Tue | Dec 6, 2016

Is your company engaging or entertaining employees?

Published:Sunday | November 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST
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Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Employee engagement means more than just hiring comedians, handing out balloons and renting the island's biggest bounce-about for family day.

Instead, it has to do with addressing staff's key concerns in a way that builds a firm's capacity for dealing with problems in the future.

Human resource professionals are often seen as the feel-good squad of corporate life. When employees feel bad, as revealed by lunchroom complaints and internal surveys, HR's job is to make them feel better.

In these recessionary times, this job has become harder to do. Only long-time staff members can recall famous Christmas parties from the past. They have now been reduced to portion-controlled buffet luncheons held on Thursdays in late November - all to reduce costs.

Few are surprised when, a week later, the 'intervention' has worn off and the complaints resume, revealing that the feel-good activity only offered a bit of entertainment.

Even when it's enhanced by the inclusion of families, expensive hotel rooms and fun add-ons like rafting, the effect is still the same. Authentic engagement takes more than titillation.

Research shows that 40 per cent of employees worldwide are doing the job of two or more people. This is just one of the real challenges facing today's knowledge workers who must find a way, everyday, to do more with less.

When greater responsibilities are handed to them without any preparation, training or tools, it hurts. Without even as much as an upgrade from Windows XP - which Microsoft no longer supports - they are left to fend for themselves.

Engaging employees means more than listening to complaints: it means addressing the root causes of symptoms such as overwork so that they go away forever. Clowns, balloons and sweet-and-sour-shrimp aren't solutions, but distractions.

PROBLEM-SOURCING CAPACITY

Unfortunately, many executives think engagement is just about polling employees for simple issues and solving them.

They believe that if each person spends a mere two minutes thinking about a problem, they'll cough up the necessary solutions.

This approach is wrong-headed for all but basic issues - the ones that don't require engagement.

In today's environment, staff needs to be challenged to go deeper in defining the issues they confront, which means using quality teams, focus groups and trained facilitators, for example.

As a consultant, I sometimes play the role of the latter, doing a job that executives should be doing: interviewing people at all levels, then pulling the issues together in a way that paints a single, composite picture. Too many executives simply lack the will, and the time, to go deep enough.

Once it's developed, this picture is presented to senior management teams to create a consensus point of view. It helps pull individual executives out of comfortable but biased views, and on to the same page.

As any doctor will confirm, correct diagnosis is critical to performing a successful intervention.

In organisations it means getting managers to see the problem the same way, often for the first time, based on high-quality employee input.

MANAGING TOUGH ISSUES

Executives are often impatient and in a rush to solve problems as fast as possible. This leads them to use top-down solutions, quickly giving employees the things they are asking for.

This simplistic approach works for easy-to-solve problems, but issues with employee engagement rarely take that form. Instead, they need to ask harder questions, such as: How do we fix this problem so it stays solved, and never recurs? What new practices should each and every employee be asked to put in place?

If anything, I mostly find executives asking employees to do too little. They assume the role of benevolent parent, taking away problems that their people should be empowered to solve. For example, a company that is undergoing a downsizing activity should be teaching staff how to prepare high-quality résumés and develop networking skills, not vaguely promising that the exercise will soon be over.

Alternately, a firm's financial situation may demand that employees ramp up their skills in order to fit into new, transformed jobs the company needs to survive.

By the same token, in addition to asking for too little, managers frequently ask staff members for too much of the wrong stuff. Examples include positive attitudes, forgiveness for hard times, and patience with a lack of information.

These nebulous requests fail a commonsense test - no-one can tell whether or not they have ever been granted.

Successful employee engagement involves discovery of true root causes, followed by big requests for new behaviours. It's the kind of involvement that leads to long-lasting change.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a summary of links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com