We can be a perennially puzzling species. While the majority of us almost certainly head to work intending to do our best, it would interesting to know how many of us are that generous in our assumptions and assessments about those around us – and how far any gap is accounted for by the generosity we tend to extend when we are invited to assess ourselves. But I strongly suspect that the start of any new job – something we’ve (usually) chosen to apply for, polished our cvs and interview skills, cleared the hurdles of interview and assessment centre – is a time when all of us are at our most positively intentioned. There’s a lot of hoping as well as striving in the journey from hoping to induction, and the moment of arrival is a time when we are looking to invest that hope.

That’s a view echoed in the words of Orlagh Hunt, group HR director at the RSA Insurance Group, in an interview with People Management:

We know that people show up in a new company wanting to engage. Very few people think, ‘I’m going to do as little as humanly possible and be as destructive as I can’. They start off thinking this is a shining new opportunity, and then the job they do, the leader they get, the environment they’re in either translates that optimism into having a great time and doing a great job, or not quite so much.” 

‘Having a great time’ is a natural human inclination, and ‘doing a great job’ isn’t just driven by the potential personal consequence of under-delivering. Feeling that we have done our best – or even excelled ourselves – is another great source of satisfaction. Hunt’s words may strike some as generous, but there’s a truth to them it would disingenuous as well as cynical to deny. Even in a period where some will be applying for roles other than those to which they might have aspired (I don’t think it’s too cynical to wonder who, for instance, has always longed to sell maintenance contracts for photocopiers), we want our lives to go well. And our work, whatever our current work/life balance, is typically a large part of our life.

It’s been a popular cliché of employee retention that people join organisations and leave managers. Although surveys suggest that ‘opportunities for personal growth’ are the single biggest exit factor (at least among those who have chosen to leave), ‘the leader they get’ is undeniably important. While we can engage with abstract concepts, our relationships with those immediately around us are a critical part of the work experience. I’m probably not alone in being able to recall jobs that I wouldn’t wish to return to but where my memories are favourable because of the colleagues and managers who played such a large part of the experience: indeed, I would almost certainly have striven to extricate myself from those roles rather sooner had that not been the case.

But the impact of leaders (interpreting ‘leaders’ in its widest sense, as their impact becomes more significant as the distance reduces) can be altogether less positive. Without even really trying – and I was genuinely engaged with the task – I found a blog posting at Management Excellence by Art Petty: At Least 20 Things to Stop Doing as a Leader. If you’re really pushed for time, here are the first five:

  1. Stop barking orders at people like you’re a drill instructor.
  2. Stop expecting people to read your mind.
  3. Stop making people feel like taking time off to go on vacation is a sin.
  4. Stop multi-tasking when someone asks you a question.
  5. Stop handing out only the negative feedback.

Within six days, those commenting on the blog posting had proferred nearly 30 more suggestions – along with a link to a PDF citing a further 25. (One of those suggestions was, of course, “Stop complaining about being busy as if no one else can possibly understand”. If you’re motivated enough about employee engagement to spend a few minutes reminding yourself of ways people can help to kill it, we recommend the whole blog posting wholeheartedly.)

In dealing with the other factors that Hunt identifies – the job and the environment (which I’m assuming embraces what we might also call ‘the culture’) – there are best practice models that organisations can follow. As work by bodies such as the CIPD and Work Foundation in employee engagement has shown, taking available steps to fit people to jobs and to encourage working relationships that build social capital are powerful factors in building and maintaining an engaged workforce.

CIPD’s ‘Creating an Engaged Workforce’ Research Report, published in January 2010, identified three factors as making the biggest contribution:

  • Meaningfulness of work
  • Employee voice – and having the opportunity to use it
  • The way in which senior managers communicate with employees.

There is a common aspect to these factors: they have as much to do with behaviours and attitudes as they do with process. For example, organisations that can communicate the connection between employees’ day-to-day work and the values and services the organisation promises to customers (an aspect that Hunt explores in her interview) can certainly create a greater sense of meaning and help employees to understand ‘why’ as well as ‘what’ and ‘when’. But that behaviour is driven by an attitude that say that it matters that this is communicated. (Some organisations will, after all, simply drive compliance of a process, the final output of which might be unknown and invisible to those implementing it.)

Employee engagement has risen dramatically up the HR (and the business) agenda in the last couple of years, almost in parallel with the impacts of the financial crisis. This is at least in part as increasing engagement is seen as critical to increasing productivity and commitment and thereby strengthening not just organisational performance and competitiveness but overall economic growth. This increased attention also explains organisations’ greater recognition of the importance of Employee Value Propositions: while Orlagh Hunt identifies ‘the job they do’ as critical in making the difference between optimism and ‘not quite so much’, the majority of early departers from organisations in one survey identified their reason for leaving as ‘the job was oversold’.

All of which suggests that one way of looking at employee engagement is to consider it as an applied form of expectation management. Back in 2004, Paul Miller and Paul Skidmore wrote a pamphlet, Disorganisation: Why Future Organisations Must ‘Loosen up’, for the Demos think-tank, in which they argued that:

Employees want more human organisations with greater autonomy and flexibility. They want an experience of work that is aligned with their values. They want a workplace forged in the image of their identities, not a workplace that tries to define them. They want organisations that can let go and grant them a greater say in how things are run.”

What remains temporarily unclear is the impact of the current economic and labour market environment on expectations. One the pamphlet writers, Paul Skidmore, has since alluded to this at his own blog:

 … this pamphlet explored the conflicting pressure on organisational leaders, torn between a workforce that yearns for more autonomy and an external environment that seems to demand more control.

The downturn will no doubt suppress this conflict for a while, as those still in jobs focus solely on hanging on to them. But in the longer-term, I think the conflict we describe will remain a key issue, especially in customer-facing businesses.”

This suppressing impact has been noted by others – in the earliest days of this blog, we commented on a similar reflection in a Management Today article by Alain de Botton, who – in contrast to Paul Skidmore – seemed to see the late twentieth century’s raised expectations of the satisfaction of work as an aberration rather than a rising trend.

Yet control is not the only thing being demanded. We have commented often here on the conundrum of HR and the ‘seat at the top table’. One of the arguments runs that HR must pro-actively learn the ‘language of business’ and explain its objective in those terms – predominantly financial – if it is to truly gain the ears and attention of those already at the table. That is a point not lost on Orlagh Hunt. The second half of the quote that we partially cited at the beginning of this post runs as follows:

For an organisation, that’s a difference of around 10 per cent in terms of productivity [according to research by Gallup]. So, for example, when our UK business was looking at its cost base, it estimated that an extra 10 per cent of discretionary effort would be equivalent to having 500 extra staff. If you were talking to your finance colleagues, stats like that could help you make a business case for why they should be worried about engagement.”

Although RSA ‘deliberately didn’t change targets around engagement’ after 2008, the interview article acknowledges that cost base reductions in the UK led to 1,200 redundancies. While making the argument that 10% additional discretionary effort delivers the equivalent of 500 extra staff – without paying for them – expresses the value of employee engagement in terms that finance colleagues can grasp, it can also be translated as ‘employee engagement means we can shed 500 staff and save 500 salaries’. I was reminded of recent joke by American comedian, Jimmy Fallon:

The BP president said yesterday that the company would survive. That’s like someone running over your dog and saying ‘Don’t worry, my car is fine’.”

But I was also mindful that, just as Hunt needs to learn a new language to engage her finance colleagues, HR professionals will need to be careful to express similar sentiments if engagement is not to be undermined just as efforts to embed it further are being made. Perhaps a way forward lies in viewing ‘meaningful work’ in terms a different dichotomy that we have also previously explored – replacing the notion of Either/Or with the idea of Both/And. Although ‘meaningful’ has become ‘good’ in the titling process, this is an aspect that the Work Foundation is currently exploring through the Good Work Commission, set up to explore work that is ‘rewarding for business, society and individuals’. A series of interim reports – including one expressly addressing employee engagement – is available at the Commission’s website, with a final report due in November: given the centrality of a rewarding working experience to engagement – and all the benefits that HR practitioners are eager to impress upon their organisations as accruing from it – this is likely to be an important read.

The challenge for many in HR, however, will be in finding ways of conveying important messages upward within their organisations. On this front, at least, the Work Foundation seems less than optimistic. In its 2008 report, ‘Good Work’: Job Quality in a Changing Economy, it reviews data from several sources – including CIPD’s 2006 Employee Engagement Survey – that shows trends in employee perception of employer relations over the last few decades in the UK, noting that while 60% consider them to be good “40 per cent either have no opinion or believe that relationships are poor.”

The conclusion that they draw clearly suggests that they see plenty of ‘room for improvement’ in HR’s performance and its impact, both on engagement levels and on the attitudes and outlooks of organisations:

It certainly seems reasonable to conclude from the CIPD’s work that enlightened human resource management (HRM) has failed to deliver its promise. After all, the HR profession has had a largely free hand over the last two decades (with trade unions either weak or of declining influence) and an increasing number of organisations have apparently internalised the mantra ‘our employees are our greatest asset’. But despite all of these efforts the level of employee engagement remains woeful and the position of the HR profession increasingly marginal – exemplified by the fact that HR is more often viewed as a compliance function than as a strategic driver.”

If HR is seeking to create opportunities for ‘good work’ that will not only support higher engagement, greater satisfaction, retention, productivity and creativity but also thereby support the objectives of their business, they will need not just the ear and language of their finance colleagues, they will need their engagement too.

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