive reinforcement and corrective feedback they need, you, alone, simply cannot.
I paraphrase Tom Peters (I think) a lot when I say the true test of your communication / leadership / whatever is what happens when you’re not around. A challenge I often throw at people I train is how can you be more influential over what happens when you’re not around. The idea of Kudos seems to be a great tool for helping here.
In your absence, employees can give each other feedback online and you can be kept in the loop. If it works and if some tricky bits can be handled well, then this has the potential to be very helpful. If you’ve ever sent an email that someone else has misinterpreted, then you’ll know what I imply by “tricky bits.” And, in the same way as email in some workplaces has laughingly replaced face-to-face communication lies a potential pitfall. There’s no substitute for feedback that is BEST:
B -behaviour based
E -esteem building
T – timely
Target behaviours when recognising employees
Sure Kudos would be great if it can create a formal record and trail. It would be excellent if it helps bring together teams spread over time and space. But it would need to be implemented carefully with accompanying training and moderation. Carol Dweck’s research on mindset showed the dangers of how just gushing with praise for the wrong behaviours can be counter productive. (Kids praised for “being smart” avoided challenge later on whereas kids praised for “working hard” sought challenges.) I think that any automating of feedback needs to cater for this pitfall.
The ratio of positive to negative statements in employee recognition
Psychologist Marcial Losada’s 1999 study looked at communication in teams, particularly the ratio of positive to negative statements. Various teams were tagged as being high, medium or low performing teams based on profitability, customer satisfaction and evaluations from management. The lowest high performing teams has a ratio of positive to negative statements of 2.9013:1. (For us non-academics, let’s round that to 3:1.) The highest performing teams averaged around 6:1. But there were diminishing returns and eventually a negative effect. Some of the worst performing teams had an 11:1 ratio so everyone must have been so busy hugging and bestowing warm fuzzies on everyone else, that no one ever did any actual productive work. That level of positivity is over-the-top, unrealistic and evidently not productive. Kudos would need to factor this in too.
Another opportunity for automated recognition systems to be corrupted would be familiar to you if you have teenagers on FaceBook, Tumblr etc. Often you’ll see ‘like for a like’ requests. (Actually, you see that a lot with grown-ups’ LinkedIn recommendations.) They may indeed be genuine reflections of actual positive experiences or they could simply be recognition as a tradeable commodity. Again, Kudos would have to tackle a praise ‘black market.’ (But who am I to criticise? I’m not even sure I spelled “tradeable” correctly.)
There could be, I suppose, an application for Kudos in my current working environment where I frequently subcontract to a few training providers. I don’t have colleagues or bosses in the traditional sense. They generally employ a contractor model but we contractors too have our our needs for recognition (prick us, do we not bleed?) and we are even more problematically spaced out over time and geography. There’s definitely potential usefulness for Kudos or similar in that structure.
I’m not meaning to be negative. I do like the idea of Kudos. I also like the idea of cars and there are road rules and safety systems in place for those. Give it a try. There’s a free offer. Check out that new software smell. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, that’s what I say (despite my stance against meta-amphetamine…)
I’ll keep looking at it. Let me know your thoughts if you’ve had direct experience.
This really provocative ‘Democracy In America’ blog in The Economist got me thinking. They make various observations about all the noise from politicians and agencies about the need for, and urgency of, job creation. Jobs as a source of income and a sense of worth for those who need it are obviously critical. But as a tributary off the main argument flowed some thinking on the subset of people who had either lost a job or opted out of traditional fulltime employment. This, to me, was the provocative bit.
The blog suggests that a significant group of talented and educated people of a certain age were certainly searching for work but not necessarily for a job. They throw in a bit of terminology like ‘Post Materialists’ and ‘Threshold Earners.’ A threshold earner has an amount they think they need / want. Once they reach it, they choose not to work anymore. Enough is good enough. This might be a great philosophy for someone like me (or subscribers to The Economist – or, more likely, people reading bits of The Economist’ free online or in libraries.)
To me, time with my kids and being fit and creative is important. I don’t just say that, I live it – now. I didn’t always used to. I think I can label myself a ‘Threshold Earner’ although I doubt I’m a Post Materialist. Certainly my kids aren’t!
Work, be it paid or otherwise, provides us humans with a lot more than money. That said, whatever the amount is, we all do need money. I’ll hug a tree but I won’t live in one. Work gives us connection, purpose, health, development, esteem and so much more. A lack of money can mess with our heads but mere money itself is not such a drawcard anymore. If, as a leader, you want to truly start to spark genuine employee engagement at your workplace you need to understand the implications and benefits of this. Lots SAY they do.
So, by all means, let Government try and do their best to stimulate job creation or, at least, get out of the way but if you’re an employer searching to attract and retain the best talent you can, you must reconsider if the old ‘jobs’ paradigm will work for you in the future or the now. If they have the talent and can improve your business’s productivity, what can you do to make it easy for Post Materialists and Threshold Earners to work for you? Actually, let’s revisit that wording because it’s important. They don’t want to work FOR you – that’s the whole point. They want to do some of the work and get paid but they don’t want to work for you. Just because you’d love to work for you doesn’t mean everyone else would.
It’s raining heavily and I am so glad I’m not living in a tree right now.
This audio summary report from Peggy McKee on recent research is deadly serious but it’s also both amusing and scary. In hiring, do you judge books by their covers, or heel length, or facial hair? Assuming this research is accurate, there seems to be, in the U.S. at least, a hardcore fifth of employers with some dyed-in-the-wool, old school mental models that may be filtering out talent from their subjective hiring process. Why reject a guy just because his skirt is out of date? That stuff is fixable if they’re good enough. Are they so spoiled for choice?
Given I’m blogging at 6AM, I wouldn’t want to be judged on what I’m wearing right now!!
This Washington Post article by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer takes a delightfully tongue-in cheek approach to what drives talented employees out of organisations. By reverse-engineering their faux recommendations, we can glean what it is we’re supposed to do to attract and retain talented people.
Their research is primary. Rather than surveys or post-exit interviews which can be self-serving, inaccurate, subjective and occasionally fictional, they chose to provide daily electronic diaries to 200+ people. Rather than Bob or Kate saying out loud that they left ABC Limited for a better paying position at XYZ Limited, there is a trail of clues. It might actually have been an escalating and deteriorating relationship with “that jerk Barry from Accounts” which, over time, led to their departure. Accumulating all those trails of clues, Amabile and Kramer have come up with their list of commandments.
Their ‘advice’ to leaders wanting to “completely and utterly destroy an employee’s life at work” were:
- Never allow pride of accomplishment
- Miss no opportunity to block progress on employees’ projects
- Give yourself some credit
- Kill the messengers
My building blocks of a workplace that allow and generate self motivation amongst employees are self awareness, mastery, autonomy, purpose and influencing others. Human minds need them like human bodies need food. Mostly, people are only going to get that at work. Without accomplishment, a sense of progess, recognition, or blame-free communication, people are not going to attain or even move towards mastery, autonomy or a sense of purpose. If you, as a leader, prevent your people from getting them, they will leave because they’re hungry for a basic need.
After all that, if you still really do want to destroy an employee, take their advice and, as a cherry on top, wait until that employee leaves their PC, sneak on and hack their FaceBook account…
Which company culture is best for productivity and getting the best out of your people – blind obedience, informed acquiescence or self-governance? Are those really the only choices? Sounds a bit loaded to me, like, “What do you want for Christmas – a piece of coal, a pair of socks or a pony?” Coal and socks might seem old-fashioned but they’re functional and damn handy in the right circumstances. A pony might seem like the obvious choice but ponies aren’t for everyone, they require ongoing investment and often they’ll give you another gift for which you’ll require a shovel.
A recent article in The Economist about corporate culture contrasted the view from the top versus the view from the bottom. Bosses disproportionately perceive their organisations to be self-governing, awash with inspiration and driven by values rather than profits. The study was commissioned by Dov Seidman, author of the book ‘How.’ The basic thrust of this book and surrounding consulting empire is that it’s not what you do these days, it’s how you do it on which you’ll be judged. (I cannot prevent myself at this point stressing that the foreword to the book is by one President Bill Clinton which, albeit in an unintentionally ironic way, goes a long way to proving that it really isn’t what you do these days, it’s how you do it on which you’ll be judged.)
Seidman talks about the different categories of company culture – from the command-and-control military style of ‘Blind Obedience’ to the less-bad ‘Informed Acquiescence’ with its rules and carrots and sticks to the sleek and shiny ‘Values-Based Self Governance’ resplendent with missions and inspiration. I see his argument visually as that classic ‘Evolution Of Man’ poster with Neanderthals evolving to the modern whatever we are. (Hint: Command-and-control leaders are supposed to be the Neanderthals in this picture.)
Of those surveyed, 43% felt their company was in the ‘Blind Obedience’ category, 54% felt their company was in the ‘Informed Acquiescence’ category and a mere 3% had achieved the supposed ‘Self Governance’ nirvana. I did the maths. That adds up to 100% which means those surveyed were only given three mutually exclusive choices. Are they really mutually exclusive? Wouldn’t it be more useful and realistic if they could co-exist in a managed way?
I’m always a bit wary of surveys that end up in articles. Time Magazine reported one recently declaring that 78% of burglars regularly use social media to choose and / or plan their crimes. So when you ‘check-in’ via FaceBook to that out-of-town resort hotel, you’re declaring to the world that you’re not home and your high definition everythings are unattended. Who are these burglars that they’re surveying!? And even if it did satisfy all the criteria supposedly reputable survey companies say are necessary, maybe the burglars being surveyed have their own motives other than the noble truth? Maybe employees might too? (85% of my friends think I’m being cynical about surveys.)
Are these cultures really mutually exclusive and is one better than the others? The answers are, “No” and, “It depends.”
In his book ‘Drive’, Dan Pink writes about the uses and limitations of extrinsic motivations (carrots and sticks.) He says that they have their place and can be very effective in simple, mechanical, programmed or scripted task-oriented roles. Studies repeatedly show positive correlation in those type of activities between incentives and improved performance. You reinforce the behaviours that you think you want and you get more of them but that is not a universal truth. If a task calls for “even rudimentary cognitive skill”, larger rewards lead to poorer performance. Thinking tasks require thinking people and they are internally motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. Carrots and sticks don’t work for those people in those roles.
We need to nurture a culture for these people that allows a range of self-direction, develops them beyond their immediate work itself and plays to people’s inherent need to feel like they’re part of something bigger. Chances are, you have people like this in your workplace as well as those with routine task-oriented roles. The same culture won’t work for both groups. So it seems company cultures are like pants – one size does not fit all and you really can’t operate professionally without them.
Different people in different situations requiring different results at different times need different approaches. Crazy stuff but doesn’t it match your experience of reality in managing people? Fitting the right aspects of culture to the right person at the right time is a major driver of employee engagement.
Engaged employees shine out like diamonds. Karen was one such diamond. I met Karen at the supermarket where she worked as a checkout operator. It wasn’t my usual store but I was running a workshop nearby and popped in afterwards to buy some ingredients for dinner. I plonked them on the conveyor as Karen cheerfully greeted me. She looked at me, looked at my choice of groceries and asked, “Chilli for dinner tonight is it sir?” Before I had time to feel judged that chilli was all she felt I was capable of making, she added, “I always add cloves to mine.” It wasn’t busy so I explained to Karen who I was, what I did and asked her about her choice of conversation topic. She wasn’t on commission from the multinational clove corporations. She didn’t have a command-and-control manager dictating that she must try and upsell cloves. (“Do you want cloves with that?”) In a role that has precious little opportunity for discretion, she exercised discretion and was encouraged to do so. For her, it made the day go faster and amped up ever-so-slightly her job satisfaction. That radiated through to my perception of improved customer service. And, in a little but repeated way, she improved the quality of my life. (Try cloves in your chilli. Seriously, try it.)
I was speaking at a conference of dairy farmers about motivation. (Motivating their people not their cows, although, in this country, if I can develop that methodology, I’ll make a fortune!) Afterwards, one farmer came up to me (let’s call him ‘Barry’) to talk about one particular employee of his. The employee wasn’t a non-performer as such but frustrated Barry due to not improving and not making any effort to move towards achieving the potential Barry felt he had. It may or may not be relevant but the employee’s nickname was ‘Sleepy.’ We discussed the various ideas Barry had tried to little or short-term effect. Barry did say that carrots had worked but the impact had worn off. ‘Self Governance’ wasn’t going to work with a ‘Sleepy’ either, at least not by itself. What then? Perhaps a combination.
The group with the best perspective when talking about views from the top and bottom are those in the middle. I’m currently running a year-long development programme for a group of supervisors who are straddling that middle ground. They occupy that dynamic ‘meat-in-the-sandwich’ zone. I asked this group on their views. They’re a diverse bunch culturally and demographically with a range of supervisory experience (including zero.) Their responses were almost entirely questions – requests for more information. Who is this person we’re talking about? What’s the situation? What are our objectives right now and in the future? Smart people ask good questions. If I had to sum up their responses, I’d say, “It depends.”
I recently MC’d a health and safety conference. One of the speakers was Dr Rod Gutierrez, Principal Psychologist at DuPont. He told me about some research that had been conducted on people entering elevators. (He didn’t tell me why they conducted the research. I regret not asking.) People were covertly filmed entering a standard elevator, not one of those double-doored hospital elevators. Like most people I imagine, when you enter an elevator, you turn, press the button for your floor then stay facing the door you entered through. This proved true of all people – if the elevator was empty. They tested two other scenarios – one with a single occupant already there facing the back of the elevator and one with two occupants already there facing the back of the elevator. With the single weirdo facing the wrong way, most people regarded them strangely and faced the usual way. BUT with two weirdos facing the wrong way, over 80% of elevator entrants joined them in facing the wrong way.
Humans are social norming creatures and it’s likely many of your employees are human. The way things are done around here are the way things are done around here. If you’re a leader in a company that sells goods and services, no doubt you’ve got a marketing person or department that knows all about the value of ‘social proof’ in convincing and influencing customers out there in the market. Social Proof is evidence that others like us (or those we would like to be like) have already taken the road or bought the steak knives we’re considering, including the increasingly pervasive online video testimonials and LinkedIn ‘recommendations.’ The same principles apply to convincing and influencing inside the organisation. My advice to my farmer friend is going to be to try some social proof – to find someone who has been in Sleepy’s slippers, gone on to success, and to buddy them up with Sleepy. Let’s see what happens in combination with some of those carrots that worked in the past. Just don’t pick anyone nicknamed Grumpy…
[First published in ‘Employment Today’ Nov 2011]