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Bettering the bell curve with employee engagement

Natalie Maroun
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The workplace has changed over the last few decades. There’s a growing consciousness the previously accepted business model for employee satisfaction is no longer acceptable if companies have aspirations of staying relevant. Previous models were based on the accepted norm that the majority of people in an organisation ranged from unhappy to ‘happy-ish’ and a bell curve where there will always be a significant, though small, group of people who’re unhappy at work*. The vast majority of the workforce, however, are just going through the motions - happy enough, but certainly not ecstatic. How can this be healthy?

Within this traditional model, an organisation runs the risk of the majority of its employees (i.e. the unhappy and the happy-ish) defecting as soon as they find a better alternative. Only a very small quota of employees are therefore genuine advocates of your brand or the company. Surely a better distribution would be to have the larger part of your employees fully engaged and passionate about their work and the brand they are serving?

This traditional bell curve of largely somewhat-engaged employees offers another worrying reality for companies: these non-advocates often share their unhappiness with others. A few years ago, this was not such a problem but these days a negative message on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube can go viral in minutes and that is not good for the company. As damaging as this kind of negative messaging can be, it’s almost impossible to contain. The only real remedy - to create passionate and fully engaged employees - is prevention.

In her book The Essential Guide to Employee Engagement, Sarah Cook shares suggests that in general, employee engagement can be broken down into four components, which she calls the ‘WIFI model’ ("well-being, information, fairness, involvement"):

  • Well-being at work encompasses many things, she says, but essentially it means that employees care about their company and it cares about them. Cook lists the five factors that keep employees engaged and motivated:

1.    By feeling that their jobs matter,
2.    Having a sense of responsibility and the autonomy to make decisions,
3.    Feeling connected to their co-workers and being part of a larger cause or mission,
4.    Believing that their company uses their knowledge, skills and experience, and
5.    Gaining recognition from their superiors and colleagues for worthy achievements.

Employee well-being also stretches to physical and psychological health. Today's workplace has become a lot more stressful and demanding, and it has become more difficult for employees to separate themselves from the office. These realities should be factored in when consulting well-being strategies.

  • Information: Many disengaged employees complain that they don't have a clear idea of their companies' direction. Cook says that formalising strategies regarding your company’s goals and the behaviour or performance expected from employees is very important.

She goes on to say that it may take years to achieve a company vision, but a vision leads your organisation to where it wants to be and it demands that employees maximise their potential. This mindset requires employee engagement.

Leaders need to identify clear strategic goals and aspirations, focus on a handful of realistic and achievable initiatives, and strive to create a culture where there is clear line of sight connecting and aligning all employees in the organisation. The 30-year-old case study on NASA, where the janitor stated that his job was to put a man on the moon, is the perfect case in point.

  • Fairness implies treating people properly throughout their entire employment experience - from recruitment and hiring to professional development, rewards and promotion. Cook says that good managers are careful not to throw new employees straight into the fire but rather allow for a gradual transition to become acclimated to their new corporate environment.

I agree and feel that performance management and feedback is often the most effective way to help employees assimilate. The reality, though, is that performance management practices are - for the most part - not what they should be. Part of the problem is that managers find performance reviews annoying and time-consuming. A reorientation to performance management may serve organisations in a way that has not yet been fully understood.

  • Involvement means keeping lines of communication open throughout an organisation.

According to Cook, managers and employees should interact constantly:

- Managers must give employees the autonomy and authority to make independent decisions. Empowered employees are more productive, creative and energetic. They feel more responsible.

It’s important for companies to cultivate meaningful relationships between senior managers and employees. Managers who spend the majority of their time locked in their offices quickly lose touch with the basic needs and concerns of their staff. Leaders who spend time ‘in the trenches’ send a positive message to their employees and generate engagement at the highest level.

  • Balancing this out, there will also be a similarly small group who are very happy at work.

Natalie Maroun is the group managing director at LRMG. She dreams of propelling all organisations to great heights and believes that to reach optimal effectiveness, organisations need to empower, inspire and uplift their people. This means everything Natalie does is aimed at awakening her dream so that organisations can achieve so much more than they ever imagined. She threads experience through all her strategic consulting solutions and leads a dream team of carefully selected consultants who're aligned and committed. Natalie delivers management consulting experiences that are creatively and strategically different, leaving an indelible mark on her clients' organisations.



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