The Forum: My heart will go on (just not with you)

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Tip 1 - Clear communication
By David Croston, principal of Inside Research and author of 'Employee Engagement: The People-first Approach to Building a Business'

The GFC generated a seismic change inside many workplaces. For employees working in companies that had revenue and profit lines decimated by the economic downturn, the impact was dramatic. These employees quickly found that their higher-order needs no longer seemed quite as important; security and stability became the order of the day.

When a workforce focuses almost exclusively on its low-order needs, motivation levels typically fall away. This is a death spiral for engagement, with mounting insecurity and anxiety draining away what little enthusiasm remains. The upshot? Shifting employees out of survival mode is now a core challenge for HR.

While this is a complex issue, the solution lies largely in the hands of the leadership team. They need to dial up the frequency and volume of communication. When things get tough, employees want to believe the people at the top have a plan to deal with it.

I recently spent time working on a 'mood and mindset' study at a large multinational. The business had done it tough through the GFC, leaving employees feeling that they'd been through the wringer. They were finishing 2009 without a clear sense of what the future held. Was it something to look forward to or something to fear?

The leadership team is now working hard to address this problem, by communicating a compelling vision of the future. The team is not treating this as a one-off exercise. To rebuild confidence they know they need to repeatedly drive their message into the heart of the business.

They are finding that the most effective communication occurs inside intimate discussion groups. These sessions provide the workforce with an opportunity to both look towards the future and leave the past behind. By participating in these sessions employees are developing a sense of involvement and ownership, which is a pre-requisite to their engagement.

The GFC unquestionably delivered a shock to the system and the psyche of many employees. As with most business problems, strong and visible leadership is the best remedy.

Tip 2: Re-establish a sense of certainty, status and relatedness
By Melinda Forsythe, client services advisor, People Solutions

In the aftermath of the GFC, as organizations saw demand for their services and/or products declining, we witnessed drastic reactions in many businesses including restructuring and downsizing. 

While the leadership in some companies remained cognizant of the need to protect their brand as well as the emotional wellbeing of employees, via providing outplacement and career transition support in the case of redundancies, there remained a missing link - protecting the engagement of employees left to re-build the business

One of the key issues during transition is that of certainty. In our individual and team coaching, we attempt to quickly identify a team project or task that is within the teams' control, thus regaining an element of certainty. 

But certainty is not enough; team, as well as individual dynamics and responsibilities are often challenged during periods of change. This can lead to damage of individual's sense of status and relatedness, both in relation to the organization as well as other team members.

Team members need to know how they will contribute and feel recognized and valued. Once we have identified a team project, we can look at how each team member will contribute to its achievement. A simple, non-threatening way to do this is through the application of an assessment suite that establishes a common language and understanding about such things as individual work preferences, values, coping styles etc. By encouraging understanding and respect of different team members and their role in the new dynamic, we hope to re-establish an individual's sense of status and relatedness.

Another important aspect of our work during this time is one-on-one coaching with the team leader. The leaders' ability to communicate information, pace individual team members based on coping styles/preference and to set and celebrate team milestones, are all important at this time. Coaching provides support to the leader as well as challenging them to maintain the elements of certainty, status and relatedness that are critical to an individual's engagement.

Tip 3: Engage and empower managers to re-ignite employees
By Allan Watkinson, principal at Gallup Consulting

Managers play a critical role in creating an engaging environment for their people. At Gallup we consistently find that people join organizations, but leave managers. Quite simply, having a bad manager can lead to a miserable experience at work. In contrast, having a great manager can bring out the very best from an employee.

Many of the key factors influencing someone's engagement are core management activities such as setting clear objectives, giving regular recognition and praise, providing frequent feedback on performance and encouraging personal development. Many managers see these activities as an additional burden on top of an already busy day job. However, the best managers recognize that spending time with their people to create an engaging experience is their day job.

HR has a critical role to play in the selection and development of great managers. The first step in this process is to educate the business about the true role of a manager and then to promote a culture where managers manage, not do.

*2008 Gallup study

Tip 4: Make employee goals HARD
By Mark Murphy, CEO and founder of Leadership IQ

New research from Leadership IQ reveals that engagement starts in an unexpected place: the yearly goal-setting. In light of this recent information, here are four tips for setting goals that will excite and engage employees. Make their goals HARD:

  1. Heartfelt - "My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me - customers, the community, etc." A goal also has to be bigger than ourselves in order for it to really motivate and engage an employee. Walking 10km may not seem interesting to many, yet millions of people take part every year in 10km walks to raise money for charities.
  2. Animated - "I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals." For a goal to help people achieve great things, that goal has to leap off the paper. It has to be so vividly described that people can feel how great it will be to achieve it. It has to sing to them, to touch the deepest recesses of their brain. When is the last time your goals did that?
  3. Required - "My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company." The goals had better be aligned with the organization's top priorities, and their successful completion vital to the bottom line, in order to compel employees to give their discretionary effort.
  4. Difficult - "I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year." For people to achieve great things, and enjoy it in the process, their goals must stretch them beyond their current abilities.

The final tip goes hand-in-hand with HARD goal-setting:

      5- Provide employees with learning opportunities. You're asking for trouble if you assign difficult goals and then leave employees with no resources to learn the necessary skills.

Tip 5: Build a strong network of change agents
By Alison Tickner, partner of Oliver Wyman Leadership Development and head of its Asia-Pacific business

Re-engaging with colleagues across an organization can be accelerated by selecting, training and supporting a group of change agents across the different parts of the organization. In our experience, two levels of change agent are most common:

  • Centralized change agents working with the leadership team to orchestrate engagement across large parts of the organization - typically senior leaders who sponsor engagement for a strategic purpose
  • Dispersed change agents who act as the local catalysts for engagement across the organization, acting in concert with their colleagues and in a way to suit the particular needs of their constituency

The two levels work well in combination, creating a strategic and tactical balance in the engagement effort.

By 'change agent', we mean an individual who meets the following criteria and has the time and inclination to make a difference. 

  • Credibility and respect from colleagues in the organization as a role model for the organization's values
  • Experience and analytical skills to solve complex business problems
  • Interpersonal skills to lead others through change such as strong communication skills, empathy, perseverance, flexibility and an ability to deal with conflict constructively
  • Enthusiasm for engagement and improvement

Specific criteria will vary by context, but in our experience the essential characteristics remain consistent.

So, what does the role include in terms of responsibilities? There are at least three areas of responsibility we focus on in developing change agents:

  • Change leaders - enabling engagement in a part of the organization by removing barriers and sharing insight through a change agent community
  • Change ambassadors - being the advocates for engagement and winning over the reluctant
  • Coaches - supporting people managers at all levels to create more engaging dialogue with their teams

Change agents need to be trained to work consistently and supported with tools to work collaboratively (ie through online communities). Regular communications keep them working together so they can continue to be catalysts for engagement across the organization.

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