Workers who stay may not be the ones you want to keep

May 11 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The U.S economy has historically benefited from its advantages of geography, size, natural resources and mass of population. Increasingly, however, competitive edge is becoming much more about the knowledge, creativity and innovation you have successfully retained within your walls Ė or carelessly lost through over-zealous layoffs.

Research from The Conference Board has argued that the America will need to spend more time and effort fostering and retaining innovative talent if it is to recover economically and maintain its lead within the global economy.

The difficulty, of course, is that managers will need to spend the next eight to 12 months walking a tightrope between continuing to curb and control costs while ensuring they don't emerge blinking into the economic sunlight bereft of the top talent they need.

"Going forward, an economy's competitive edge will depend on its ability to maintain a superior talent pool and knowledge base, along with an environment that encourages and rewards new ideas, products and processes," said Bart van Ark, chief economist of The Conference Board and one of the report's authors. "Our report lays this out for the United States Ė but it's a universal truth."

Another challenge for managers is that it is just these type of highly skilled, motivated and creative that are most likely to walk, even in a recession, if they don't feel happy, fulfilled or challenged in their role.

According to Thomas Britt, an industrial-organisational psychology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, the most engaged workers are those who are highly attuned to the aspects of their work environment that will either help or thwart them in their performance.

Therefore, if they are not getting the resources they feel they need to perform at their best, their engagement may be diminished and they may be more likely to leave for more appealing pastures, he argued in research published by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

A lack of budget and equipment support, access to important information, work overload, unclear objectives and goals and assigning employees' tasks that failed to fit their training were some of the key barriers highlighted by Britt.

"We found that employees were more engaged when their leaders provided clear guidelines for job performance, which gave the employees a greater feeling of clarity and control over what they were supposed to do," he said.

"The benefits of employee engagement can be squandered if leaders do not position employees in roles that match their skills and provide the workplace supports they need to carry out their responsibilities," he added.

Managers therefore needed to balance the high sense of urgency their bosses put on them to do more with less while at the same time motivating and keeping their employees engaged in their work and in the organisation.

Moreover, this juggling act became even more important when workforces were being reduced and employees were being asked to increase their work output, especially work that reached beyond the scope of their jobs and their capabilities.

In this climate, formerly engaged employees could easily become frustrated and dissatisfied and blame their managers if they did not have the systems and support necessary to be effective.

"The ones who stay behind may well be the ones who just don't care," warned Britt, ominously.

While, in an economy experiencing a general downturn, it might well be unlikely that engaged employees low in organisational commitment could easily find another position, if or when they did, they would jump at the chance.

What this meant for managers was that those who failed to help employees be effective in their roles or provide organisational support were more at risk of losing their most talented and energetic people.

Similarly, while the temptation was always to load the most motivated and effective workers with more work, this approach could sometimes backfire, he warned.

Workers who cared most about their work sometimes felt they were not performing to their full capability because they had so much to do that they could do anything well, so starting the cycle of frustration and disenchantment that could lead to notice being handed in.

While highly motivated employees were normally willing to go beyond the call of duty to help the organisation, when temporary overload continued and they repeatedly failed to meet their own high expectations, their motivation would become directed at locating other job possibilities.

The things that created a competitive advantage these days, ideas, knowledge, labour quality or talent Ė were much more mobile and intangible than they have been in the past, stressed The Conference Board, meaning the U.S would be less and less able to rely on its natural traditional advantages.

What's more, the ageing of the U.S population, uncertain immigration trends, continued rising trends in outsourcing and off-shoring and the technological advances of the 20th century were all negating the effects of those advantages anyway.

A more systematic analytical approach was therefore needed by organisations and government to understand how innovations come about at country and the company levels, with new measuring tools that appropriately captured expenditures on knowledge and idea generation, the report states, it advised.

The good news is that back in March research by consultancy Deloitte suggested this message was, at least in part, getting through at senior levels.

Four out of 10 executives polled in a survey had said saying they were still trying to attract critical talent with "hard to find" skills while more than a quarter were in fact increasing recruitment of "experienced hires".

And earlier this month the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts also stressed that businesses need to be doing much more to unlock and harness the knowledge, innovation and resources available through their universities.