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How to get staff to care about their work

Last updated on: February 01, 2008 09:37 IST

Of all the no-brainers in all the executive suites in all the world, winning the engagement of your employees must come near the top of the list. And yet, survey data seem to indicate that managers are failing spectacularly to achieve that aim.

According to research by organisations such as Towers Perrin and Sirota, the majority of employees worldwide simply do not care all that much about the job in hand. The most recent Towers Perrin study showed that just 21 per cent felt engaged in their work; 38 per cent are partially or fully disengaged.

So authors David MacLeod and Chris Brady have picked a good subject for their new book. And they get stuck into their theme, appropriately enough, with enthusiasm. For them, engagement (or "going the extra mile") is displayed by "an employee's willingness to put discretionary effort into their work in the form of time, brainpower and energy, above and beyond what is considered adequate".

That seems clear enough. But how to achieve it? What are the characteristics of organisations that can boast high levels of engagement? More data, this time from the research business ISR, can help answer that one. Companies with high ethical standards and clear core values, where employees respect management and are treated with respect, and where management seeks the opinion of employees, seem to boast higher levels of engagement.

Is that such a hard combination to pull off? Apparently it is. "The overall picture we get is that employees feel hard done by," they write. "Employers seem ever more remote: leadership is not really communicating with the front line in terms of the basic direction of the company and on the wider issues of company ethos, values and vision...Organisations are talking a good engagement game, but their people are not feeling the effects."

Clumsy management practices reduce the prospect of employee engagement developing further. Bad performance management encourages employees to game the system.

Managers may then introduce more intense monitoring of performance, reducing trust further.

One way leaders can win trust is by living up to the commitments they make to their organisation. Digby Jones became a popular leader of the CBI, the main UK employers organisation, in part by being a visible and committed leader.

He tells the authors: "People have got to see the leader deliver...I don't think they need to see an infallible leader. I actually think they quite like to see a leader who's a human being..."

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  • Like St Sebastian, Lord Jones stood his ground and took the punishment when he was, in his own words, "pissing off the government". "Me standing there and taking it and being seen to take it, and not changing, not rolling over, and suddenly the members thought: 'He's not just telling me about this, he personally has taken the criticism...What are we doing to support the guy?'"

    False engagement is possibly worse than the real thing, the authors argue. In the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003 UK prime minister Tony Blair's cabinet "lost the habit of dissent", the authors say.

    This being a management book, the authors naturally offer seven key steps to achieving engagement. These include leaders showing true commitment, making their presence felt on the front line, starting real conversations with employees instead of merely telling them things, and getting managers to manage as human beings. All good common sense, but not easy or quick to achieve.

    This book may not win prizes for beautiful writing. Its tone is direct and robust. Brady has a Uefa football coaching badge, and occasionally you get a sense of what one of his half-time team-talks must be like. And the authors are a little over-optimistic in imagining a world where HR departments step up to the task of boosting engagement in their organisations.

    But they succeed in issuing an important challenge to their readers. "What kind of employees do you want? What kind of organisation do you want?", they ask. Good questions, that leaders have to answer.

    Stefan Stern