The Employee Engagement Network

Despite years of talking about engagement the theory and the practice remain miles apart, as is shown by a recent survey of 5000 staff in UK businesses. The results showed that only 10% described their boss as accessible and even less (7%) thought that senior staff in their organisation were empowering them.

Common management styles were described as authoritarian 21%, bureaucratic (16%) and secretive 12.5%.

So what is the cause of this damning survey. Is it the recession causing a short-term firefighting mentality where engaging the workforce is seen as a nice to have, but not now. In my opinion this may be a marginal cause, but in reality British industry has always been run on the command and control principle, based on the philosophy that the master knows best, and the servant can just get on with it as he is clearly not capable of doing anything without direct prescriptive orders.

Where there has been some effort made to bring in some form of engagement it has usually been in the form of imposed ideas by the management as part of an ongoing initiative culture. It is seen as a magic wand which will produce an amazing change in performance overnight and unfortunately it is often sold that way by the consultants looking for a quick buck.

In my experience if you are looking for a quick fix you will get lip service paid to the changes because everyone knows that there will be a new initiative along next week once the boss has been on a new course, or read the latest management book. The result is that the changes don't stick, the results don't change and of course this reinforces the view that it is the feckless workforce who are at fault.

For any benefits to derive from "engaging the workforce" it first requires a change of mindset from the management of a business, or at least a willingness to suspend disbelief and consider that there may be lurking among the workforce some ideas which would benefit the business. The management need to remember that with every pair of hands they employ, a brain comes free. For many managers this is difficult as they have only ever known the command and control environment and therefore have only experienced the outcomes that it produces; a mindset among the workforce that tells them to keep any ideas to themselves because, they will either be ignored, or their idea will be stolen and someone else will take the credit.

But for the brave manager who is willing to take a chance the benefits are enormous, providing that he either learns the techniques himself or employs people who can demonstrate to both staff and management that there are benefits to all parties, both financial and in terms of self-esteem, which will then make the process unstoppable.

I will return to this subject with ideas of how the benefits of engagement can be achieved, but in the meantime to whet the appetite here is a real life example from my own experience.

I was recruited to turn around a failing manufacturing business in Knowsley on Merseyside. For those who don't know it, this was, and still is a deprived area with high levels of unemployment and with the perception that the workforce were at best idle and at worst a bunch of crooks. The workforce had been on strike just weeks before, the plant was run down, and had many other problems including Health & Safety and environmental problems. It also had low profitability.

Despite a lack of management, as both the General Manager and Operations Manager had left several months before, a group of supervisors without any authority or being paid had kept the place going. It was creaking a bit but there was clearly something here to work with. The first thing I did was promote several of them to the management grades they deserved for the work they had been doing, and over the next nine years I never had reason to regret those decisions. In fact many of them went on to more senior positions in the group and with other employers.

The next thing was to start a dialogue with the managers and the workforce. This took time as there were years of mistrust to overcome and my bosses to convince at the same time. It wasn't all smooth sailing but with a consistent approach over months things began to change. Not all the workforce stayed but the ones that went were treated strictly according to disciplinary procedures, and their removal was often quietly applauded by the silent majority.

The best example of the attitude changes that eventually developed was a period where the factory needed to work 7 days a week including a number of bank holidays for several months to complete a massive order on time for one of our major customers. This was achieved completely with voluntary overtime.

To convince the sceptics who probably see this as fluffy bunny stuff perhaps an increase in profit from £300k p.a. to over £4m p.a. will change your mind. This was after considerable expenditure to correct the infrastructure problems and with the same number of staff (of which 80% were "the feckless group of wasters" I had inherited).

I rather think that proves my point!

For more great examples of the power of engagement across cultures read Breaking the Mould by Peter Hunter. www.breakingthemould.co.uk

For those of you in N America you may be interested in attending a webinar on sustainable employee engagement and the benefits that flow from it. See the events page for details

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Tags: engagement, improvement, ownership, performance, profit, workforce

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