Get engaged, says UK government

Jul 17 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Can you ever have an organisation where almost everyone is "high potential"? Or is that as big a fallacy as the Lake Wobegon effect, where the children are all of above average intelligence?

As the British government yesterday called for a "nationwide discussion" to better understand the effect of employee engagement on performance, it's perhaps a question managers should be pausing to ponder for a moment.

On the back of the government-commissioned MacLeod Review of Employee Engagement, the country's Chartered Management Institute (CMI) published figures suggesting that, while 85 per cent of employees want to be viewed as high potential by their employer, just two per cent believe they work for an organisation that regards everyone as potential talent.

Certainly the whole notion of "potential" is something that managers, often bogged down by day-to-day targets and the pressures of just keeping things afloat, can all too readily overlook.

After all, if someone is doing a half decent job that means they don't have to supervised and chivvied to within an inch of their lives – making everyone happy even if we know deep down they could probably be doing better.

The link between engagement and performance has long been recognised and, it is arguable, the creation of a more engaged, motivated and productive workforce, as opposed to one simply fearful of the next wave of redundancies, would almost inevitably help to accelerate our economy out of recession.

The Financial Times' management commentator Stefan Stern, for one, has argued the case that greater engagement could play a crucial part in helping to drag the economy out of recession. Yet he also recognised there is still a long way to go in reality.

"There can be little doubt that … the bulk of the British workforce feels disengaged, even at the best of times. So the need for greater awareness and understanding is clear," he pointed out this week.

"British managers may have their heads down right now and could fail to pay enough attention to this report's findings. That would be a mistake. Recovery will come from engaging the workforce more effectively. The MacLeod Review explains why this matters and suggests what managers can do about it. Seriously, it is time to engage," he added.

Certainly, engagement is something the UK government believes is important enough to spend significant time and money on.

The review made a number of recommendations that are, if not earth-shattering, then worth making if for no other reason than to remind employers this is an issue that shouldn't be ignored.

It called for a national campaign, including regional events, conferences and papers, to be run over the next eight months to expose as many companies as possible to the benefits of employee engagement.

Then it said that, from March next year, a series of practical aids would be made available to employers to disseminate examples of best practice, as well as coaching support and practical advice on engagement programmes.

It also said a "senior sponsor group" would be established to get business, government and union representatives working together more closely on promoting the benefits of employee engagement, with senior figures already signed up including Justin King, chief executive of the supermarket chain Sainsbury's and Clare Chapman, director general of workforce at the Department of Health.

The group will also include organisations such as the CMI, the Confederation of British Industry and the Work Foundation within its ranks.

The review author's David MacLeod said: "This is about unleashing the potential of people at work and enabling them to be the best they can be. Whether we are in a downturn or in better economic times, engagement is key to innovation and competitiveness." But as Tony Watson, Professor of Organisation and Management, Nottingham University Business School pointed out, the biggest impediment to greater engagement is often managers themselves.

"The message of the MacLeod Review is one that has been well understood for a long time. So why has it rarely been put into practice? In large part, it is because managers feel uncomfortable about loosening the reins of control over work practices – something that must happen for serious employee engagement to take place."

The Chartered Management Institute's Ruth Spellman also identified a continuing gap between the aspirations of workers and what they are being offered by their managers.

It argued that fewer than half of employees were proud of their organisation's environmental record, despite nearly nine out of 10 employers agreeing that carbon reduction is a key motivating factor for them.

And most workers simply wanted their leaders to provide a sense of vision and direction, yet fewer than half felt they were in reality doing a good job.

"For a high quality of working life and a high quality of performance, it doesn't matter so much what the business is, but how the people in that business behave," said Spellman.

"Right now, organisations across the UK are hampered by poor management skills, with leaders who have an inability to 'let go' and allow staff to take ownership of their work. The end result is talented people becoming frustrated and disengaged at best, or ready to leave at worst," she added.

David Coats, associate director at The Work Foundation, also described the review as "useful" but cautioned against it simply leading to more "evangelism" over employee engagement.

"It is to be hoped instead that it acts as a trigger for a profound debate about how to manage people fairly and effectively. Engagement, valuable as it is, cannot be a panacea for all the problems found in British workplaces," he said.

"Work intensification, widespread perceptions of unfair treatment, widening income gaps and poor relationships between employers and employees are beyond the reach of even the best engagement strategy.

"Moreover, we could say that the very notion of engagement fails to take account of the fundamental imbalance of power in the relationship between workers and their employers. These unavoidable realities must be part of the national debate that David McLeod has said he wishes to promote. And government must give much higher priority to the quality as well as the quantity of jobs as the economy recovers from recession," he added.

But how to create engagement without simply showering people with platitudes and creating an environment of constant, undeserved praise and back-slapping? Clearly, engagement is good. But then so is being challenged, pushed and, at times, criticised.

Ultimately, for people to reach their potential, to become "high potential", they sometimes have to fail. That may mean you going home in dispair or grumbling to a colleague by the water cooler or after work. It may mean feeling, for a time at least, "why am I bothering?".

The skill of a great manager therefore is to ensure that this disgruntlement does not fester and become something more serious and damaging.

If a manager can help make failure count and turn it into something positive that, it is arguable, can be a hugely important first step to building a culture of true, and much deeper, engagement, motivation and loyalty.


Older Comments

David MacLeod believes “Whether we are in a downturn or in better economic times, engagement is key to innovation and competitiveness.

Lord Mandelson goes one step further 'organisations that truly engage and inspire their employees produce world class levels of innovation'

The key word for me is innovation yet I get no sense that this is high up on leadership agenda. In fact, the report says that leaders believe that innovation will become more increasingly important over the next three years yet managers appear to be increasingly less likely to encourage innovation in the workplace: less than half of all employees say that their manager encouraged and supported new ways of doing things, developing their own ideas or trying out new ideas (decline of 20% in the last year).

From the report there is no real evidence that engagement surveys that measure 'drivers' for engagement help drive innovation or management commitment to innovation in the workplace. This may be a case of 'If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got' and conducting the same old surveys that tell us the same old thing year on year is hardly an innovative way of engaging employees.

For me the priority for change in business is for leaders to adopt more innovative ways to engage their managers and their employees. That's not about micro-analysis of 'performance' measures and 'engagement' scores but encouraging innovation and ideas in the workplace that are focused on competitive advantage and differentiation of your brand. That's what inspires people. Even the micro-analysts will be inspired as they will be able to show an increase in 'performance' and 'engagement' metrics. A win-win.

Sean Trainor

Sounds like a political ploy to me. On the day the IMF warns of a run on Sterling unless the government gets a proper debt strategy together one has to ask how much this and the other quango research we have seen whilst they have been in governement has cost. It's not as if the report is saying anything much that we don't already know.....According to the UK's Human Resources Magazine the response from the HR community has been lukewarm at best and the Review has been attacked for being short on practical support and guidance.

Michael, London

How much did this astonishing statement of the bleeding obvious cost the taxpayer?

Angry Eric

I'm in total agreement with Angry Eric about this wasteful use of taxpayers money to provide yet more useless government-sponsored twaddle. I've been working in 'employee engagement' for the past 20 years and more, and the minute you talk vaguely to most organisations about this, their eyes glaze over and their mannerisms indicate that you might as well be having the same conversation with an ameoba, for the all effect it will have !

Organisations are NOT, and never will be, incentivised to take employee engagement seriously. The reason being that it will take too much time and effort and they really don't care enough to do so. Yes, they will fiddle around at the edges and create an impression of employee engagement, but that's about it. All in all, it's a whole lot easier to just upsize and downsize with market forces and focus all their time and investment in retaining and developing the top 20%, whilst discarding those they consider to be in the bottom 20%. That's NOT employee engagement. It goes by various names from executive development to staff assessments and it's mostly subjective and hardly, if ever, objective.

Real employee engagement starts with the recognition that your workforce stands on a tightrope between being viewed as an asset or as a liability. The employee at 3M who invented Post-It Notes, might, for example, be referred to as an asset; whilst staff at British Airways being asked to take a pay holiday and pay cut in July, might be considered as a liability. Every organisation faces a delicate balance in how its workforce is viewed.

The hard work is not what organisations choose to do about employee engagement. The hard work starts by recognising that every employee you hire is a potential asset. It starts with a fundamental change in organisational behavioural attitudes from those who run these organisations. If you, as a business owner or business manager, truly believe that every employee is an asset to your organisation, then that's how you will see them and behave towards them. That change in behaviour and attitude will then reap its own reward, as employees will want to give back more than just 'their jobsworth'.

It's a simple change of attitude that doesn't require another study from the government, the CMI, the CIPD, Chambers of Commerce, IOD or some high-priced spiv from a multinational consulting group. Trust me, I've been making a very comfortable living doing just this for the past 20 years, and I have a list of referrals as long as you like to back it up. It's not difficult or rocket-science. It just requires a simple conversation to establish whether senior managers REALLY want to do this...or not.

Charles Helliwell London

Employee engagement was the latest buzzword but that was a couple of years ago. In today's changing business landscape or the New Normal as some people are calling it the psychological contract between employee and the employer needs to be re-negotiated and the concept of engagement re-defined.

Clive Canada

At Durham Business School, we recently conducted a review of the literature on consultative employee voice mechanisms, to be published in a forthcoming text by Sage, and the requirements for an effective employee voice programme are formidable. Certain factors need to be in place for such schemes to work. First, managers have to be motivated to want to hear employees’ voice. Second, employees have to be motivated and capable of articulating their ideas. The scheme needs to facilitate both parties’ genuine involvement. Without motivation/ conviction that this will be worthwhile, such schemes will not last. Third, the scheme has to deliver for both parties. This is the “what’s in it for us?” question: if it encroaches on managers’ perceived right to manage or doesn’t deliver tangible improvements in performance, they will try to block it; if it doesn’t change employees’ working experiences for the better or employees just don’t want to be consulted, they will ignore it. Employee voice is as much about internal politics and egos as anything else, and the taskforce should look carefully at how to overcome these obstacles.

Dr Graham Dietz, Durham Business School

Employees often feel disengaged because they are in jobs that don’t fit with their talents and potential. In my research I’ve found that people become engaged and passionate about their work when it fits with their talents and potential. Often managers don’t know where an employees talents and potential lie because managers do a poor job of identifying people’s core talents or what I call mini-strengths (see my book, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”.) They tend to hire people because they have a certain credential or have done the job before. Neither of these factors necessarily have anything to do with whether an employee has mini-strengths that will help them be a star performer in a job. It is when there is a strong fit between the job tasks an employee must perform and their mini-strengths that employees become fully engaged superstars.

Dr. Myra S. White Harvard University