Transformational, Interactive Process Is Key To Employee Engagement, British Expert Says

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine  

Effective employers with an engaged workforce treat their employees as human beings, not “human capital” or “human resources,” leading British expert David MacLeod said in a May 22 webinar.

MacLeod, who chairs the Taskforce on Employee Engagement started by British Prime Minister David Cameron in March 2011, said that employee engagement can best be improved through a radically transformative process that involves developing a strategic narrative about the organization, ensuring that managers are themselves engaged, giving employees a voice, and ensuring that the organization has solid integrity.

Today's employees are more likely to question employer mandates and direction, he said. “In other words, there's less deference, less trust,” MacLeod added.

This change in the workforce is driven by even broader changes in society, MacLeod said in the webinar, sponsored by Dublin, Ireland-based Skillsoft. Today, he said, “75 percent of jobs are knowledge-based, discretionary; sitting in front of a computer screen or talking to customers when you're not there gives employees a lot of discretion. The old model was command-and-control, at the heart of which was [the thought that], 'I know more than you know.' Now, we may know just as much as the bosses know about a particular market or sector ….”

In the United Kingdom, MacLeod said, quoting figures that have close parallels in the United States, “seven out of 10 people say they do not trust or are neutral about their bosses.”

He added that surveys have found that British companies with engagement scores in the top 25 percent have twice the annual net profit, 2.5 times the revenue growth, and 18 percent higher productivity than those in the bottom 25 percent.

A Fourfold Plan

The solution, MacLeod said, is “transformational” rather than “transactional engagement.” Whereas the latter is focused on a specific set of activities or targets and usually uses the results of an employee survey, transformation considers employees to be “integral to developing and delivering the business strategy.” Relatively few organizations practice it, he said.

The first of four elements that make up transformational engagement involves developing “a story that employees throughout the organization can tell about where they've been, where they are today, and where they're going in the future. Something that preferably inspires me. If people have an emotional commitment, it's four times more valuable than simply a rational understanding,” MacLeod said. Employees must be involved in developing this compelling narrative, he said.

The second element involves engaged managers treating employees as people. MacLeod said the “worst two words in the management lexicon” are “human resources,” adding, “I am not a human resource, I am a human being.” He said that he does not mean to denigrate the HR function. Still, he said, “I am not human capital, I am an individual. If you treat me as employee number 486, you will create a smaller relationship with me, and from that smaller relationship, you will get less of my capability and potential. If you treat me as a whole human being, if I feel I am being clocked for who I am, you will get more of me.” To that end, he added, “coaching and stretching people must come from the heart” and not be an artificial process.

Third, MacLeod said, “the voice of the customer, the voice of the employee is critical,” and fourth, there must be no gap between the organizational values that employees see formally posted “on the wall” and the behavior they actually see.

For example, if the organization claims to reward innovation, but in reality any innovators are “sent to Siberia,” employee engagement will suffer, he said.

MacLeod added that these four elements of an employee engagement project are “not prescriptions or paint-by-numbers,” because organizations are all different.

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