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Close encounters of the bored kind
Print – Issue 173 | Article of the Week

Graham White


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My first HR management role: Sitting in the canteen, blowing the steam off a spoonful of oxtail soup, a management trainee took a seat, just that little bit too close and, without introduction, whispered conspiratorially; “I’m bored!” Before I could form the words, “Hello, I’m Graham,” he followed up, louder; “I’m BORED to death of this place… how ‘bout you?” I sipped the unfathomable, now-tepid brown broth from the suspended spoon.

Article by Graham White – HR Director (retired)

As encounters go, it shouldn’t be particularly memorable, but it was a long time ago, and I remember it with crystal clarity. The next salvo was designed to penetrate my amour of self-esteem and leave my ambition strewn like jetsam on the sea of hope and dream. With little compulsion to be considerate to pride and feelings, this trainee of the hallowed field called management stated, with a wafer-thin veneer of envy; “I wish I was like you… you seem so satisfied, just bumbling along in your job. I wish I could be like that! But I can’t you see, because I’m a high achiever…” Silence fell, you could have cut the atmosphere with an Eccles cake and, fortunately on this particular occasion, somebody in the kitchen dropped a pile of crockery and everybody cheered, as is customary. What was this, some sort of career assassin, or perhaps a spy from HQ? It transpired it was neither, my self-appointed career guide was just arrogant… as well as bored! In the years since, I now realise those words held a greater truth that either of us had realised. My reluctant canteen conspirator revealed a truth that was ignored then and is still ignored by many CEOs and HRDs today. Whether we like it or not, it’s the bumblers that make satisfied workers. It’s the underachievers who have the greatest sense of contentment with their jobs and it is those with low employment expectations who feel most relaxed in their workplace. So why is it that we keep asking staff if they are satisfied?

“Employers are desperate to know if employees have the passion to drip blood, sweat and tears to achieve exceptional levels of performance, by measuring an emotion more fitted to those who are content to plod along apathetically, with a vague interest in their workplace”

At least 50 percent of recent UK Staff Engagement Surveys are still trying to assess the extent to which employees are satisfied. Not that staff feel passionate about their jobs, not that staff are committed to their organisation, nor that staff actively put discretionary effort into their work, but simply, are they satisfied. Are you satisfied with your job? Are you satisfied with your workplace? Are you satisfied with your individual development? Are you satisfied with the level of support you receive from your line manager? Employers are desperate to know if employees have the passion to drip blood, sweat and tears to achieve exceptional levels of performance, by measuring an emotion more fitted to those who are content to plod along apathetically, with a vague interest in their work place. According to the dictionary, the definitions of the word “satisfied” include “contented; pleased, happy, proud, smug, self-satisfied, pleased with oneself and, the real killer, complacent”. The problem with this is that it conjures up images of relaxing on beaches, walking in parks, sipping coffee or enjoying a good book. What it doesn’t describe is a workforce that is inspired and motivated with the insatiable desire and passion to step across the workplace threshold, bursting with energy, buzzing with anticipation and totally focused on giving 100 percent effort.

Why is it that so many organisations across the UK are desperately seeking the key to true staff engagement, but instead, continue this cycle of expensive, yet ineffectual, interrogation of their workforce? Why is it that, whilst HR directors are seeking the holy grail of employee buy-in, they continue to ask woefully inadequate questions and undertake even more woeful preparation for this critical part of organisational development. The answer to these two questions is very simple, and best answered by James Goldsmith when he said; “if you see a bandwagon, it’s too late”. Mirroring a pattern created by those who have nothing to gain from changing it, the journey organisations are currently taking into staff engagement is stuck in a very worn rut of tried-and-tested failure. Henry Ford has been warning us for over one hundred years; “if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got”. If we really want an engaged workforce, we need to prepare them for the engagement journey and, at the same time, prepare the questions that will probe into their levels of advocacy. Whilst being a holistic measurement, engagement is a very personal assessment determined by each individual employee, and so it requires each of us to feel recognised within our organisations. Just as importantly, organisations need to carefully and thoughtfully assess the culture of their workplace and prepare the probing questions to allow them to compare expectation to reality. To ensure employees have a deep sense of fulfilment, pride and even excitement about their work, we need to ensure the questions we ask mutually focus on what really matters to all of us. So, if you accept employee engagement doesn’t happen and certainly doesn’t improve, just because the CEO smiles at their workforce or the HR director shows their “human side”, then I would recommend considering this dual track of Ps & Qs (Preparations and Questions). Taking preparation first, if we are serious about setting an organisation to become a great place to work, and one in which employees feel naturally and positively engaged, then there are four key areas of activity every line manager needs to genuinely live as part of their leadership mantra.

Employees are not stupid, they know who is pulling their weight and who isn’t. If you reward everyone in the same way you will end up with what Honeywell Chairman, Larry Bossidy, calls, “organisational socialism”, which he warns is inconsistent with a performance culture that aspires to gain 100 percent commitment from all staff. No manager tries to be intentionally insensitive, especially when they realise their success is directly dependant on their team’s contribution. However, we have all been there and seen managers operating in a manner that is impervious to the needs of their team. Given this, here is a great question to ask your team during your regular one-to-one meetings; “how do you want me to recognise your contribution”. General praise is nothing short of insipid, it has no impact or influence and comes with no motivational power. Giving spiritless, characterless praise is almost worse than giving no praise at all. If you plan to recognise contribution then plan a specific time to do it, describe exactly what you like about the employee’s performance and leave them in no doubt which behaviour you are reinforcing.

I am a realist and I know there are some people who are easy to talk to and others who are not, and I know there are times where we feel talking is easy and others when it’s the last thing we feel like doing. But if you only recognise the “easy” people on the less “stressful” times, then your chances of creating a peak performance work environment are, sadly, highly unlikely. We need to be systematic about staff recognition and engagement, it needs to be a permanent item on our to-do lists, along with the objectives we want to achieve and the behaviours we want our people to exhibit. Once we have the preparation in place the second and equally important part of this approach is to ensure we ask the right questions. Employee engagement is not about being satisfied and staff advocacy is not measured with levels of workforce contentment and passivity. Engagement is about increasing productivity, reducing unwanted and costly attrition, identifying and developing top performers and increasing employee lifetime values. If we want inspired high-achievers, then we can’t ask weak survey questions about satisfaction and expect to gain a valuable return from these. Instead we must ask truthful questions that identify the key drivers of experience, productivity and engagement so that we can act in real-time to drive changes in the workplace that will have a tangible impact on our employees and business performance. Also, these questions shouldn’t just be asked once a year, instead they need to be repeatedly asked using a range of tools such as; monthly intranet pulse surveys with a new “Question of the Week” appearing on screen savers.

So, the burning question is, what is a “good” staff engagement question? To gain the most out of your journey into employee engagement you can’t expect to discover gold if you are sieving sawdust. You need to ask the right questions and at the right frequency to get the continuous stream of helpful feedback you will need. It’s not good enough to ask; “How frequently do you receive recognition from your manager”? The real question you need to ask is; “the last time you accomplished a big project, did you receive recognition?” Asking your team members if they feel their boss cares about them tells you nothing. Asking them if they are proud to be a member of your team tells you everything. However, be warned, you must never forget every question you ask implies a promise that you’re going to act upon the answer. Therefore, before you begin to change your approach to, you might want to make sure you are really serious about it.

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