Much research has been carried out into why some organisations enjoy higher levels of employee engagement, the benefits of which are well established. Comprehensive surveys conducted regularly by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) and the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) clearly demonstrate the value of having an engaged workforce: staff turnover is lower, motivation and performance is higher and business results (including financial) typically out-perform the market average.
Over the last four or five years, partly (but not exclusively) driven by the global economic crisis, the evidence shows that employee engagement has suffered substantially. In fact, surveys conducted in Europe and North America suggest that engagement was at its lowest level in 2010 and whilst there appears to be a slight improvement towards the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 much remains to be done. Unfortunately, the economic situation has led to a decrease in organisational spend on “non-essential” activities i.e. anything that is not directly focussed on delivering core business activities. As a consequence, 2012 has seen a decrease in training and development budgets; on average, spending in this area is down by 21% against 2011 figures (source: CIPD Learning and Talent Development Report, 2012). At the same time, 85% of organisations report a deficit in leadership skills at the line management and supervisory level (66% at senior management level) with most organisations reporting the biggest gaps in people management skills, performance management skills and skills to manage change. Against this backdrop, it’s little wonder that employee engagement is suffering. But some organisations are bucking the trend.
High levels of employee engagement are a result of environmental factors which, not surprisingly, are the same factors which most influence how staff feel about their workplace; organisations which make it onto the list of “Best Places to Work” tend to have highly engaged staff. Fortunately there is no shortage of research into the factors that most influence how staff feel about their workplace and there is almost universal agreement as to what has the greatest impact:
2. How you feel about the job you do
3. How you feel about the people you work with
The organisation Great Place to Work® which now has over 25 years’ worth of research covering more than 5,000 organisations and 10 million employees defines a great place to work as one in which employees TRUST the people they work for, have PRIDE in what they do and ENJOY the people they work with. They argue that great workplaces (and therefore high levels of engagement) are built through the day-to-day relationships that employees experience and NOT through a check-list of programs and benefits. Let’s explore those three key factors in a little more detail.
We all have a basic human need to trust and when it exists great things can happen. In his book “The Speed of Trust” Stephen MR Covey demonstrates that in organisations with high levels of trust, things can happen up to 60% faster than in low trust organisations. This trust “dividend” means that in business, when trust increases speed also increases and costs fall. Conversely, lower levels of trust incur a “tax” of decreased speed and increased costs.
Confucius told his disciple Tzu-Kung that three things are required for government; weapons, food and trust. If a leader cannot hold on to all three he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end; without trust we cannot stand. 2,500 years after his death, leaders today are struggling more than ever to live up to Confucius’ maxim; the Index of Leadership Trust for 2011 (Institute of Leadership and Management) shows that in large organisations (those with more than 1,000 employees) levels of trust between front-line staff and managers is at an all-time low and continuing to fall. The situation is even worse in the public sector where senior leaders lag 7 points behind their private sector equivalents and a full 10 points behind leaders of similar sized organisations in the third sector. Trust isn’t a “nice to have”; it drives engagement and motivation, fundamentally affecting the way employees feel about their workplace, and is critical in enabling higher levels of organisational performance.
Research conducted by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer published in 2011 demonstrates the undeniable link between how staff feel about the work they do and their respective levels of motivation. There may be nothing new in the basic principle here; it’s more than 20 years since Edward Deci demonstrated the impact of the work we do on self-motivation, however the clever research methods employed by Amabile and Kramer show the clear confluence of emotions, perceptions and motivation arising from events occurring at work. Their research reveals that the extent to which we believe our work has value and purpose and the degree of progress we feel we’re making in our work has a huge impact on levels of self and team motivation. So we know that feeling proud of what we do and what we achieve is a tremendous source of motivation and we also know that motivated employees are engaged employees; the one leads to the other. This is further validated by the CIPD’s recent Employee Outlook report (Spring 2012) which shows that whilst only 38% of staff across all organisations are engaged (59% neutral and 3% disengaged) only 7% of those engaged staff are actively looking for a new job (against 26% of neutral staff and 71% of disengaged staff who are looking for a new job).
But enjoying our work and having a sense of pride in what we achieve isn’t enough to deliver the very highest levels of motivation and engagement; there’s an old adage that we join a company for the job and leave for the people. Relationships then are the glue that binds us together and see us through the toughest of challenges; in the face of adversity, ambiguity and uncertainty it’s the strength of our relationships and the breadth of our personal network that keeps us steady.
A study of over 350 employees in 60 business units at a financial services company found that the greatest predictor of a team’s achievement was how the members felt about one another (Dutton, J 2003). Interviewing thousands of employees from “good-to-great” companies Jim Collins found that people loved what they did largely because they loved who they did it with. And at IBM, when MIT researchers spent a year following over 2,600 staff observing their social ties, interactions and connections they found that the more socially connected an employee was, the better they performed. Again, this doesn’t really come as any great surprise. We also know that one of the greatest sources of tension and conflict in the workplace results from “personality clashes”. But very few organisations actually do very much to pro-actively encourage stronger relationships at work. Google is perhaps the most famous example of a company that truly understands the importance of social connections and they reflect this understanding in their practices. Other companies benefiting from strong social connections include UPS, Southwest Airlines and Domino’s Pizza all of which invest heavily in creating an environment which actively encourages social interaction, and also in helping people to understand the very foundations of the relationships they have with others.
In each of these factors which determine both how staff feel about their workplace and how engaged they are, one group has more influence than any other; the leaders. Regardless of organisational intent, it is the leaders who will either create an environment where people can build strong relationships based on trust and take pride in what they do or who will constrain potential and performance through their own actions. In his book The New Leaders, Daniel Goleman describes “resonant” leaders as being attuned to people’s feelings, able to channel their own positive energy into the rest of their team. How difficult it is to resist laughing when we hear others laugh; this is because our brain’s emotional system is an open loop, designed specifically to pick up, and reflect, the emotions of those around us. In the workplace we constantly watch our leaders and managers for emotional cues and we reflect these emotions and copy their behaviour often at a subconscious level. Leaders who recognise this and create positive resonance achieve high levels of motivation, performance and engagement. Daniel Goleman calls these leaders “High Impact Leaders”.
High Impact Leaders are highly self-aware and recognise the impact their actions and interactions have on others. This knowledge enables them to inspire trust and build strong relationships ensuring that the people they work with understand the value and purpose of their work, instilling a sense of pride in what they do. This more than anything achieves engagement and creates a positive environment where people want to achieve their best, and are able to do so. A “great place to work” then isn’t about the building you go to each day for work, the office you sit in or the benefits you receive; it’s simply loving what you do and who you do it with. And that’s something that with the right leadership, everyone can enjoy.
Chris Burton, 2012
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1. CIPD Employee Outlook (Spring 2012)
2. ILM Index of Leadership Trust (2011)
3. CIPD Learning and Talent Development annual survey and report (2012)
4. The Progress Principle (Amabile and Kramer, 2011)
5. The Speed of Trust (Stephen MR Covey, 2006)
6. The New Leaders (Daniel Goleman, 2002)