Cultivate commitment

Staff retention a fine balance of engagement and mutual respect

By Julia Stirling

Keeping employees engaged is one of the biggest challenges for managers. Happy people are productive people, and research suggests relationships are the biggest single determinant of productivity within a group.

Fulyana Orsborn, director of human resources at Citibank, says: "It’s incredibly important for managers to motivate and provide direction. We believe that ethical, active and effective managers are engaging managers."

She says engaging managers help to create an environment to which employees want to contribute, and be part of, and therefore inspire energy, passion and enthusiasm — key ingredients for employee engagement.

Orsborn says keeping employees engaged is an ongoing process: "You need to continue to build organisational commitment and engagement to have a lasting impact, and the only way to do this is to make it an ongoing priority. So not only do we regularly measure engagement across the business here in Australia, but we also empower our employees to develop their own strategies throughout the year."

Orsborn says it’s important to pursue a level of emotional and intellectual commitment from employees. "We do this through listening to our employees and giving them a voice, valuing and respecting their feedback and following through on our promises and responsibilities to each other, our customers and community.

Communication is at the core of everything – from the top down, internally and externally – and is core to employee engagement."

The Gallup organisation defines three levels of employee commitment:

* Engaged: Those who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organisation forward.
* Not engaged: These workers are essentially checked-out. They’re sleepwalking through their work, putting in time but not energy or passion.
* Actively disengaged: People who aren’t just unhappy at work, they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. These workers undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.

According to Gallup’s 2006 Australian Engagement Study of 1000 people across a broad range of industry sectors, actively disengaged employees (ADE) are more likely to have higher levels of absenteeism and safety incidents; they take less pride in their workplace and are less likely to be advocates for their workplace or the products and services they represent.

The survey results show that 21 per cent of employees are engaged, 61 per cent are not engaged, and 18 per cent of Australian employees are actively disengaged, costing businesses around $32.billion each year.

Research suggests that 80 per cent of engagement issues will arise from those actively disengaged employees, and 80 per cent of discretionary effort will come from the 20 per cent of engaged employees.

Michael Meere is an educational consultant working with Swinburne Industry Solutions, the industry consulting arm of Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology. He develops training and consulting programs to assist in improving engagement in the workplace.

Says Meere, "The poor levels of employee engagement show how much 20th-century management theory and practices are failing today. Emphasis on obedience, diligence, and even thinking are no longer delivering competitive advantage. In the 21st century, what you need to be competitive is a workforce that is using its initiative, is committed to the organisation and is passionate about what it does.

"The old scientific models don’t deliver that. So to outpace, you need to liberate – and that requires a very different set of leadership skills. It’s time for managing the full potential of people, so that they can be fully engaged."

The actively disengaged employee syndrome is an international problem and in 2004, the Corporate Leadership Council conducted a global study of the engagement levels of more than 50,000 employees at 59 global organisations. The survey found one in 10 employees was fully disengaged, and emotional engagement was revealed to be four times more valuable than rational engagement in driving employee effort.

The survey highlighted managers as the enablers of employee commitment.

Meere says the two major reasons people become disengaged are dysfunctional relationships (particularly with their immediate supervisor/manager and within their work group), and failure, real or perceived, of the organisation to fulfil an obligation or expectation.

Meere says managers can mitigate disengagement by respecting and giving dignity and significance to staff. Job design enabling a person to take pride in what they do certainly helps. Positive feedback and recognition helps, just as its absence can contribute to disengagement.

A lack of emotional maturity in supervisors and leaders is a major contributor to disengagement, says Meere. Most people are promoted on the basis of their technical skills and the results achieved. Few are promoted based on their emotional intelligence, yet when it comes to leading people, this is a key requirement.

Karen Schmidt is a re-engagement consultant and winner of the National Speakers Association, Queensland 2006 speaker of the year award. She identifies five different kinds of organisational cultures that can contribute to employee disengagement – including the "don’t question" culture. "People leave their brains at the door and don’t question anything for fear of rocking the boat. This breeds a reactive organisation where staff don’t use their initiative. They wait for management to tell them what to do. The results can be a lot of mistakes and lack of innovation. Even when they can see something is about to go wrong, people working in this culture have been taught to keep their mouths shut for fear of being seen as disloyal," she says.

There are no simple solutions to what is a complex problem. While some people move on from toxic work places, there are also the long-term disgruntled employees who wish to leave but stay because they haven’t got an economic exit strategy.

Schmidt says the symptoms of ADE can spread throughout an organisation like a contagious disease. She explains it is often hard to re-engage an actively disengaged employee, and they can influence the not-engaged group if left unchecked.

Crucial conversations
* Job preview: Don’t just conduct an interview, give a realistic preview of the job – including highs and lows, positives and negatives
* Induction review: This allows feedback on the effectiveness of the induction process, as well as giving the new employee a sense they are now really part of an organisation
* Probation review: Traditionally, when an employee has the status as a full-time staff member confirmed. Use this as an opportunity to learn more about the employee – their goals and aspirations, their strengths and weaknesses
* Performance review: Too many managers (and employees) look upon this as a form-filling exercise designed to keep the human resources department happy. They don’t take full advantage of the opportunity to have one of the most crucial engaging conversations
* Employment anniversary: Put yourself in the shoes of the employee … a milestone arrives and no one notices. Use this conversation to get them to think about the year gone and to contemplate the year ahead
* Major event: It may be appropriate to initiate a conversation with your employees before, during and after a major event, particularly those involving change
* Stay interview: The important question that remains unasked in so many exit interviews is not why are you leaving, but why are you not staying? Rather than leave it until it’s too late, consider a workplace health check in the form of a stay interview
* Exit interview: Designed to uncover issues that were glossed over, misunderstood or promised and not delivered during the employee’s time with the organisation
The Weekend Australian

Related articles you might be interested in reading