Employee engagement still low
Increasing employee engagement has been an obsession of the HR function for some time and yet, viewed globally, engagement levels remain depressingly low.
This concern with engagement is of course entirely rational. Companies with highly engaged people significantly outperform firms with the most disengaged; markedly in employee retention, massively in customer satisfaction and with a four fold difference in revenue growth. So the issue is not really about building nice places to work, it’s about building organisations that can be sustainably successful.
The reasons for these stubbornly low levels of engagement are complex. There's widespread mistrust of organisations following a spate of modern corporate scandals, beginning with Enron, and most recently the shocking news about Volkswagen. In-between we have had the crash of 2008, which is to be at least partially explained by immoral behaviour from some of the world’s largest banks.
It is little wonder that people are at best sceptical about business and at worst deeply cynical. In addition, many people still feel that they have no real choices about where they work and the work that they do. They are effectively driven to allocated occupations through existing social structures and labour market conditions.
Its not whats new its whats true
All too often, when faced with problems, organisations are ill-prepared in addressing the underlying organisational issues and instead turn to ‘band-aid’ responses while waiting for some miracle cure.
We can’t tell you how many times we’ve been to major HR conferences and been asked “please tell us what’s new”, as if there was some novel magic bullet which would solve our organisational woes. It’s not what’s new that’s important – it’s what’s true.
Sadly, we have been seduced by an endless stream of fads and fashions which have led to the profession failing to confront fundamental issues about the modern form of capitalism, corporate governance and the seemingly inexorable rise of bureaucratic structures and processes which inhibit creativity and innovation and suck the life out of work.
Moving towards a sustainably successful future - six ideal workplace features
In our latest book, Why Should Anyone Work Here?, we identify six ‘ideal’ workplace characteristics that, if practiced, will allow individuals to feel engaged with their organisation and able to reach their full professional potential, in turn driving sustained higher performance throughout the organisation.
Our research behind these ‘ideal’ characteristics is based on asking mainly, but not exclusively, executives: what would an authentic organisation look like? We were able to split their responses into six distinct characteristics, which can be summarised by the mnemonic - ‘DREAMS’:
D - Difference beyond diversity: “I can be myself at work.”
R - Radical honesty: “I want to know what’s really going on.”
E - Extra value: “add value to me, don’t exploit me.”
A - Authenticity: “mean what you say and say what you mean – I want to know what my organisation really stands for.”
M - Meaning: “I want a meaningful job in an organisation which itself has meaning.”
S - Simple rules: “I want simple agreed rules, not a fog of bureaucracy.”
These six characteristics provided a stretching agenda, and, as in the book, we urge people not to try and do every one of these things at once, but to pick one or two areas where they think their organisation needs to improve and base their actions around that.
The question is: do today’s leaders have what it takes to turn their organisations around?
Leaders in the modern world should think of themselves as social architects, building organisations which are attractive to talented people who have the capacity to add high levels of value. In these volatile times, resilience - both physical and psychological – is a necessary leadership attribute. Of course, traditional leadership skills, like compelling communication, situation sensing and the appropriate use of social distance, also continue to be critical.
Most of the leaders, and aspiring leaders, we talk to often say that they are far too busy – writing marketing plans, understanding the numbers, working on supply chain etc., to take leadership seriously. But exciting others through good leadership, in the long run, will drive better performance, a better culture and better results. It will of course take time and energy. So, build in time to find out what’s really going on in your organisation, have unplanned spontaneous conversations, make sure that the information you receive has not been heavily sanitised before it reaches you.
Our advice to future leaders; we urge them that the leadership imperative – to excite people to exceptional performance – is the most important thing that they do.
Effective leadership has the capacity to profoundly change organisations and to enrich lives. It’s always difficult, but it’s well worth the effort.
About the authors
Gareth Jones is visiting professor at IE Business School.
Rob Goffee, is emeritus professor of organisational behaviour, London Business School.
They are co-authors of Why Should Anyone Work Here?