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 Ė 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 Ö 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 Ė 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.