On employee engagement and your business, the social network

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

“Creating a great place to work is one of the best things a company can do for its bottom line. It’s no accident that the organizations consistently identified as winners also happen to be some of the best places on earth to work.  This occurs not as an afterthought, but as a vital, premeditated element of business strategy.”

— Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden, The Contented Cows Partners

I have been associated with Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden since 2000, just about the time they self-published their first book, “Contented Cows Give Better Milk.”

Since that time Bill and Richard have remained among the vanguard of voices providing fact based reasoning for why it is a sound business practice to take good care to see that employees have an environment to work in that fosters productivity: appreciation, training, tools and technology. For them and for me it isn’t simply a matter of values. It isn’t just “nice to be nice to the nice,” this is practical stuff and the facts back it up.

When it comes to answering the question of whether I am pro-management or pro-employee my answer is always “Yes!”

If I am anti anything, I am anti-stupid. By stupid I mean to distinguish thoughtless action, driven by force of habit and justified in some fashion by past success or privilege of position.

So no, in case you are wondering, I do not mean to imply or assert that employee engagement is the sole responsibility of leadership or management, as you prefer. Engagement, what it takes to be sufficiently involved to be highly productive is everyone’s responsibility. However, it falls to leaders to recognize, i.e.: not be stupid about, the fundamental condition in the workplace.

There is, inherent in the employment relationship, an imbalance of power in the workplace, and this ought never to be underestimated. While I would be the first to say to an employee that their engagement is first and foremost their responsibility I would also be the first to admit that perception is fundamentally reality, and leaders who ignore this truth are, for lack of a better phrase, acting stupidly. Employees do not necessarily have the power to directly change their working conditions but they can and do leave to find what they consider something better.

Is there evidence for this assertion, for I am certainly making one here? Gary Hamel, in a blog post in the Wall Street Journal called  “Management’s Dirty Little Secret”, cites the Global Workforce Survey from Towers Perrin showing that of the 90,000 people surveyed, just 21 percent reported that they are truly engaged with their work!

If I am not mistaken this number is lower than that initially reported in the early Gallup surveys similar in nature some years back.

Hamel chides managers in a politer way than I do. He suggests that managers are heedless of the issue of engagement, where I use the word “stupid.” OK, po-tay-to/po-tah-to, he has better street cred than I do, let’s go with “heedless” for now. After Hamel dismisses the possibility that the heedlessness might result from:

1) Ignorance — not realizing that employees are emotionally disconnected.

He then goes on to check off

2) Impotence — meaning mindless, uninspiring work as a possible source of the disengagement (surprisingly 86 percent of those participating in the Towers Perrin survey indicated that they loved or liked their work)

and finally he arrives at

3) Indifference — managers see engagement as a nice-to-have but not financially important. In his words:

“If we’re going to improve engagement, we have to start by admitting that the real problem isn’t irksome, monotonous work, but stony-hearted, spirit-deflating managements and managers.”

While he does not say this, I will; by stony hearted, spirit-deflating managers he means at all levels and most importantly, the top where the privileges provide the greatest disconnect between head and heart.

Hamel, like Peter Drucker in his later years, has clearly made a connection that makes him dangerous to the management establishment. He is “the man” when it comes to the “X’s and O’s” of business so he cannot be waved off.

In addition, he has come to understand that while the applications in business may be economic, the operating system is social.

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