Focus on the human touch

Written by
Rita McGrath
Columbia Business School

Published
13 Apr 2018

13 Apr 2018 • by Rita McGrath

Create engagement that leads to competitive advantage, advise Ron Boire and Rita Gunther McGrath from Columbia Business School.

We are now in a ‘tour of duty’ talent environment, a concept articulated by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, referring to a shift in the employer-employee relationship from transactional to mutually beneficial, following the demise of the ‘job for life’.

Today’s talented employees want to learn continuously, build their skills and increase their value, rather than focusing purely on ascending a corporate career ladder.

This shift calls for radically different talent management strategies, new ways of thinking about how to motivate and incentivise people and even about the HR function itself.

Develop personal connections

As the factors underpinning competitive advantage shift, a key source of lasting advantage is in the human fabric of your organisation. While it might sound counter-intuitive, the more we use digital technologies, the greater the importance of actual, human connections becomes.

Digital tools are useful, but creating engagement that leads to greater productivity and competitive advantage, requires an investment in physical presence and personal communication. Indeed, Gallup’s research shows that only 32% of workers are engaged at work: a major culprit is a lack of personal connection between employees and managers directly responsible for their work.

A lack of social cohesion, trust and information sharing are reasons why companies fail to get the most out of their people. Misunderstandings, mistaken assumptions and confusion can be rife when face-to-face communication is absent.

To address challenges effectively, employees need to feel psychologically safe: to know that leaders value and respect them, believe their work is meaningful and their ideas are heard.

Creating an engaged and productive workforce requires trust, and trust is built over time, face to face.

What’s your impact?

Consider the impact of a leader’s physical presence on millennials who live in a digital world. They are not accustomed to it, so the impact is greater when a manager walks over to their workspace and asks “how are you?”

This is one secret of Google’s success: it creates a sense of community – think free food and elaborately decorated workspaces.

Executives often forget their roles are not merely substantive – focused on the what and how of getting things done. Your role is symbolic and your actions open to interpretation by observers.

Symbolic actions – such as writing a handwritten note of appreciation – are crucial to appealing to human hearts and minds. You should not forget that symbolism often drowns out substance – even in a digital age. 

Columbia Business School