The Human Element
“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” –Ralph Nader
To work is a fact of modern life for all but a privileged few. Even the least motivated and ambitious will acknowledge that. It is a reality that must be faced and understood. Work plays a substantial part in almost everyone’s life, if only because it consumes such a large portion of it.
As a manager within a business your concern is to get the most out of your employees. Given the importance work plays in most people’s lives it’s in your interest to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
The best employee is a happy employee. A happy employee is an engaged employee – they value the organisation they work for and their role within it. They come to work happy and they go home happy. In between they perform their work diligently and with pride. They are productive, motivated and efficient. And so as they take satisfaction from what they do the organisation they belong to gets a direct benefit from that.
Sounds simple then – an engaged employee makes for a productive employee. Create a culture of engagement and ergo, you have a productive environment. Right. So how do you do that?
HR surveys consistently find that no more than 15‐20% of employees could be described as being ‘fully engaged’ to their job and organisation. At the other end around the same amount – 15‐20% ‐ were those for whom the office was a tedious place to be, generally late to arrive and the first to leave. In the middle of those two extremes are the great majority. Around 60% of employees have levels of engagement that wax and wane according to a mysterious multitude of factors.
As a manager reading those figures the first and most obvious question is: how do we improve those numbers? How do we convert the uninspired into willing and engaged foot soldiers for the business? And how much do we lose by not doing that?*
There’s nothing terribly complex in the art of employee engagement – and by extension employee retention – but it is challenging to get all the pieces in the right place.
Most managers have been promoted into their roles by virtue of expertise or experience that only peripherally involves people management. Some managers have a natural affinity for managing people, others have had training or experience to teach them, but for most it is an arcane art they are yet to master. It’s not easy.
First thing that needs to be understood as a manager is that employee engagement is our responsibility. We can’t expect it to simply happen, we must make it so by actively creating the right environment for it. That takes leadership, which really is the other side of the employee engagement coin ‐ leadership on a managerial, corporate and strategic level.
The second thing that needs to be remembered is that your employees are individuals.
Think of a workplace as a structured environment made up of individuals marshalled into a team to perform a common task. That’s a very simple definition, but serves our purpose well. The key aspects in this definition are the two words: individual and team. They are separate things, distinctly so, and demand a different management approach, yet there is much in common. As a manager you are responsible for both the team and the individual.
As a manager you need to have some understanding of human psychology to understand both individual needs and team dynamic. For the employee as an individual it is understanding how he relates to his colleagues and to his role, and what motivates him. It is these traits that account for his particular skill set, his personal aspirations, how he approaches the job.
The team is a different story. In the background is the over-arching way of doing things, how the business interacts with the employee, the group dynamic. This is how the team works, and its effectiveness has a direct bearing on the effectiveness of your business.
Something to Believe In
Everyone is different, we know that. We are motivated by different things, stimulated differently, each of us thinks and feels in ways which are unique to us. There are sciences about this, and enough tests, theories and schools of thought to fill a library. That means each of us engages in different ways, and is motivated by different things.
In many organisations motivation and reward begins and ends with the pay package. It may be unsubtle, but nobody works for nothing. There’s nothing wrong with that – all of us want more and dream of the means to attain it. Fair reward for effort should be a given in every organisation (the lack being a sure way to disengage employees) – but somewhere along the line it’s not enough. Material reward is tempting and always welcome, but it engages us on one level only, and over time its allure can fade. What is needed is something deeper.
It is basic human nature that we like to believe in things, bigger things than us, greater things. It is why we have religion. It is why we form communities. Though everyone is different there are very few of us who do not seek to live an authentic and meaningful life even if we never consciously articulate it. Material rewards may provide the comfort in that life, but none of the soul.
We want to believe in what we do. If we are to spend so much of our precious time involved in some activity or another then we want to believe the activity is worthwhile. Ultimately we want to engage on a personal level.
As a manager it becomes your responsibility to address this need if the full potential of the workplace is to be realised. How then? By building an authentic workplace – a place of honest and open communication. By creating an environment of trust and equality. And by making your business a place where people are valued and are proud to contribute.
The first step towards achieving this is to open the lines of communication from every level – the manager to his team, and the organisation to its people. Nothing will put an employee offside more quickly than being treated as a mere unit of production. By communicating with your staff directly and regularly you involve them in the process. What’s going on? Why? What does the future hold?
Schedule regular information sessions with an interactive component; send out a monthly bulletin detailing all the latest news, the comings and goings, and so on. Create a forum for ongoing and ad hoc communication that everyone can contribute to. Use the tools the available to you, the office intranet, Yammer, and so on. Don’t forget to stop and chat, to be available for the informal exchange of news and views. As a manager be visible and approachable.
Remember the company is not just for the shareholders ‐ it is for the people who work there too, whose livelihood it is. This should never be discounted.
Second, give your staff a stake in the business. I don’t mean making them shareholders, I mean give them a say, provide them with a voice. Make the communication two ways. Encourage people to speak up. Everyone has ideas ‐ create a culture where ideas are fomented, and where every person who works for the business feels like they have something meaningful to contribute.
Engage with your employees by encouraging them to look at their job creatively: is this the best way of doing things? Do I have a better idea? By and large they are the expert at what they do – not you. Embed a process by which the collective wisdom of the team can be collated and utilised for the betterment of all.
Third then: what’s the one thing that most people say is the best aspect of their job? The people they work with. That’s also one of the strengths of the business. The stronger those bonds are the tighter the engagement ‐ and the more productive the business becomes.
Dismantle silos; encourage cross‐fertilisation. Create opportunities for people to meet others outside of their immediate area and to mingle socially. Legislate for social activities both at team and company wide level. Have fun! Celebrate the wins as they come along, highlight people for the job they have done, take time out to enjoy the little occasions as they come by ‐ hot cross buns at Easter, a sweep for the big races, a tipping competition for the footy, and so on.
Finally, invest in training. Up‐skilling your staff has an obvious advantage for your organisation. Beyond that it is demonstration of faith, and provides to your industrious employees the opportunity to improve on the job. Create and publicise a program of continuous training, and work with your employees to customise it to your mutual needs.
This is not a formula; it is simply good business sense. It is how things should be regardless, and it must be authentic. People sniff out insincerity very quickly, and if they suspect that you are attempting to buy their engagement by these initiatives then it will backfire, and rightly so. What is described here should be the organic and natural outcome of a well‐managed environment.
In the age of Gen Y there are now myriad tools available to facilitate this collaborative, open and interactive environment – use them, make them an integral part of your corporate strategy. Remember, if you believe in them and show it, then they will believe in you.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
That’s a great start, but it’s only half the battle. Take a second now, look around you at the people you work with. Consider the different qualities they bring to the business, the varying aptitudes, interests, personalities. It’s not hard to see how everyone is different ‐ each is an individual, formed by their background and environment, and each has something different to contribute.
There are many different philosophies and methodologies charting the variety of personality types. Its big money these days, but it’s been around for millennia. The ancient Greeks and Romans both recognised that that everyone is different, and duly categorised them. More recently phrenology was a fad that pronounced that personality could be determined by the bumps on a person’s skull. It’s a bit more scientific these days, and more important than ever before.
You can have the best systems, processes and procedures in the world and still fail if you don’t have the right people in the right places. This cannot be emphasised enough: at the end of the day your greatest resources really are the people who work for you. You’ve got to get it right.
What that means is that the management of your human resources is a core and vital function. It means that as a manager you need to understand the capabilities, aptitudes and personalities of the people working for you. Do that and the benefits will flow to both the business and the individual.
Like most things this has become more difficult in recent times. The rise of Gen Y to prominence has highlighted key points of differentiation from their predecessors. It has overlaid on the different personality types different expectations, patterns of interaction, and motivations. Those differences are too many to go into here, but they can’t be discounted.
Okay then, so what are the different personality types? Though most personality classifications agree on broad principles they are called different things, and are classified are multitude of different ways. For the purposes of this paper I have chosen to make this simple and to divide the differing personality types into 4 generic categories:
- Creators: ideas people, good at strategy. (Entrepreneurs, Management, analytical roles, etc.)
- Doers:Practically inclined, happiest doing, building. (Management, Project Managers, Mechanics, etc.)
- Measurers: Good with details, logistics, statistics, reports. (Accountants, Logistics, some IT, etc.)
- Diplomats: good with people, empathetic. (Human Resources, Marketing, Management, etc)
Each of us has got these four elements in us but in different proportions, and each of us is stronger in one particular element than the others. That is our strength. The mix of these elements in us will determine how we relate to others, how we think, what we believe. It may appear random, but in fact this variety of strengths is essential to society as a whole, and your business in particular. Different roles require different skills, which correlate to different personalities. We are best when working to our strength, and most content.
A skilled manager of people will instinctively understand what makes the different members of his team tick, and will adjust accordingly to get the balance right. For the rest of us it is worthwhile to invest in the knowledge needed to understand this. It is an investment well made because it is the key to unlocking the potential of each individual – and the latent potential of the team.
This is the challenge for every business, to understand and appreciate that there are different strokes for different folks ‐ and to take advantage of this. Understand the strengths and limitations of your people, and place them accordingly.
I started this paper with a quote from Ralph Nader stating that leadership is about producing future leaders, and that’s the true legacy of good leadership: it creates an environment where those with talent will step forward. It’s an important point. One of the great challenges around the world right now is finding that next generation of leaders to take up the bit.
Like business opportunities, customers and clients, leaders need to be nurtured and cultivated. Put the structure in place, the right tools and policies, and by educating managers in leadership the conditions become ripe for employees to make their voice heard, to contribute and to blossom.
Every business has its own flow, its unique dynamic. Often times this is called ‘culture’, though this is an imprecise and over‐used term. However you tag it this dynamic is made up of all the elements we have described above. By managing these elements wisely you can achieve the kind of synergy that can only lead to a happy, productive – and engaged ‐ workplace.
Respect – must be earned, not assumed; have respect for other opinions and ways of life; treat others as you would be treated yourself; honesty, authenticity and responsibility are the hallmarks of a true leader.
Work/life balance – understanding of different employee needs and situations: cultural, educational, personal; understand and accept that employees have a life outside the office.
Communication – transparent communication and open channels; schedule regular team meetings, one on one catch-‐ups; report progress on projects and initiatives that communicate the how, why and where. Remember to listen.
Trust – the employee for the manager and organisation on criteria such as values, culture, goals, office politics, systems. Act ethically and honestly. Protect and defend your people.
Development – regular training; provide or facilitate advice/mentoring; work with employees on networking opportunities for personal development; set goals.
Empowerment – share the process, encourage their voice, enable forums, etc. Trust in others, give them responsibility, and watch them shine.
Tools – use the tools available: turn the corporate intranet into a social intranet; build the infrastructure to enable collective intelligence.
*A Towers & Watson report claims that companies with high levels of employee engagement grew operating income by 19% over 12 months; those with poor employee engagement saw declines of 33%.