When employees think about engagement, what is their focus? | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer

It is frequently my privilege to work with an owner of a small business, one where the owner is using their own money to make things happen. As someone who did this myself for more than 20 years I have a real appreciation for the risk faced by people who undertake business ownership. I am also aware that facing these risks and achieving a certain amount of success can distort a business owner’s sense of what is really going on, especially when it comes to employee engagement.

A short time ago I was addressing a group of owners of small- and medium-sized businesses. The theme of the conversation was the importance of intentionally designing working relationships. Often I have found that employers will settle for relationships with employees grounded in what they need to have done, as though that is all that needs to be accounted for. That may in fact be a true representation of many an employer’s perspective but it certainly doesn’t account for the employee’s perspective.

During my talk one owner in particular was noticeably irritated, a couple of times mumbling something sarcastic to a nearby colleague. Eventually he butted into my conversation with this remark: “I have job openings now and I cannot find good people to fill them much less worry about establishing relationships. What do you have to say about that?” This was one of those comments that was delivered in a tone suggesting a confrontation might be at hand and the room got suddenly still. Not wanting to waste the moment or the anticipation I responded, “Well tell me this…why would anybody want to work for you?” It hadn’t seemed possible but the room got even quieter.

After a moment another member of the audience chimed in with a comment directed at me, “It sounds like you are attacking him, he’s creating jobs for people. Shouldn’t we be grateful that someone is creating jobs and help him solve his problem?” So there it was, the time-honored practice of coming to the defense of the “job creator.”

Should we be grateful to the job creators? I am not sure gratitude is the proper response. Respect for the “job creator” is probably appropriate, respect for bringing forth talents and abilities that are in limited supply in any population and using them to the economic advantage of themselves and others. Certainly not everyone has these talents. Fewer still have the willingness to launch into the risk of business ownership and none that I know do this from some sense of altruism. They are trying to get something they want and creating jobs is a means to that end.

I find that all employers want their employees to do their best at all times. However, where they get tripped up is in being able to be explicit about needing their employees. As a fallback they adopt the attitude that employees should be grateful for the opportunity they have been provided and therefore engage as a function of this.

What this perspective does not take into account is that many employees, especially the ones worth keeping, are as future oriented as the employer. Any employee who is really valuable is very likely aware that the books are square with the delivery of every paycheck. They don’t get paid for what they will do; they get paid for what they have done. Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman from the Boston Consulting Group recently wrote a book titled, “Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated” and they are very explicit on this point.

“Engagement, therefore, is prospective, not retrospective. People do not choose to engage as a result of gratitude for how things have gone in the past, but rather as a reflection of what it will bring them,” Morieux and Tollman write.

This is likely a point of view that highly sought after employees will have. “What’s in it for me now?” is very likely a question on their minds.

Now back to my audience from a few weeks back. Yes Mr. Grumpy was a “job creator” but he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart. There was something he was trying to accomplish, something from which he anticipated a return on his investment greater than what he might get otherwise or from some other source. If, as I suspected, his attitude of begrudgingly offering these good jobs was as apparent to prospective employees as it was to me it’s no wonder he was having trouble filling his vacancies. Prospective employees worth having can sniff this type of attitude out quickly and it does not offer them a future worthy of engagement.

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